Parent or Friend: Can You Be Both to Your Child?

A man pushes his son on a tire swing.I was talking to one of my colleagues about our children; his are much older than mine. He had some great experience to pass along. The wisdom was that “friendship, with kids, comes later.”

What I gather from that is when a child is younger, what they need is to be parented. Parenting is teaching, guiding, and leading the child to know how to make wise choices, to be disciplined when he/she is not making a wise choice, to be shown how to love self and others, to make friends, and to evolve into a wise young person.

There are parents out there who are concerned about being their child’s friend. What is challenging is that if you are, first, a friend, then when the child is a preteen or teenager, the child will not need you as a friend. By then, he or she will have friends their own age to listen to. As teens, they need you as a parent, but they are not going to tell you that. When you become their friend first, parenting becomes difficult to establish. The child may not see you as an authority figure, and when you try to establish authority, the child will most likely question you even more. That’s not what you want.

When you are a friend first, it sends a message that you want your child to like you, to share with you, and to help you feel connected. If that’s the case, that puts a lot more pressure on the child. It is not your child’s job to help you feel good about yourself. If that is why you are your child’s friend, rather than being his/her parent, then you may need to get some counseling for yourself. You and your spouse (if married) will need to focus on a healthy relationship so the lines of parenting and friendship, even with your child, can be reassessed and altered, if need be.

When you, the parent, behave as a parent, you are laying a solid foundation for a healthy friendship with your future adult child. There will be many challenging times, and parenting is going to be difficult. Yes, you are developing a friendship with your child based on how you respond to, love, guide, lead, and, of course, have fun with him/her. But, in the beginning stages of childhood, you need to be the parent, always. Over time, the parenting will change because the child will need different amounts of parenting.

Here is an example: My son, who will be 1 year old, needs a lot of parenting. He’s mobile and will get into everything. I need to be there to make sure that he is not getting into anything that will hurt him.

As he gets older, I will still parent him to make sure he learns and makes wise choices, but as he gets older, I will have him make more decisions on his own. When he can dress himself, I will still help him but will allow him to make decisions on what he wants to wear. If he does not want to wear a seatbelt, I will of course enforce that he wears one because that is the law. Parenting changes when the child is able to make his own decisions; but you will still need to be there to see that he is making healthy decisions. If he does not make the best decision, then he also needs to learn that he will have a consequence for that decision.

As you parent, you are laying a foundation for a friendship later on with your adult child. You are still his or her parent, but when the child is 18+, it is more of a friendship with your adult child, and adult children will seek out parenting advice when they need it. At that stage, you can ask if they want you to speak as a parent or as a friend.

Think on this: Your child will have plenty of friends, but only one parent (two, of course, if you are married).

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Kelly Sanders, MFT, Child & Adolescent Issues

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • runninfast

    January 31st, 2012 at 5:15 PM

    I so love this article! Thank you so much for sharing this with readers. There are way too many parents who want to be friends instead of doing the hard job of being a good parent. I see this especially in younger parents, they want to always be on their kids good side but they are leaving out the importance of teaching their kids right from wrong and teaching them about life and how to navigate it in a healthy and responsible way.

  • Eric

    January 31st, 2012 at 10:19 PM

    All out lives we’ve heard that being a fiend to your child would help them and also the relationship between you and the child.As a new parent I completely believe in that.But what you have said here is completely true,and makes a lot of sense.that authoritative position will be lost of the friendship happens before parenting.

    Just shows how it is important not only to follow proven concepts but also to tweak them for best results.

  • Townshend

    February 1st, 2012 at 12:29 PM

    I want to be all things to my kids, but a parent first and then a friend.

  • K.J

    February 2nd, 2012 at 12:02 AM

    Great article with a lot of thought put into it. There will always be people who will advice you on parenting but what you need to follow is the advice with logic and clear answers and I think a lot of those things is present in the advice offered here.

    Being a friend is important yes but as the article has explored it has to come only after establishing the position of a parent who is in control.

  • ]Popa Anton

    November 24th, 2019 at 3:05 PM

    As a child with no father and have no one to play with I did what I wished to have: a father that play a lot and give a lot of time to my son.
    True, all my life and that is 35 years I was a friend to my son. Now , at 37 he blame me that I was more as a friend that a parent to him and he is hopping to reverse that position.
    What can I do now???

  • David

    May 8th, 2021 at 10:33 AM

    The author needs to rethink a basic premise stated at the end of the article. A child will ALWAYS have two parents, married or not. But even if the intent is just reference to a parent that is involved in the child’s life, marriage has absolutely nothing to do with it. Even non custodial parents are parents and do actual real parenting. Those non custodial parents are single parents too. They usually have to provide everything that the custodial parent does, and child support to boot.

    I think a parent can do both as far as being a friend and a parent. I’m not sure how a one year child used as an example is relevant though. For a baby or toddler, you can play with your child but you’re obviously going to have to meet the child’s needs first. I mean, if you’re not buckling in a child to their car seat because they are uncomfortable, or not having them brush their teeth etc., you have alot more to be worried about than what relationship dynamics you have with your child. That is just straight up idocy

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