Should Parents Be “Friends” With Their Teenagers?
By Marcelle Soviero
When my oldest daughter turned fourteen, she fought every rule I made, and acted out considerably and dangerously. I knew something had to change if she was going to stay safe, make better choices, and if we were ever going to sit in the same room together again.
Because I only had control over my own behavior, that’s what I changed. I chose to be my daughter’s friend, to cut down on the naysaying and rule-setting. And when my monologues eventually grew into discussions, my punishments into compassion, I knew I had somehow pivoted onto the right parenting path—at least the path that was right for us. Some might say choosing to be friends with my teenager is a path of permissiveness, but being friends doesn’t mean I let my daughter do anything she wants. Others might say kids crave boundaries, limits, and structure, but I say the teenage years call more for empathy and friendship.
For the most part, friendship with my friends or my daughter means being a really good listener—I don’t overshare with anybody and I certainly don’t think a teenager needs to hear the details of my personal life. Like my friends, though, my daughter fascinates me. I admire her “I don’t care what people think” attitude and her wild streak of non-conformity. Her intense loyalty and constant compassion are qualities I look for in my closest friends. In changing the nature of our relationship, I wanted to model these qualities for her, instead of modeling an authoritative rule-setter. I had been her rule-setter for fourteen years, and it wasn’t working anymore, thank you very much.
I stopped my incessant talk about grades, and I stopped all my questions about why she smelled like smoke and where she was every second. Instead I practiced trust, figuring if I raised her right, she would now be someone I trusted.
Choosing not to join in the quintessential adolescent power struggles—and understanding that I wasn’t always right—has made way for friendship, often a rocky one, but a friendship nonetheless. Together my daughter and I became mutual learners of her growing up and my growing older. As she told me more and more about her life, I did not judge, or criticize, or tell her what she should do. I listened.
So we talked, set goals, and shared dreams. She veered off her path and the path I had hoped for her, but when she did we talked some more, because I promised I would not punish her for telling me the truth. And this is what happened: Instead of sneaking around, my daughter told me what was going on in her life. If she stayed out late, she told the truth when she came home.
Becoming more of a friend to my daughter by playing less of a parental role, I stopped comparing her to girls who seemed perfect, girls who were on a tight path toward college, with mothers who planned every footstep and blocked any falls. In the end, though not fairly, I felt those mothers knew nothing real about their daughters. Seventeen now, I have not pressured my daughter about college, but she knows my preferences and she has her own.
Yes, she has smoked, and experimented with boys, drugs, and alcohol. But we talked about it and I guided her as best as I could, just as I would a friend. And while those talks were not easy, I had to believe she was learning. I know now that she would have done all these things whether I chose to be a rigid rule-setter or a friend. Better that she felt comfortable confiding in me.
With only a few exceptions, I have enjoyed my daughter’s teenage years. I am proud that we did not spend her senior year shouting and sulking and I am proud she is off on her next adventure—one of her own choosing. Of course, I have made a million mistakes as a mother and as a friend to my daughter, but I don’t regret my change in parenting style. She often tells me that when she leaves she will miss me most, that I am her best friend. And for me, that is exactly how it is supposed to be.
Marcelle Soviero is the Editor-in-Chief of Brain, Child, and author of An Iridescent Life: Essays on Motherhood.
By Alexandra Rosas
I had a neighbor who used to say, “I am my children’s friend first, their parent second.”
She knew I felt strongly about not being “friends” with my own kids, and she would make remarks about how they would never confide in me on these terms. She didn’t consider her mother a friend and, as a result, she never told her anything personal. She felt that I was short-changing my children, closing myself off to them, by not creating a relationship akin to friendship.
My neighbor is misguided, but I understand where she is coming from. She sees my parenting style as old-fashioned, heavy on the discipline, and one hundred percent authoritarian—similar to what she experienced as a child.
Old-fashioned or not, I won’t be friends with my kids because parenting comes with obligations and responsibilities. I draw a line between myself and my children, and friendship does not fit in the grid. But it’s not as my neighbor imagined—I don’t miss out on the opportunities for intimacy with my children that friendship provides. It’s just that we share a different, healthier sort of closeness.
True friendship involves both parties confiding in each other. I don’t think this is appropriate for a parent. As a teen, my mother treated me as her friend. It never felt right as I listened to her emotional and financial struggles. What I wanted then was to be mentored, advised, to see an example of a role model in action, and to learn from her.
A parent is responsible for her children and, ideally, a secure environment is created when the child feels cared for and supported. In my circumstance, I was asked to meet my mother’s own emotional needs for support and companionship. I was pulled into decisions about my siblings, asked to help with discipline, and regaled with the frustrations of her personal life. I had been asked to play an inappropriate role.
There was not enough separation between us for my mother to do her job right. I don’t want that for my children. I can’t be a true mentor and a guide to them if I am their friend. The word ‘friend’ implies equal footing, and I have much more to give my children beyond what equality can offer. I have a lifetime of experience and lessons learned that I want to share with them. I am there for them, but my support comes as a parent enforcing the rules I have taken care to set, not as a buddy bending them.
When we aim to be friends with our children, the line between responsibility and companionship becomes fuzzy, especially during the teen years. Teenagers need the assurance of consistent boundaries and of someone they can count on to enforce them. I know firsthand that the waters of adolescence can be especially choppy. As somebody who has always worn the “parent” shoes, I am grateful that I didn’t have to change my relationship with my children suddenly in order to give them the discipline they need during these difficult years.
I made the decision to mother as a parent, not a friend, because I fell back on what I wished for as a teen: someone to help me define and reach my dreams, with no ambiguity about our relationship. I want my children to feel the security and comfort of having a parent who will say the hard things when they need to be said, to set the strict curfew, to refuse the late night out. I want them to trust me in a way that is possible only when a partnership is unequal.
My children have the promise that I am overseeing the details of their lives until they are adults, and that I am accountable for providing them with what they need to flourish.
Refusing to be friends with my teenagers doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy my company or confide in me. But it does mean that the boundaries between us are always clear. I am confident that being a parent to them right now will lay a firm foundation, one that will allow our relationship to grow into a true friendship when they are adults.
Alexandra Rosas is a writer and online content contributor. You can follow her on her blog www.gooddayregularpeople.com and on Twitter @gdrpempress.
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