Dear Mr. Dad. I’m the single father of a six-year-old girl. How do I balance being a parent and a friend? I don’t want to lose her by being strict all the time, but I also don’t want her to grow up as a spoiled brat.
A: Somehow people got the idea that parenthood and friendship are mutually exclusive—that it’s one or the other—and that we should always be the parent and never be the friend. That’s absurd. In fact, it’s not only possible to be both, it’s actually a really good idea.
According to Webster’s, a friend is “a person attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard.” I’d add that a friend understands you, brings out the best in you, supports you when you need it, and is great to have around when you want to share the good times.
When your kids are young, you’re their first friend. You play together, you crawl around and act silly together. As they get older, you do projects together, share experiences, learn from each other, and hopefully deepen the connection between you.
People in the be-a-parent-not-a-friend camp say that parents need to be authority figures, setting rules, establishing boundaries, and enforcing them. I don’t argue with that. Kids definitely need to know that there are limits to what they can do. Without boundaries, children don’t learn critical life skills like how to set goals, the importance of hard work, and how to deal with failure and learn from mistakes.
But there’s a big difference between being a friend and being a wimp (after all, friends don’t let other friends walk all over them—at least not for long). And there are also some big differences between child-child and parent-child friendships:
- Children’s friendships can—and often do—end. Your relationship with your child never will.
- As children get older and peer pressure kicks in, they often find that it’s not as easy to be themselves as it used to be. Most kids will adapt what they say and do to whatever their friends are doing—whether that’s what they truly want or not. As a result, they may not always feel safe confiding in each other. If you have a strong friendship with your child, though, she’ll know that she can always be herself with you, that you’ll always listen without judging.
- In children’s friendships, everyone is equal. But you and your child are not. While she and her friends don’t have any specific expectations or responsibilities towards each other, you do. You need to keep her safe, feed and clothe her, make sure she gets an education, and put a roof over her head. You’re also responsible for ensuring that she grows into a confident, competent adult who can take care of herself.
Bottom line, be your child’s parent and be her friend at the same time. Here’s how:
- Show her you value her and that your love is unconditional. Ultimately, someone needs to have 51% of the votes and that someone is you.
- Don’t try to be the cool, hip dad. That never works out the way you want.
- Keep the friendship a little bit one-sided. Friends confide in one another, but it’s neither fair nor appropriate to expect her to be there in the same way for you as you are for her. For example, if she’s sad about your divorce, tell her you’re sad too and encourage her to talk about it. But if you need a shoulder to cry on, find someone your own age