We want to be everything for our children—confidant, role model, hero and best friend. But is this last title practical? Can we be both our children’s protectors and role models while still being their friend?
I’ve had people tell me no, that if your child views you as a friend, it means they lack the respect a child should have for their parent, that if your child considers you their friend, it also means they consider you their equal, which can lead to a laundry list of disciplinary issues and blur the lines of authority.
But what if this relationship was more about mutual-respect for one another, versus specific roles and the fear of role-reversal?
My son and I are extremely close. At the end of each day, he bounds off the bus and into my arms. He tells me all about his day, even if it means that his teacher spoke to him about staying quiet during seatwork. He’s honest and forthcoming. Granted he’s only seven, but I pray this never changes.
He knows that he can tell me anything and that I encourage him to do so. If it’s something negative, we discuss it, talk about making better choices and move on. If it requires consequences, we enforce them. I don’t yell and I try hard not to lose my patience. I respect the fact that he needs to make poor choices to fully grasp what good choices look like.
There’s already been a handful of times that I’ve seen a look of sadness or concern on my son’s face and when I ask him what’s wrong, I get the response of, “I don’t really want to talk about it, mommy.” And you know what? That’s okay. And that’s what I tell him.
I respect his privacy, to a certain degree. As long as whatever it is that’s bothering him isn’t a safety issue, I don’t push, pry or force him to share it with me. I want him, even at seven, to know that he has some control over his feelings. I am confident that giving him this freedom will actually help him to open up even more as time goes on.
I don’t have a crystal ball, so there’s no way to know if my theory will work. As my son grows older, he may choose to keep some things to himself. I have no doubt that communicating and connecting with teens requires a completely different approach.
So, I guess the question remains, can you be both your child’s parent and friend? Does respecting their feelings and choices, when appropriate, help gain their respect in return? The jury’s still out, but here are some tips on finding a healthy balance.
1. Establish Clear Boundaries
You want your child to know that you are there for them whenever they need you, that you care about their well-being and happiness, but that they need to respect you and your role as the authority figure. This means you are available for them to talk to, but aren’t hanging out in their room with their friends, gossiping about school boys and putting on each other’s makeup.
If you find yourself sharing intimate details about your own personal life with your child, this is a sign that the boundary lines have been blurred. Respect your differences and respect their innocence.
2. Avoid Being a Helicopter Parent
This one is difficult, even for me! We want what’s best for our children, which means keeping them safe, making sure others aren’t bothering them, and clearing their paths to success. Though your intentions may be good, you may also risk becoming a helicopter parent. You may also, unintentionally, impact your child’s self-esteem.
Helicopter parents tend to hover (hence the name), doing things for their child in hopes of preventing a mistake. This gives your child the sense that you don’t trust them or their ability to make their own decisions. They begin to doubt themselves and their abilities.
You can avoid this by guiding your child’s decisions, not making them for them. This means offering advice and insight and even sharing your own personal experiences growing up. If your child does make a mistake, it’s okay! And you should tell them that.
This is an opportunity to discuss what the decision was, the outcome, and how to make a more informed decision the next time. All humans learn from their mistakes. It’s the only way to grow, make appropriate changes, and discover alternate possibilities. Children need to make mistakes in order to develop, and as parents, we’re there to pick them up and encourage them to try again.
3. Find the Balance of Control & Distance
This is a tricky one, but necessary when it comes to parenting. Of course, as parents, we need to exert some type of control over the things our children say and do. When they’re little, we make them eat their green beans and chicken before their ice cream and we make them wear a helmet when riding their bike.
These rules teach them healthy habits. There are some basic needs that we must control in order to keep our children healthy and safe. We’re laying the groundwork for their future selves.
But exerting too much control diminishes a child’s ability to make their own decisions, develop confidence, and explore their independence. These are skills they need to survive in the world. When a parent is too controlling, it’s often in an attempt to keep their child close to them, when in fact, the opposite is true. When a parent is overly controlling, children often rebel and try to distance themselves from the controlling parent.
On the flip-side, being too distant from your child can also result in less-than-positive outcomes. Being distant can mean not asking about their day, not paying attention when they’re talking to you about something exciting that happened, or throwing yourself into work and completely ignoring the child’s needs or interests. Your child might feel they can’t trust you, which can break down the lines of communication and make it very difficult for you to guide or advice your child, or gain their respect.
Parenting is a Work in Progress
My mother once told me that once you become a parent you spend the rest of your life worrying—worrying about your child’s well-being, but also worrying if you’re making the right decisions and choices as a parent. There’s no one answer or right answer on how to build a well-balanced relationship with your child, but there are proven tactics that work and others that often don’t.
All we can do as parents is get to know our children, let our support and availability be known, and guide them with love and compassion as they navigate this crazy thing called life. As long as your child knows you are there for them and love them on their best and worst days, you’re on the right track to developing a relationship of mutual respect.