If you have been a parent for more than five minutes, you have probably heard the old adage, “Be your child’s parent, not their friend.” There is some truth to that. You have to be able to set firm, but loving boundaries and enforce them in order for your child to grow.
If you only view yourself as the authority in your relationship with your child though, your relationship will miss some of the closeness it can have. Contrary to popular belief, you can be both a parent and a friend, if you know when to play each role. It’s when the roles get confused that problems arise – not the fact that the parent and child are friends in some ways.
So how should you be your child’s friend? These are qualities I have found in my best friends, that I believe will enhance your relationship with your child, too.
- Invest time and effort into the relationship. Let’s be honest. Many parents are lazy when it comes to their relationship with their kids. They want to put as little real time and effort into it as possible. Keep the kids busy and out of your hair is the motto in many households. If you don’t invest a lot of time and effort into your relationship with your kids, you will wake up one day and realize you are probably as emotionally close as you are with the lady who works at your dry cleaners. Good friendships require an investment and so does your relationship with your kids.
- Listen actively and remember what is shared. If your friend pored her heart out to you, would you remember the details? Would you empathize with her emotions? Would you pray about it for her? Would you ask her specific questions as time passes to see how the situation has changed? I’m guessing you would and do. Yet, I have seen more frustrated kids and teens because their parents can’t remember the names of their friends or which one is struggling and why. You may think their worries are “kid stuff” and their friends change too quickly, but as a good friend (and great parent!), you need to really actively listen and then remember details and follow up just as you would for any friend.
- Know each others hearts. Do you know what your best friend loves? What scares her? You probably know even the silliest of details if you have been close for very long. It’s amazing to me though how many parents can’t even seem to remember basic things about their child’s heart. They will do something they know will upset their kids, mainly because they haven’t bothered to remember it does. They surely don’t know what motivates their kids or their hopes, dreams and fears. You can’t parent your child well on the parenting side of the equation if you haven’t taken the time to get to know their hearts on the friend side. As your children grow and mature, you need to reveal your heart to them, too. It will help them assign the best possible motives to your interactions.
- Enter their world. Do you have a friend with a hobby you don’t share? Even though you might not enjoy all of the aspects of it, you have probably taken the time to learn about it and have her share why she loves it. You most likely want to see her finished endeavors and may even go on an outing with her that features her hobby. You might even give it a try just to appreciate it more. Give your kids the same gift. Learn why they love what they love and spend time learning about it and enjoying it with them.
- Get to know their other friends. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about trying to be the “cool mom” who tries to dress and act like a teen instead of like the mom she is. If you have a close friend though, you have probably met other friends in her circle. You may have had conversations with them. You might even spend time together and have gotten to know them almost as well as your friend. Kids and teens today do not get nearly enough positive adult interaction. Take the time to chat when your child’s friends are around. Offer to be the house where everyone hangs out and provide fun things for them to do. Get to know them well enough to ask questions that show you care.
- Have fun together. Has your time together become more like business transactions? Over scheduling can easily turn your family into a business. When that happens, you lose the fun, memory making moments in the busyness of your days. Take time to just have fun. Watch a funny movie. Tell silly jokes. Go to the zoo. Do things where the only focus is enjoying spending time together.
- Give tokens of affection. These don’t have to be gifts in the traditional sense of the word. Ever gotten a text from a friend telling you she was praying for you and the tough day you were facing? Or have someone bring you a $1 gift that meant the world to you, because it showed they were thinking of you when they saw something that reminded them of you? Those little tokens make others feel loved – often more so than an expensive gift. Look for ways to show your kids you love them. For many kids, one of their most valued possessions is the collection of the little notes their mom stuck in their lunch boxes over the years.
- Be on their side. Have you ever had something happen that made you really emotional? You knew on some level you were probably over-reacting, but what did your friend do? Before helping you sort it out, she probably just empathized with you. She didn’t tell you to calm down or lecture you on being emotional. She just showed that she understood you were upset and she was on your side to help make the situation better if she could, because she wanted you to be happy. Give your kids that same gift. Often, this is very difficult for parents – especially “practical” parents. Make sure your children feel heard by you when they are upset. You can help them sort it out later, but in the moment – just empathize.
- Pass on great advice. We may not always take it, but most of us will at least listen to the advice our friends give us. Hopefully, we choose friends who we believe will make us better. As a result, we know that often their more objective advice helps us make better decisions. As your children grow and mature, your parenting will gradually move from telling your kids exactly what to do to giving them advice. The better you make this switch, the more likely your kids will be to make good decisions as young adults. When you get to the teen years – especially late teens – your role should be almost entirely coach and advisor. Respect the boundaries of that role, while making sure to pass along great advice you see elsewhere, too. They may not always read the article or book, but I have found many times they will. In fact, I would suggest asking them to read it and share with you their thoughts on the subject. It can open important dialogues between you and your kids.
The next time you read about an expert telling you to be your child’s parent and not their friend, don’t forget these crucial friendship areas your child does indeed need from you. Done well, your relationship will grow stronger than ever – and you can still be their parent when needed.