Many of us have heard (or even said) the old line we heard when we were kids: “I’m your parent, not your friend.”
Kristina Kuzmic’s popular vlog on the subject — “I’m not your friend, kid! (Because I love you.)” – clearly strikes a chord. It has been viewed nearly a million times. In it she says “All three of my kids are mad at me right now … and you know what? I don’t care. … You know why? Because I am not their buddy. I am their parent.”
Although we might mean well when we express this sentiment, our children unfortunately can hear an unintended message that is quite negative. Here are three things to consider before saying, “I’m your parent, not your friend,” to the kids again.
1. It unnecessarily makes our child feel hurt and rejected.
Let’s think about it. What makes a great friend? They like us and accept us for who we are. They support us. They comfort us when we’re upset. They have our backs. We can count on them to be there for us. And, sometimes, they tell us difficult things that we need to hear.
These are also the qualities of great parents.
When we say, “I’m your parent, not your friend,” our child hears: “I don’t like you.” “I don’t accept you.” “Your feelings don’t matter to me.” These are the last things any of us would want to convey to our child.
In studies conducted across many cultures, anthropologist Dr. Ronald Rohner found that children everywhere have a basic need for acceptance and affirmation from their parents. Children who feel rejected have more behavioral problems, lower self-esteem, are more pessimistic, more anxious and depressed, and are more likely to have drug and alcohol problems.
Of course, parents are different from friends. We’re not equals. We don’t ask our children to be our confidants or take care of us emotionally. More than that, we have to hold the long-term view of our children’s lives because they are often only focused on what they want in this moment. It inevitably means that there will be many situations where we disagree with our child regarding what’s right and our child will be upset and angry. In these situations, we do need to be our child’s parent and make difficult decisions. However, when this does happen, we can still accept and empathize with our child’s upset. That is, we can be “friendly.”
As Jane Nelson, author of the parenting classic Positive Discipline, points out, the best discipline is “firm and kind.” In other words, the best discipline is “parental” and “friendly.”
2. It tells our child that conflicts with loved ones cannot be dealt with in a “friendly” way.
One of the most important life skills we can teach our children is the ability to resolve conflicts in a constructive way. Skilled conflict resolvers have happier marriages, better friendships, and are generally more successful in their careers.
What do these successful conflict resolvers do? They approach conflicts with loved ones respectfully, collaboratively, and with clear valuing of the other’s feelings. They look for win-win solutions. That is, they approach conflicts in a friendly manner.
It turns out that the most powerful way for your child to learn healthy conflict resolution is for you to model these skills in your parent-relationship.
We want our parent-child relationships to model the idea that conflict is part of a relationship, not a threat to it; that we can disagree — even disagree intensely — and still remain friends.
3. We are really saying it to ourselves.
Let’s be honest with ourselves for a moment. When we say, “I’m your parent, not your friend” we’re really trying to reassure ourselves that we’re doing the right thing because what we’re doing is so damn hard. We’re trying to bolster our resolve to stick with our difficult decision.
It’s painful to disappoint our children and make them sad. It’s also awful when we feel angry at our children and they are angry with us. In those moments, we can experience the excruciating worry that we’re failing as parents.
If you feel like telling your child that you are a parent and not a friend, take a deep breath and say it silently to yourself instead. Or, better yet, say to yourself “being a parent is really hard. It really hurts when my child is upset or acting in an upsetting way. But I’m doing my best. That’s all I can do.”
The next time you find yourself in a conflict with your child, I hope you will try to be your child’s parent and his or her friend. Try resolving the conflict in a constructive way. If you can’t, express your genuine empathy for your child’s distress. Remind yourself that you are both doing your best. And, most of all, remember that the best way to parent is to be firm and kind, that is parental and friendly.