Why You SHOULD Be Your Child’s Friend
Why the Adage to be a Parent not Your Child’s Friend is Actually Flawed
I often hear parents or parent educators utter the adage, “You should be a parent, not a friend, to your child”. I think this goes largely unchallenged in our culture. And the current ubiquitous criticism of parents as helicopter-parents or snowplow parents describes a parent who spends every ounce of their energy to remove discomfort and struggle from the child’s life and wants the child to approve of them. I believe there is a problem with this blanket criticism and the problem may start with our understanding of what it means to be a friend and only partly to do with our understanding of the role of a parent.
To begin, let’s look at what people are implying when they decree that our parental role is unique and separate from the idea of friendship. First, I imagine they are offering the idea that it is okay if our children are angry with us or upset with our boundaries. We need to be responsible for our own sense of self, self-esteem, and sense of well-being rather than drawing on our children for those. With this point, I have no argument. But how is that different than friendship? In friendships, is it okay to compromise our boundaries in the search for positive regard from the other? I would suggest that that kind of friendship lacks an essential ingredient in what I consider a healthy friendship. Ideally, in friendships, I am allowed to be myself, in fact, I demand it. And if my friend is angry or disapproving or punishing towards me and my expressed truth, I practice the Al-anon slogan, “What you think about me is none of my business.” Don Miguel Ruiz listed this as one of his Four Agreements, “Don’t Take It Personally,”
Whatever people do, feel, think, or say, don’t take it personally. If they tell you how wonderful you are, they are not saying that because of you. You know you are wonderful. It is not necessary to believe other people who tell you that you are wonderful. Don’t take anything personally.
A lack of differentiation in parenting, the lack of separateness of self that is the core of intimacy, is no different in parenting and friendships. And most often we struggle in similar ways and in similar degrees with differentiation across all our relationships. In both relationships for there to be healthy intimacy, we must establish and maintain our boundaries and require others to respect those. In the case of friends, the consequence may be that they lose the privilege of our friendship. With children, the consequences would be more like time-outs, being grounded, losing the car privileges or cell phone. While our responses, our specific decision to enforce the boundary would differ in these two roles, the fundamental idea runs through each.
Here are my boundaries. Here are my limits. This is what I feel comfortable with and anything else is not acceptable.
Another part of the “parent, not a friend” adage that deserves challenging is that a parent’s role is to be a guide, teacher, or mentor. Sounds reasonable, right?
Years ago, I asked a father during our first phone call after his young-adult son enrolled in our Wilderness Program, “What are your hopes for your son while he is with us?”
He responded, “I just want him to be open to what I have to say. I want him to listen to the wisdom I have to offer him.”
Familiar with his reply, I offered, “In my experience, the important stuff is not what you say, or what you have to tell him. My experience tells me that the healing, the real “gold” in this therapeutic experience will be how well you are able to listen and truly hear him. And it is with that practice that you will see the most improvement and he will be more able to access his own wisdom.”
So many parents I work with see this “teacher” role as their primary responsibility to their children. In fact, more than that, they see it as their “right” to impart their wisdom through lectures, sermons, and repetitions regardless of the child’s interest or openness to the message. Their sacred duty to teach the child will be discharged even when it leads to a power struggle or defense. That is, as it is their duty, they will impart their truth even if that process leads to the child rebelling or rejecting the truth as a matter of psychological necessity. This necessity in development is their need for autonomy, the need for a separate identity. Yet parents often insist on lecturing and nagging even when to do so will likely lead to the opposite outcome. My guess is that it relieves some anxiety in them—I know it does when I fall prey to trying to convince a child of something. If we say it, usually repetitively, then we have done our duty. We are off the hook. We can “wash our hands” since we have said it. Society or our inner critic cannot hold us accountable since we have discharged our duty.
We already see problems with this. In my way of thinking, it is not our job to give our children our truth, but rather to help them to find their own. Yes, I may share with them “what has worked for me” or “what I have found in my experience,” but I ought not to try to force it on them. First, I don’t know their truth. Second, this compulsory injection of values doesn’t work. Lastly, when I provide a safe place for my children to struggle and share (the safe place being our relationship), they are more likely to ask for my input or my suggestion. Here’s how I explain how to be a safe emotional container:
It is our goal to be the first call our child makes in a crisis...when they are struggling...or when they have made a mistake. If we are prone to react in such situations with anxiety, anger, disappointment, or judgment, we have removed ourselves from their circle as one of the “safe ones.” They cannot in these circumstances come to us without feeling the need to take care of our feelings or to hide the truth in order to spare themselves judgment heaped on what we should only assume is the more punishing self-criticism. So, our goal is to be the first call—to develop the quality of the parent-child relationship that would lead a child to call the parent first in a dilemma. If not, they will call someone with whom they feel safe and that person may not have their best interest in mind.
So, when is it appropriate to share our guidance or wisdom with our children? I find opportunities to share my thoughts with my children as well as with the clients with whom I work. In twelve-step meetings, they follow a simple formula in offering their experience, strength and hope by sharing it with non-threatening prefaces,
• In my experience....
• What has worked for me is...
• What I have found in my life is....it may or may not work for you.
In therapy and with my children the closest I come to offering advice sounds similar and goes something like this:
• I have an idea...
• I have a thought...
• It’s just mine and I may be wrong but here it is...
The other person is then left with permission to discard my idea or thought without my attachment to their needing to subscribe to it. They can also tell me they are not interested in hearing it, again with no attachment on my part to need to share it. Not only is this manner of communicating more consistent with the process of encouraging the development of a healthy self in clients, it is what works with our children. Our agenda or our attachment to an idea is often a barrier to encouraging its consideration in others. The other person senses our need to be right and have our idea internalized and with this relation they also come to know that it is not their need, but our need, that is being advanced.
A young man in my treatment was meeting with his father. In this meeting, the son was sharing with his father his goals to become a marijuana farmer. In frustration, the father blurted out, “That is it not how we raised you. Those are not our family values!”
His son defiantly and astutely corrected his father, “They are not family values! They are PARENT values!”
The father looked to me, hoping I would talk some sense into his son. “You see what I am dealing with here?”
I calmly said, “I agree with him. They are not his values, at least not yet. They are your values. They are parent values. And that is okay. You have a right to them. Let me teach you how to share your values with your son and we will talk about your boundaries—how you are willing to support your son, or not, in his endeavors.” The father went on to share his values with his son in the ways I have outlined above and the son listened. The son seemed to relax his stance towards his father, physically and emotionally, as his father shared “his truth” rather than purporting to know what his son should believe. His father went on to describe what he was and was not willing to allow in his home, without threat or judgment in his tone, and what he would support after his son turned 18.
Lastly, the parent before friend adage suggests we should “call our children out” or confront them. I hear this phrase worn as a badge of courage in many types of relationships. A couple of years ago a friend let me know about his recent engagement. I hadn’t met his fiancé and he told me a little about her and added, “She is willing to call me out on my crap.” He shared this with me as a source of pride. He thought that the quality of being able to confront each other or “call each other out” was evidence of some positive quality in the relationship. As I listened, I reflected on my own marriage and my own wounds and how my defenses often protect me from such attacks. I wanted to tell him, “That may seem fun right now, but let tell me how it’s going to feel in a few years. Let me tell you how much you will NOT enjoy and value being called on your crap.”
In contrast, I try to hold my wife, her wounds, her defenses and her annoying habits with kindness. If something is bothering me or offending me, I try to share that with her in the service of taking care of myself. In marriage and friendship and in childrearing, I have come to think of boundaries as more about self-care and less about teaching the other person a lesson. The lesson does come nonetheless, the root of the boundary is taking care of myself. “This is what I need in this situation to feel okay.” That applies to friendships and to children. “I am not okay with you taking the car out or staying out past this or that time, or playing with a knife in the kitchen.”
For decades, I have been running a Wilderness Program for teens and young adults. My primary role over the last several years is parent education. In that role, I have encouraged thousands of parents to attend Al-anon, Codependents Anonymous, or Families Anonymous. Many have been either reluctant to attend to come away from a meeting confused, “Those meetings seem to be for wives of alcoholics…my son or daughter doesn’t use drugs…my kid is too old or too young so the ideas shared there don’t/won’t apply.”
My response is the same every time, “Yes, some of the small brushstrokes of the stories won’t apply. Your child is not your spouse or your child has a mood disorder or Autism Spectrum Disorder. You will have to make different decisions than some of the people sharing their stories in the meetings. But the core ideas are the same. This work, the work of enlightened parenting, is about you. It invites a different kind of sensibility than you are accustomed to. But go. Listen. Listen to how they are in a relationship with someone who triggers them. Substitute husband with” son” or “daughter.” Substitute “drinking” and “drunk” with “self-destructive” or “self-sabotaging” behaviors. If you go and listen you will hear the wisdom they are offering. You will hear how similar the truths are that apply to all relationships. In almost all cases, you won’t divorce your child or end the relationship with them like you might an abusive friend, but you will do the heroic work of boundaries in each and every relationship. And if you want to be effective, you will place more value on listening to your children than talking to them. You will learn to hold them and their wounds gently and not let this empathy compromise your boundaries.
I know my work with my wife, friends, colleagues, and my children contain mostly the same challenges. In my book, The Journey of the Heroic Parent, I offer this observation,
Good parenting is its own reward. Good parenting is good living. It means being a better man, woman, person, friend, self, boss or employee.
The longer I do this work, the longer I live this life, the more I realize the challenges to any relationship are about me. I told someone once at a book event, “Parenting isn’t really about children. Or at least the difficulty in parenting is not about the child. It is about overcoming my own wounds from my own childhood.”
The renowned child psychologist Rudolf Dreikurs said it this way, “The proper way of training children is identical with the proper way of treating fellow human beings.”
So maybe the problem is that we don’t know how to be a friend and of course that starts with being a self. The heroic journey of parenting is having the courage to look inward to see what barriers, beliefs, and fears block us from knowing and expressing our truth. And the more we do that work, the better all our relationships. In the end, we want to be useful to our children. We want to support them to where they need to go. We want to love, be kind, be gentle, and leave a beneficial imprint on their lives. I cannot think of a better description of friendship than that.