Am I Supposed to Be My Kid’s Friend?

We've abandoned the distinction between adult and child—and our kids are paying for it
November 18, 2018 Updated: November 18, 2018

Parents often ask me for advice in managing their children’s use of technology, usually the amount of time the child uses it, or the kind of tech the child is using.

I suggest they set limits and guidelines for incorporating those limits. The parent then says something like: “But if I do what you’re suggesting, I’m going to be yelled at or hated by my kid; it’s going to cause a huge problem.”

I usually smile and say “yes.”

This seems to confuse the parent, as if they want a solution that doesn’t create disagreement—a policy that’s easy to implement. I then deliver the following, sometimes surprising news alert: “As a parent, you’re not supposed to be your child’s friend.”

We are living in a time when parents are supposed to be our children’s best friends—and parents.

Moms and dads hang out with their kids as if they’re hanging out with peers. When there’s a disagreement, parents believe we’re supposed to negotiate with our kids as if we’re negotiating with equals. Parents of 7 year olds report to me (with a straight face) all the reasons their child doesn’t agree with their decisions regarding the child’s behavior.

I see parents whose children under the age of five get an equal vote in setting up the rules of the house, which includes the rules that will apply to the children. I hear the delight of parents who are friended by their kids on social media. We’re spoon-fed the message that we’re supposed to be buddies with our kids and that they should like us, all the time. And, that we’re bad parents if they are upset by our decisions.

We have thrown away the distinction between an adult and a child. This has undermined our ability to share the wisdom of our adult experience. We’re choosing to be our children’s playmates rather than do what’s best for them.

As parents, we’re taking the easy path, the path of least resistance, telling ourselves that if our kids like us, then we must be doing this parenting thing right. In the process of trying to be friends with our kids, however, we are giving away our authority, depriving them of the experience of being taken care of, and denying them the serenity, trust, and confidence that arises from knowing that we can stand our ground and protect them even when it incites their anger. It is precisely because we love our children that we need to be able to tolerate their not liking us all the time.

When we’re driven by the desire or responsibility to be liked, we’re giving ourselves an impossible task. We simply cannot prioritize being liked and simultaneously raise healthy, sane, human beings who can tolerate frustration and disappointment. We are setting ourselves up for suffering and failure.

We strive to be liked for giving them what they want while denying ourselves the dignity of providing our kids with what they really need. We are opting for the easiest, most pleasurable option over the deeper, more thoughtful and satisfying choice.

We are also, in this friending over parenting process, failing our kids. Our kids need boundaries and guidelines. A woman I work with—who was raised by a parent who, above all, wanted to be her friend—put it this way: “I never felt like there was someone to stop me if I got to the end of the earth and was going to dive off.”

Our kids may scream and throw things, but they also want us to know things that they don’t. They want us to stick with our wisdom despite their railing, to be willing to tolerate their rants in service to their best interests—to take care of them in ways they can’t yet take care of themselves.

Our kids want us to demonstrate fierce grace.

We, too, feel our best when we walk the walk of fierce grace.

Often, children do not know what’s best for them, and almost never do they know what’s best for them when it comes to technology use. It’s hard enough for us grownups to realize what’s best for ourselves and children have front brains that are not anywhere near fully-developed.

Allowing children to make their own rules around technology is like handing an opioid addict a bottle of oxycontin and asking him to write his own prescription, need or not. Young children and teenagers should not get an equal vote in matters that relate to their tech use, nor in many other matters.

As parents, we usually possess at least two or more decades of experience than our children. Put simply, we know things they don’t. We can tell them this truth. This is why our kids not equal in matters that require discipline or hard choices. These are often situations that overwhelm their brains’ pleasure centers, hormones, and inexperienced thinking.

Remember this: it’s okay for your child to be upset with you; it’s okay if they don’t like the decisions you make; it’s okay if your child is mad at you for setting limits and sticking to those limits.

You’re allowed to say “no.”

It takes great courage to say “no.”

You’re not a bad parent if your child goes through periods when he or she doesn’t like you—and maybe even says she hates you for a while. It probably means you’re doing your job.

Your role as the authority in your child’s life is critical. The more you assume that role, the more you will feel the wisdom of your own authority.

Being the authority doesn’t mean turning a deaf ear to your child’s anger, disappointment, or feelings. We can listen to our kids’ emotions and thoughts while simultaneously holding our ground on what we know is best for them. Being the authority in your kid’s life doesn’t mean being callous or insensitive, but it does mean being brave enough to stay strong in the face of their fury or resentment.

Your role is to be the grown up in the parent-child relationship, to be loving in your willingness to do what’s best for your kids. Your role is not to be your child’s friend.

Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, author, public speaker, and workshop leader. For more information, visit NancyColier.com

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