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Setting Boundaries in Parenting: Why Parents Should Not Be Friends with Their Child

Reading time: 12 minutes
Written by
| Updated on
April 22, 2024
Reviewed by parenting expert
Father and daughter playing dressed up as princesses

What you’ll learn

Find out why parents should not be friends with their child and how to wisely nurture a loving parent child relationship based on mutual trust and respect.

An interesting survey by Ian Pierpoint of Synovate showed a significant trend: 43% of parents express a desire to be their child’s best friend. While a friendly and open relationship with children is desirable, crossing into the territory of becoming their best friend can have unintended consequences for their development. This article looks at why parents should not be friends with their child. It also sets a clear differentiation between being friendly and abdicating parental authority altogether. Towards the end, it shares a view on the 3 Basic Psychological Needs and how they can be either nurtured or thwarted by how we see ourselves as parents.

The Importance of Parental Authority

Parenting styles have changed a lot over time. In the past, parents often took on a strict and authoritarian role. Nowadays, many parents recognize the importance of being closer and more understanding with their kids. This modern approach focuses on open communication, emotional support, and building a strong, trusting relationship. Parents are more likely to listen to their children’s thoughts and feelings and consider these in their parenting decisions. This style is beneficial for children’s mental health. It helps them feel valued, heard and understood – satisfying their Need for Relatedness, one of the 3 Basic Psychological Needs.

However, this change can sometimes be misinterpreted as creating a partnership with the child in parenting them and lead to other problems. When parents act more like friends and share adult problems and parenting struggles with their kids, it can be too much for them.  

Parents might worry about losing that friend-like relationship if they have to be strict or say no, and become too lenient. This can lead to inconsistent rules, which is very confusing for kids. Children might feel uncertain about their place in the family. This confusion can be stressful and overburdening for kids. This is one of the biggest reasons why parents should not be friends with their child. 

Establishing Authority in the Parent-Child Relationship

Being a friend rather than an authority figure can sometimes be seen as a way to avoid conflict and maintain peace in the household. Parents might hope that this approach will minimize arguments and resistance.

Some parents who experienced strict or distant relationships with their own parents may seek to avoid repeating those patterns. They hope that by being more of a friend than an authority figure, they can create a warmer and more open relationship with their child.

While these reasons are rooted in a desire to build a positive relationship, it’s important for parents to find a balance. 

Here are some ways to be approachable and supportive while owning the parental role:

  • Setting Age-Appropriate Boundaries: Clearly communicate which behaviors are acceptable. Explain why certain rules are in place, making sure children understand the boundaries within the relationship.
  • Providing Guidance When Needed: Even in open and casual discussions, offer wisdom and guidance based on experience. This can steer children towards positive decisions and behaviors.
  • Maintaining Respect for Parental Decisions: While fostering an atmosphere of mutual respect, ensure children understand that certain decisions, especially those concerning safety and well-being, are the parent’s responsibility.
  • Modeling Respectful Behavior: Show how to maintain respectful dialogue and behavior, even in moments of disagreement. Do this to teach effective communication and conflict resolution skills.

Meeting the Need for Structure and Guidance – A Closer Look at Parenting Styles

While it might seem like children resist rules and boundaries, recent research shows that negative behaviors often highlight their craving for structure. The resistance usually arises from the manner in which rules are set and enforced rather than the existence of rules themselves.

The theory of parenting styles introduces four major categories: authoritarian, permissive, balanced, and uninvolved. The traits of the uninvolved parent fall too much under the recommended limits of parental attention and affection to consider they’d try to befriend their child. They usually don’t address emotional needs, and besides food, shelter, and clothes, they allow children to tend to themselves.

Authoritarian parents focus on discipline and standards. They often dismiss their children’s opinions and punish mistakes consistently. The parent child relationship is mostly tense. This approach can create a rigid environment lacking in emotional warmth.

Permissive parents, in contrast, adopt a lenient stance, aiming to be more of a friend than a figure of authority. This warmth, however, comes at the expense of structure and guidance. Mistakes are frequently ignored or inconsistently addressed. The lack of clear boundaries can leave children feeling insecure and unsure about what is expected of them. This is another reason why parents should not be friends with their child.

Authoritarian and permissive parents, each in their own way, often resort to quick-fix solutions when faced with challenging behavior from their children. They aim for immediate compliance or peace. Usually, this does not address the underlying issues or contribute to the child’s long-term development.

Why parents should not be friends with their child - dad gently touches his son's arm while talking

Credits: Pexels

The balanced parenting style finds a middle ground, combining firmness with warmth. They understand why parents should not be friends with their child. These parents set clear rules and expectations. They are also open to their children’s perspectives, supporting them to learn from their mistakes. This approach has positive long-term outcomes by teaching responsibility, resilience, and emotional intelligence.

👉 Curious about which parenting style you and your partner are adopting? Dive into our article ‘What are the different parenting styles?’ to discover valuable insights and strengthen your parenting journey!

Why isn’t this parenting style more common if it is that great?

Balanced parenting requires a considerable amount of effort and resources. Balanced parents adapt their parenting strategies as their children grow and their needs evolve. This can be challenging given the fast pace of life and the many responsibilities parents juggle. 

Meeting the need for structure and guidance is a demanding approach. However, the long-term benefits for both children and society at large make it a highly valuable investment. It creates a future where children grow into well-adjusted, capable, and compassionate adults.

The Disadvantages of Parental Friendship: Why Parents Should Not Be Friends with Their Child

The question of what one would do with absolute freedom is intriguing and reveals much about human nature and the necessity of rules. If people had the freedom to do anything they wanted without constraints, the range of actions could include behaviors that are unhealthy, immoral, or even illegal. This tendency is part of human nature, where desires and impulses if left unchecked, can lead to decisions that negatively impact oneself and others.

Family shoes line up with daughter trying to fit her father’s shoes

Credits: Pexels

For children, the role of rules and boundaries is even more critical. In their formative years, children are in the process of developing their moral compass and understanding of the world. The absence of rules can lead to confusion and insecurity, making it difficult for them to make sense of their environment and their place within it. 

On the other hand, rules provide a necessary structure. They teach children about limits, the consequences of their actions, and how to interact with others in a respectful and safe manner. 

For the parent child relationship, the attempt to be more of a friend than a parent can erode the respect and authority necessary for effective parenting. It can also create an emotional burden on the child. This is another solid argument why parents should not be friends with their child. Children may feel pressured to reciprocate the friendship in a way that blurs the lines between parent and peer. This reversal of roles can lead to emotional confusion and stress for the child. 

Blurring the Lines: When Parents Try to Be Friends

“I’m not your friend anymore if you take that away from me!” 

A displeased little girl with crossed arms next to her mother on the couch

Credits: Pexels

Having kids being disrespectful or dismissive about rules is common in BFF (best friends forever) parenting.  Parental friendship while seeming appealing for its open, relaxed atmosphere, can have several drawbacks for both the child and the parent child relationship. This approach, characterized by a lack of boundaries and rules, might initially feel liberating. Ultimately, it can also lead to confusion and instability for the child. Here are some potential outcomes:

  • Becoming inconsiderate towards any form of authority

The child may refuse to follow instructions. Not only from the parents but also from teachers, coaches, and other authority figures. They may start to believe that all adult directives are negotiable.

  • Not handling frustration and disappointment well

A child who is used to getting their way may struggle to cope with disappointment or rejection in situations outside the home. For example, the child might react impulsively when a friend or teacher denies them something.

  • Blurred lines regarding discipline

When a serious situation requires discipline, the child might be confused or even dismissive if the parent suddenly shifts from being a friend to an authority figure. For example, if a parent usually overlooks minor misbehaviors in favor of keeping the peace, the child might not take them seriously when they try to enforce rules about more significant issues, like curfew violations or poor school performance. 

Without clear guidance from parents, children are at a greater risk of making choices that could be harmful to themselves or others. Children and adolescents have not yet fully developed the cognitive abilities required to foresee the long-term consequences of their actions. The frontal lobe of the brain, which plays a critical role in decision-making, impulse control, and understanding future consequences, continues to develop well into a person’s twenties. This is why parents should not be friends with their child, even if  it feels natural to them. 

The Emotional Toll on Children

While a friendly and open relationship with children is desirable, crossing into the territory of becoming their best friend can have unintended consequences for their development. 

The fundamental roles and responsibilities of a parent and a friend are distinct, if not inherently conflicting. A parent’s role encompasses guidance, discipline, and providing a safe and structured environment for the child. In contrast, a friend’s role is more about mutual affection, equality, and shared interests. It doesn’t carry the burden of enforcing rules or shaping behavior.

When parents give their children complete decision-making control, it can lead to confusion. Children, especially in their formative years, rely on adults to set boundaries and provide guidance. The absence of clear guidelines can make the world seem overwhelming and unpredictable, leading to anxiety.

A child who is used to turning to their parent for every decision may struggle to develop independence. This overreliance has them seeking approval or feedback, affecting their confidence and self-esteem.

A sense of entitlement may emerge when children are not subjected to limits or consequences. If parents give in to every demand, children might develop unrealistic expectations about how they should be treated by others. Conflicts and disappointments with others could become common.

A smiling child hiding under their mother’s coat

Credits: Pexels

Maybe the biggest toll is that children of BFF parents might find it challenging to interact with peers. Given their reliance on their parents for approval and companionship, they may feel less willing to form relationships with others their age. The parent child relationship becomes the center of all the other interactions. Social withdrawal or other difficulties in social settings become a pattern of interaction. This is why parents should not be friends with their child.

The desire to have a close and friendly relationship with one’s child is understandable and beneficial. However, parental authority is an essential factor for children’s emotional well-being.

Why Is It Essential to Satisfy the Three Basic Psychological Needs for Healthy Child Development

The 3 Basic Psychological Needs are inborn traits that impact a person’s well-being. Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan are the psychologists behind the influential Self-Determination Theory (SDT). Their theory emphasizes the importance of Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness as basic psychological needs. When these needs are met, we’re likely to be happier and more successful.

Traditional parenting roles emphasize guidance, protection, and the setting of boundaries. These elements are essential for meeting a child’s psychological needs. When parents attempt to blur the lines between parental authority and friendship, it can compromise their ability to satisfy these needs properly. This is why parents should not be friends with their child. They should find the right balance between being loving and supportive and also being clear leaders in the family.

1. Fulfilling Autonomy for Healthy Child Development

Allowing autonomy is usually misinterpreted as giving in whenever the kid gets sad or mad. Avoiding arguments might stop the kids from learning how to control themselves and understand the consequences of their behavior. This way of doing things can also make the kid feel swamped with decisions they’re not ready to handle.

One balanced way to nurture a child’s autonomy is through offering trust and guided age-appropriate choices. On top of that, ensuring those decisions are made within a safe and constructive framework. Here are a few examples:

  • For a young child, autonomy can mean letting them choose their outfit for the day from a selection of weather-appropriate clothes. This simple decision empowers them. It’s a practical way to meet the child’s need for autonomy without compromising their well-being.
  • For school-aged children, autonomy can be supported by allowing them to decide when they do their homework within certain limits. A parent might say, “You can choose to do your homework right after school or after a short break, but it needs to be done before dinner.” This approach respects the child’s ability to manage their time. It also emphasizes the non-negotiable expectation that homework is a priority.
  • As children grow older, they can be given more significant choices, such as how they want to spend part of their weekend. Parents can offer options like visiting a museum, going to the park, or staying in to work on a project. The child’s choice directs the family’s activity, promoting a sense of independence. It shows respect for the child’s preferences within the context of available and appropriate options.

2. Encouraging Competence and Skill Development

Being a friend to your child often means helping them out, sometimes even before they ask for it. This can actually get in the way of their Need for Competence. Their natural drive to learn new things and pick up new skills might get hindered.

Feeling competent is super important for kids. It helps them believe in themselves and be ready to take on new challenges. When kids learn new skills it boosts their confidence and makes them want to keep learning and get better.

Parents play a big role in helping their kids feel capable. Instead of doing everything for them, parents can guide their kids to try things on their own and provide chances for them to succeed at new tasks. This means giving kids tasks adapted to their age, showing them how to do something new, and then stepping back to let them try. 

👉 Are you constantly trying to figure out how to make kids listen to you? We give you some expert advice in this article ‘Why My Kids Don’t Listen To Me? 16 Possible Causes.

3. Nurturing Relatedness and Emotional Connection

A little girl lovingly wrapping her arms around her dad’s waist while smiling and making eye contact

Credits: Pexels

The Need for Relatedness is about the deep bond between parents and children. It’s a healthy foundation where children feel loved, understood, and secure. Feeling connected helps kids know they have a safe emotional base to return to. It makes them more willing to explore the world, try new things, and take healthy risks. Research shows that this sense of security and belonging supports optimal mental health. It makes children less likely to experience anxiety and depression.

When parents try to become their children’s best friends, they might share a lot of their own problems. Sometimes, the role switches and parents rely on their young kids for emotional support. Children might feel the weight of trying to solve problems they don’t fully understand or feel guilty for not being able to help their parents more.

Parents can still connect with their children by actively engaging in their interests and daily activities. They can set aside quality time for activities that both enjoy, whether it’s playing a game, cooking together, or exploring the outdoors, which strengthens the bond.

While elements of friendship can enrich the parent child relationship, they should enhance rather than replace the essential role of parents as guides, protectors, and authority figures.

Conclusion

The key takeaway is the vital importance of parental authority in a child’s life. While fostering a warm, open, and communicative relationship is crucial, it should not come at the expense of the guidance, structure, and boundaries that only a parent can provide. Children benefit most from a relationship where parents are primarily seen as authority figures who can offer support, discipline, and love. This balance ensures that children’s psychological needs are met, preparing them for a healthy, independent, and successful adulthood.

We offer more insights on how to enrich the parent child relationship while enhancing rather than undermining the essential role of parents as guides, protectors, and authority figures in our “How to talk so kids will listen: 3 proven methods” online masterclass. Save your spot today!

Our clever AI assistant, Sophie, is always available to answer any questions on parenting and child development. 

References

Bredehoft, D. (n.d.). Raising likable, responsible, respectful. Parents “Just Want to be Friends” With Their Kids. http://www.overindulgence.org/blog/parents-just-want-to-be.html 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019, November 5). Building blocks. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/parents/essentials/toddlersandpreschoolers/structure/building.html 

Grolnick, W.S., Raftery-Helmer, J.N., Marbell, K.N., Flamm, E.S., Cardemil, E.V., & Sanchez, M. (2014). Parental Provision of Structure: Implementation and Correlates in Three Domains. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly 60(3), 355-384. https://doi.org/10.13110/merrpalmquar1982.60.3.0355.

Lanjekar P. D., Joshi S H & Vagh.V. (2022). The Effect of Parenting and the Parent-Child Relationship on a Child’s Cognitive Development: A Literature Review. Cureus 14(10): e30574. https://doi.org/10.7759/cureus.30574 

Law, B. M., Siu, A. M., & Shek, D. T. (2012). Recognition for Positive Behavior as a Critical Youth Development Construct: Conceptual Bases and Implications on Youth Service Development. The Scientific World Journal, 2012. https://doi.org/10.1100/2012/809578

Ogino, M., Nishikawa, A., & Asada, M. (2013). A motivation model for interaction between parent and child based on the need for relatedness. Frontiers in Psychology, 4. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00618 

Talk it Out, NC. (2023, August 8). How to be a parent-not a friend-when your teen needs it most. Talk It Out. https://www.talkitoutnc.org/how-to-be-a-parent-not-a-friend/ 

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