I always cringe when parents tell me they are “best friends” with their children. Your children will have tens, or even hundreds of good friends throughout their lives. In contrast, they have only one or two parents.
Let’s start off by defining to yourself what you think a best friend is. In my interpretation, a best friend is someone you can share intimate details of your life with, someone who gets in trouble with you and covers for you, and someone who loves you and is invested in you and supports you in all of your decisions, be they good or bad ones. Above all, a best friend is someone who is your equal, meaning they have no authority over you, and vice versa.
None of the above are your job! If you think it’s OK for you to share intimate details of your life with your kids, take a moment, close your eyes, and imagine your mother, father, or both, getting their sexy on. Imagine it in all of its gory detail. Pay attention to how you feel – hopefully grossed out, and maybe a little nauseated – and promise yourself never to share that kind of information with your kids.
Although you want to be supportive of your kids, you must remember that you and your children are not equal. You are in a position of authority over your children, and it is your responsibility to guide them in the right direction, teach them how to become independent adults, and help them learn to deal with the consequences of their decisions and actions. You should NOT be getting in trouble with your kids, helping cover for them, or do dumb stuff with them.
You can be friends with your kids when they are older adults, but for the first twenty or even thirty years of their lives what your children really need you to be is a parent, not a friend.
Why do you want to be your kids’ best friend?
I can think of a few reasons why we prefer to be friends with our kids rather than be a parent to them. I’m going to list my top guesses below.
Friends are way cooler than parents
I can relate to this one myself, as my ego wants me to be seen as the “cool parent.” It may seem to you at times that your kids love their friends more than they love you, especially when they are teenagers. They tell their friends secrets that they keep from you, they have more fun with their friends than they do with you, and they want to spend more time with them than they do with you.
As our precious babies grow more and more independent, they naturally pull away from us and gravitate towards their friends. If we are not secure in our own identities, or if we have inadvertently started living our lives vicariously through our children, then it will be hard for us to let them grow independent of us. So we try to intrude into their lives by becoming their friends.
Resist the temptation! Just because your kids start pulling away from you, it doesn’t mean they have stopped needing a parent. As our kids’ brains develop, and as they are exposed to more and more social situations and societal expectations, our job is to help them navigate through all the information that is constantly coming at them. They need us to teach them how to decipher right from wrong, how to resolve both internal and external conflicts, and how to organize their lives and tasks so they can grow and be successful in life. I know all of that sounds incredibly dry and boring, but if our kids can’t rely on their parents for these teachings, who on earth do you expect them to rely on? Their playful elementary school buddies, their angsty middle school classmates, or hormonal high school friends?
You may ask why you can’t teach your kids all of those things AND be their best friend at the same time. The answer is in the power gradient. Sometimes you are going to have to enforce a rule because you are ultimately the one in charge. Friendships don’t have that dynamic, and once you give up the power bestowed on you by your role as a parent, you can’t get that power back.
You can still be cool, but not in a “best friend” way. Truly cool parents are those who love their kids unconditionally, who support them in their endeavors, and who know when to let the kids go and be their own people. If you manage to do all these things, your kids will keep coming back to you for the rest of your life.
You didn’t have a good relationship with your parents
When we were children, I am sure every single one of us had times when we promised ourselves we would not grow up to become like our parents. We may have hated some of their values or beliefs, and may have rebelled against their rules. “When I have kids,” we told ourselves, “I’m going to do things differently.”
Well, here’s your chance! By all means, parent your children differently. When it comes to raising your own children, you can improve on how your parents raised you, but that doesn’t mean you have to avoid being a parent altogether. When you were angry at your parents, did you ever think you would have been better off as an orphan, raised without any parent figure in your life? Or did you just wish your parents could be different?
Your children will need to learn about your values, beliefs, and rules, if for nothing else than to give them something to rebel against! Children need structure and guidance in their lives, and it’s their parents’ job to provide those for them. Just because your parents made some mistakes, or even if they were entirely bad, it doesn’t mean that the role of parent is bad. It means that you have to work harder to be a good parent.
Work on having the relationship with your kids that you wish your parents had with you. You can do it without trying to be friends with your kids.
Being a parent is hard work
Just today I was talking to a mother who’s having a hard time getting her son to brush his teeth. I could totally relate to her! For the longest time it seemed that the majority of my interactions with my kids consisted of me telling them to do things.
Did you eat your breakfast? Put your plates in the sink? Make your bed? Brush your teeth? Clean your room? Take a shower? Do your homework? Etc. etc. etc.
Even worse, the power struggles seemed endless. No you can’t spend the night at your friend’s, go to that party, on that date, buy that dress, eat that food, have ten pets, watch that TV show, buy that game, keep that stray animal, go on that website. The disagreements felt like they never stopped.
It would have been so much easier to just give up and become my kids’ best friend. Right?
I don’t know what you were thinking when you agreed to become a parent, but you did agree to it. Some of you may argue that it was an accident, or you were tricked, or pressured by your parents, in-laws, spouse, friends, society, etc. Doesn’t matter. What matters is that at some point you decided to accept the responsibility and went ahead and brought a child into your home. Whatever the circumstances, you signed up for this parenting thing.
As hard as parenting is, you can’t just avoid it by becoming your child’s “best-friend.” If you don’t accept the parental responsibilities that you signed up for, who will? Giving up those responsibilities leaves the child without direction, to his or her own devices, and often leads to feelings of abandonment and neglect. Just when you think you are being best buddies with your kids, you are making the impression that you don’t care about their well being, and that you’re leaving them high and dry. Ironically enough, giving up your responsibilities will also make life harder for you AND your kids. Your children will become more and more unruly, entitled, and lost. You will get in more fights with them, have more power struggles, and end up as worst enemies, rather than best friends anyway.
I wish I could tell you that parenting is easy. It isn’t. All I can tell you is that if you stick to your responsibilities, remain consistent, loving, and supportive, and continue to guide your children in their lives, a time will come when you will have a beautiful relationship with them which is more rich than any friendship you could ever have.
You are lonely
You don’t have a friend in the world. When you had kids, you so badly wanted to be the best parent in the world that you locked yourself up in the home with them, stopped socializing with everyone, and maybe even stopped working. Now your child is going to school and there’s not a soul in the world that you feel you can talk to. No one that is, except your children.
That sounds like a you problem. You made up a story that all you needed to find fulfilment in life was to be a good parent. You put your entire identity into the role of the parent, and now you are starving for someone to talk to. You made so many sacrifices for your kids, gave up everything, and now you feel entitled to their company and their friendship.
Expecting your children to fill in the empty void that is in you is utterly unfair to them. They have their own lives to live; their own relationships to form; their own path to thread. You are trying to force them into a role that is not only what they did not ask for, but also super unhealthy for them to fill.
Remind yourself that you are so much more than just the role you played as a parent. You are capable of forming meaningful relationships with other people. It may be hard at first to find yourself in unfamiliar social situations after years of isolating yourself to just parenting. It’s OK. Look at it as an adventure. There are literally an unlimited number of places where you can go to meet people who share the same interests as you. A couple of minutes with a good search engine and clever keywords will put you in touch with like-minded people. Go for it. Make some friends, start back your own social life, and give your kids the freedom to make their own friends.
You don’t want to be “the bad guy”
I can relate to this one too, as I am very much a people pleaser. Kids seem to question and criticise almost everything we do. Sometimes it feels like the only reason we were put on earth was to get in the way of our kids getting the things they want, or doing what they want to do. It’s so easy to feel like a villain when your child is crying those big drops of tears, and you are telling them that they are not allowed to have an ice cream sundae for dinner no matter how badly they want it. Their distress is so genuine and so real that you wonder if you are just a horrible person for standing your ground and sticking to your rule.
Remember that one of the things your kids need to learn in life is to deal with disappointment. We all know that we can’t just do whatever we want to do whenever we feel like it. Remind yourself that you are not really hurting your child when you enforce a reasonable rule. Make sure to be receptive and supportive of their distress too, but don’t give it. For example, you could say “don’t be stupid. Of course you can’t have an ice cream sundae for dinner you dumbass! Now quit your whining and eat your broccoli.” Please, never, EVER, talk to your kid – or anyone else or that matter – like that. That’s just abusive. But there’s nothing wrong with holding your crying child in your arms, gently rocking them, and saying “I know it’s hard when you want an ice cream sundae and I don’t let you have it. I love you and want you to have healthy foods. It’s OK for you to be mad at me. I still love you and care for you, and we are still going to have chicken and broccoli for dinner.”
If you are setting your rules and boundaries clearly, and enforcing them lovingly, your children will know what you expect of them and will never think of you as a bad person. Don’t forget, most children love their parents way more than they show it. They want to know that you care for them and will make good choices for them even when they don’t make good choices for themselves.
Parenting is not easy, and sometimes we want to just drop all the responsibilities and be our kids’ friend. We want to feel cool and be the go-to buddy for our kids. It’s exhausting to be constantly enforcing rules and regulations, especially when our kids push back.
Always remind yourself that your kids have and will always have plenty of friends. What they need from you is to be their parent. Don’t forget to be nice to yourself, take breaks, keep friends and hobbies, and not give up your own life for the sake of being a parent. Have a set of simple, easy to follow rules, enforce them consistently and lovingly, and your children will learn to regulate their disappointments and emotions. As they grow up, you develop a rich relationship with them, and they will always love you as their parent and one of the most important people in their lives.