Should a parent be a friend to their child? Well we all know the answer to this one don’t we; the answer is NO! Children need you to be a parent, not a friend. And I agree with that in principle – be a parent, it doesn’t matter if they sometimes don’t like you for that! – but I’m not sure if it’s as black and white as it’s made out to be. I find that, as in so many areas of life, it’s not an either/or question, it’s a something-in-the-middle or a bit-of-both or even a something-completely-different thing.
This is because sometimes when you talk to your child as you would naturally talk to a friend you get a lot further than if you do the parent thing. I’m thinking, for example, of the times when you’d be tempted to go into a lengthy moralising lecture, or a bit of emotional manipulation, or when you keep telling them what to do in your teacher voice. Those areas where you really want them to listen to you and be influenced by what you say and decide for themselves to do the right thing.
Looking back, from when my kids were very little, I realise that the times I’ve wanted to teach them something (kindness, how to treat people, standing up for yourself, the importance of education…) I have spoken to them more as you would speak to a friend, rather than as a parent.
We don’t tend to treat our friends like this:
- We don’t say, with heavy disappointment and sadness ‘I’m REALLY disappointed in you’ (or only as a joke right?)
- We don’t bark ‘Have you got any homework tonight?’ (or the equivalent) as soon as they walk in the door EVERY DAY
- We don’t say with a heavy disapproving sigh ‘Have you REMEMBERED to get your stuff ready for tomorrow?’
- We don’t lecture them with things like ‘You need to THINK before you take things without asking’
- We don’t say in an exaggeratedly victimy way ‘I feel really SAD when you shout at me’
- We don’t say, in moral outrage, ‘You’ll have NO friends left if you treat them like that!’
We don’t, in other words, try to make them feel bad or guilty or stupid.
Instead, we tend to treat our friends like this:
- We try not to show them up in public (we’ll whisper quietly ‘you’ve got your dress tucked into your knickers’)
- We talk about things openly and honestly
- We can be really silly and childish
- We listen and empathise
- We enjoy their company
- We tell them about ourselves and what we think about things
In other words, we treat them with regard, respect and trust.
The difference is that your child won’t follow the rules of friendship like you do; you can’t expect a child to be sensitive and considerate of your needs as a friend would, so you have to be clear and direct and no-nonsense about your own boundaries and expectations. You also have to give a child lots of orders, directions and instructions in non-negotiable areas, and be confident in your authority to do so. Not how you would be with a friend at all!
The secret is that if you generally treat your children as reasonable human beings they are more willing to listen to you when you do lay down the law. And if you’re not afraid to do that when necessary, they are more liable to respect you, which strengthens the relationship. If you just remember that you’re the adult and they’re the child, and step into parent role whenever necessary, you’ll be doing fine. You can even get away with occasionally slipping into one of the manipulative techniques listed above, because the great thing about kids is that they’re very quick to forgive and forget. Probably more so than your friends…