When it comes to raising children, there is no shortage of platitudes: “Parenting doesn’t come with an instruction manual,” “It’s a lifetime job,” “Children are always listening.” One question that endures in modern parenting culture is one about the relationship between parent and child — should you be friends with your kid?
Part of the issue is the vagueness of the question: What does friendship with a child actually look like? Does being friends with your kids mean simply having fun together, or does it signify a relationship of equals? The American Psychological Association defines friendship as “a voluntary relationship between two or more people that is relatively long-lasting and in which those involved tend to be concerned with meeting the others’ needs and interests as well as satisfying their own desires.” Parenting, however, isn’t voluntary, and a child shouldn’t be interested in meeting their parents’ needs.
As parenting style has shifted away from “children should be seen and not heard” toward a family dynamic where children’s voices and opinions are valued, a tension remains regarding the balance between parental authority and childhood inclusivity. “There’s been a lot of movement in terms of what role do children play in the family dynamic,” says Francyne Zeltser, the director of mental health and testing services Manhattan Psychology Group. “With children having more of a voice and having an opinion, how does that change the parent-child dynamic?”
While experts stress the importance of a warm and supportive relationship with children, parents must maintain authority over their kids, which is directly at odds with the ideals of friendship. At its core, friendship is elective and equal. Once you’re a parent, there’s no opting out, making friendship not exactly appropriate for parents and their kids. So, should parents be friends with their little ones? In short: No. But you can still maintain aspects of friendship while remaining in the driver’s seat with little ones.
Think about your parenting style
There are four styles of parenting in the child psychology field that inform the relationship parents have with their kids: authoritarian, authoritative, permissive, and uninvolved. On opposite ends of the spectrum are uninvolved parents — absent and withdrawn — and authoritarian — demanding, strict, “my way or the highway.” In the middle are permissive parents, who are very loving but don’t enforce rules, and authoritative parents who set expectations and hold their children accountable, but explain their reasoning.
“A parent that was ‘friends’ with their child would likely have more of a permissive parenting style,” Zeltser says, “where they would more likely go to great lengths to ensure that their child is happy, they would probably avoid conflict whenever possible. They might accommodate their child’s requests even if they’re not necessarily in agreement with their child’s requests to avoid disappointing their child. Those types of themes align much more with friendship than with a parent.”
An authoritative parenting style, Zeltser says, is one that includes compromise and shared decision-making — the hallmarks of friendship — but with the adult holding the power to enforce rules. When children are younger and need more guidance and routine, there will be fewer negotiables; parents have the final say on bedtime, eating vegetables, or when it’s time to come home from a friend’s house. But it’s important to explain to kids why you’re making these decisions, Zeltser says.
When parents are too lenient, they risk never teaching their children to hold themselves accountable and that there are consequences to their actions, says Carrie Cole, the research director for the Gottman Institute and a certified Gottman therapist.
Being authoritative doesn’t mean unloving
Acting as a friend to kids undermines a parent’s authority, says Kenneth Ginsburg, the founding director of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, because a child may have a fear of disappointing you. Because friendship is conditional, companions may reject one another and end the relationship for any reason at all. For this reason, children may avoid coming to their parents for help because they don’t want to be rejected for doing something they perceive as wrong or bad. “The reality is that during adolescence, friendships can readily change and we worry so much as adolescents about not fitting in, or disappointing or losing our friends,” says Ginsburg, also the author of Congrats — You’re Having a Teen! Strengthen Your Family and Raise a Good Person. “When we place our parents in that category, then we’re not going to use them in the way we really need to. Instead, we understand that parents are in a whole different category than friends. It’s guaranteed that they will stand by you.”
Being accessible to your kids doesn’t mean dressing like them or only having fun together, Ginsburg says; it’s showing up for them when they’re having a disagreement with a friend or when they’re feeling overwhelmed with school and still loving them. Parenthood, rather than friendship, means never pushing them away or withholding love.
Set clear rules and expectations with children — but keep them involved
Another crucial difference between friendship and parenting is, in friendship, both parties agree on a set of unspoken rules. Parents, on the other hand, should call all the shots with their kids, experts say. However, this doesn’t mean you can’t value your child’s opinions and wishes when it comes to those rules and expectations, says Wendy Grolnick, a professor of psychology at Clark University. “We call it autonomy support with structure,” she says. “Having structure, having some rules, some expectations, some guidelines. … [Parents] having some authority, but also supporting kids feeling like they have a say, like they’re active, they’re respected, their opinions count and get taken into account for real as you problem-solve together.”
In studies, Grolnick found that when parents were very strict and regimented with their kids when it came to homework and study time, chores, and other personal responsibilities at home, kids were more resistant to following their parents’ orders. However, in relation to safety — telling parents where you’ll be during unsupervised time, respecting curfew — kids were more accepting of concrete rules. “Kids are much more tolerant about parents setting the rules in areas that they see as areas of safety and morality,” Grolnick says, “versus things that they think are in their personal purview.”
Instead of telling kids they can’t play video games until their homework is done, Grolnick suggests asking your child, “Let’s talk about what makes sense in terms of when homework should be done” and then give them choices. If you’d ideally like their homework to be completed before dinner time, ask your child when they’d prefer to do it: right when they get home from school or after they have a snack? “You listen to their opinion, you joint problem-solve, then you give them some choices about those rules and expectations,” Grolnick says. Parents should have the final say on some topics — for example, that homework is completed, or to treat others with respect — but all children, regardless of age, deserve some level of autonomy, Grolnick says, with the goal to make their choices age-appropriate.
Remember, parents need boundaries with their kids, too
In an effort to relate with their children, some parents may fail to set boundaries or reinforce rules out of fear of upsetting their child, Cole says. But moments of disappointment can be learning opportunities for a kid. If a younger child is upset when you tell them it’s time to leave the park, help them identify those emotions. Cole suggests saying something like, “Yes, it makes sense that you would be disappointed that we have to go home now.”
“Then we need to help them come up with some way to problem-solve,” Cole says. What is something your child is looking forward to when they get home? Or perhaps you can make a plan to go back to the park after school in a few days.
Setting and sticking to boundaries can be made easier by explaining why you’re making certain decisions, Zeltser says. There needs to be a clear reason beyond “because I’m the grown-up and I said so.” For example, if your child is frustrated when you ask them to clean up their toys, explain why, says Kei Nomaguchi, a professor of sociology at Bowling Green State University.
Be upfront with your children about your plans for the day so there are no surprises: Try saying, “We’re going to the park for two hours and then we’re going home for lunch.” That way, if you run into your kid’s friend in the park whose parents ask if your family would be interested in joining them for a meal, your child isn’t disappointed when you mention you already had alternative plans — or your kid is pleasantly surprised if you change your mind. “Now all of a sudden, the child’s reality exceeds their expectation,” Zeltser says. “They were thinking they were going to have to go home, now they could stay and spend more time with their friends. Now they’re elated.”
Sometimes, when parents are divorced or separated, they’ll do whatever it takes to be liked by their children, Ginsburg says, and become more lax with rules or denigrate the other parent. “The message that kid is hearing is, oh my gosh, if I displeased this person, they might reject me too,” he says. Keep your children separate from the adult relationships, and the emotions that come with adult problems (regardless if divorce is involved) and don’t tell them anything you wouldn’t want them repeating to friends.
Parents may also have the impulse to overshare with their children and to let them in on everything that’s going on. This may give the child a false impression that they sometimes need to take care of their parents, emotionally, Cole says. Even with teenagers, there needs to be a strong separation between the adult’s personal and parenting roles. For example, parents should not discuss their dating or sex life with their kids, no matter the child’s age, even if there is heartbreak involved. “The child should not be taking care of the parents in that way,” Cole says. Seek out the counsel of a trusted adult friend or mental health professional instead.
All told, boundaries help kids maintain a routine, which is what they need, Nomaguchi says. “Too much freedom for kids is not really great for the family routine, and also family relationships, that seems to be what studies tend to show,” she says.
As children age into adults themselves, you won’t need to have as much authority over your kids and their routines, and so you can adopt a relationship that veers closer toward friendship. However, when children are living at home, parents should stay in charge of the big-picture choices, but allow decisions to be largely collaborative. This helps kids feel like they have an ally in their parents, but — crucially — not a friend.
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