Can You Be Your Child’s Friend as Well as Their Parent?

by | Jun 18, 2021 | Family, gsr, Parenting Teens, Parenting Young Kids, Uncategorized | 38 comments

Is it bad to be your child’s friend if you’re also their parent?

One of the pieces of advice we often hear in parenting circles is: “Remember, you’re their parent, not their friend.”

To be honest, when my children were little and I was immersed in evangelical culture and parenting blogs, I used to teach that (and even wrote columns on it for our local paper!).

But then something weird happened.

My girls grew into teenagers–and I really liked them. They became my friends. 

 

Being Friends with Your Teenagers

That didn’t mean that I wasn’t also their mother; it didn’t mean that I couldn’t tell them what to do or that they wouldn’t listen to me.

It was more that, by the time they were teens, they naturally did what was right because they respected me and had internalized our values.

We had a good relationship. They naturally respected what I thought because I knew them well and they knew that I loved them and that I was safe. I took an interest in what they were doing. I knew their friends. I had proven that I was safe and that I had their best interests in mind. And so Keith and I didn’t really have to lay down the law that much when they were teens because we were their friends too.

Rebecca explained this well in her book Why I Didn’t Rebel.

It’s kids’ relationships with their parents that are characterized by trust and honest to goodness intimacy that helps kids willingly choose to do the right thing. When they know that you trust their instincts, too, they tend to live up to expectations.

No, there are no guarantees. Yes, some kids are naturally more difficult than others. But even the difficult ones that she interviewed for her book said that when they had good relationships with their parents that were based on mutual respect, often these times of acting out did come to an end more quickly. And even if they did rebel, they were able to come back because they had that relationship–or they kept the relationship even if the kids made choices the parents didn’t like. And then the parents still had influence in their life.

What if I told you that not all teenagers rebel?

And what if I told you that a lot of typical parenting advice makes rebellion more likely?

I interviewed 25 young adults, trying to figure out what made them rebel or not.

Recently Rebecca was browsing on Instagram where she saw a post by Focus on the Family that didn’t seem to understand this concept. 

They posted this:

Rebecca found it quite disturbing, and she posted an Instagram story to talk about it.

I thought today I’d share that Instagram story (which basically means a bunch of graphics that all go with each other on Instagram) because I really like it, but also to remind you all that we are all on Instagram too!

(story is written out in text below if you can’t read it all!)

Your Child's Friend vs Parent Focus on the Family
Friend vs Parent for Child
Friend vs Parent for Child 2
Friend vs Child 3
Friend vs Child 4

Alexander, I am your parent. And I hope desperately to also be  your friend.

I will teach you and guide you to learn how to love others. I will speak blessings over you and empower you in your strengths. 

I will apologize when I make mistakes. I will respect your boundaries. And, yes, there will be consequences when you do bad things. But they will not be overly harsh or punitive.

I will treat you with the respect and dignity I hope you demand from others because I know my voice will become that by which you measure your worth, and how you expect to be treated by others.

My goal is to empower you, not control you. I love you.

But what is more important than me telling you that (like the emotional blackmail in that Focus on the Family post) is you feeling that because I’ve proven it with more than just empty words. 

And, hey, Focus on the Family: If your idea of parental love could also describe an abusive boyfriend, maybe that’s not healthy or helpful is all I’m saying. 

I know that Focus on the Family was likely trying to be funny and practice hyperbole.

But Jesus, after all, calls us friends. I think it’s okay for parents to call their kids friends, too–and vice versa. 

We need to be careful how we joke about this stuff. We should not be laughing about stalking and controlling our children. We should normalize empowering them and guiding them. We know that being too firm a disciplinarian, focusing only on our own authority and not respecting our kids, can backfire. So let’s not joke around like this. It really isn’t funny.

It's Okay to Be Your Child's Friend and Parent

What do you think? How do you see the balance between friend vs. parent when it comes to your kids? Let’s talk in the comments!

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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38 Comments

  1. M

    I definitely agree with you guys!
    I often say I raised my best friends.
    My mom modeled this for me and it was great! We talked late into the nights after dances. She listened s lot.
    My children are definitely my friends. They are so fun and kind;)

    Reply
  2. Jenn

    Yes! My older two (14&15) are definitely my friends. I truly enjoy spending time with them. They also know that I trust them, that I think they have the ability to make good decisions, and that they are human and will make mistakes sometimes and that’s ok too. I will have their back when they do make a mistake because I know they are good kids. And I am reaping the benefits of them wanting to be with me, bringing their friends to my house (where their friends also talk to me). I have so many friends who are struggling through the teen years with sullen, mean, angry kids. While I can say that I genuinely enjoy my teens and want them around.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      That was me, too. Again, I know there are some kids that are naturally more difficult. Sometimes our personalities clash more than others; some kids have more difficulties in general. But showing kids you respect them and genuinely like them can build the bridges that we want, too.

      Reply
      • M

        I agree … With difficult kids they might need tighter boundaries and feel the consequences of their choices- but you can still be a friend to them and communicate that you are on their side. Also, for older teenagers while it is important to have clear boundaries for them; it is also important to respect their boundaries and choices too.

        Reply
    • Julia

      Thank you for your comment! It was so inspiring to me!

      Reply
  3. Rachel

    Currently going through a difficult time with my 16 yo son. After a night of stealing hard alcohol & getting drunk, I did go through his phone. Yes, he was frustrated with me. Yes, he felt invaded. I was able to explain that our relationship needs to be built on mutual trust, not deception. I did not use any information against him. But I do have a better idea of who is safe and who is not. And while he goes through The Great Reset (avoiding people so he can cut ties with nicotine), we have had great conversations about his unknown future and my desire and God’s for his best life, free from entanglements and addictions. I wildly disagree with FOTF (um, on so many things, but I digress..) because a parent can “stalk & invade privacy” but do so from a position of safety and care and friendship, not from control and power.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes! Honestly, sometimes it’s necessary to go through kids’ phones (I’d totally agree with you on that one). But you can do it because your kid knows, “I am concerned about you; we’re going to work through this together; I want to help you make better decisions that are in line with who you are and who you want to be.” It doesn’t need to be control.

      Reply
  4. Andrea

    The problem with Focus on the Family is that they see God as an abusive boyfriend, which influences both their marital and parenting advice. *shudder*

    Reply
    • Kay

      YES. Toxic theology produces toxic relationships.

      Reply
  5. Kay

    It’s about hierarchy again, which I just cannot get behind; a child is seen as a person to control—with a focus on unquestioning obedience—and not a whole person to connect to. Connection-driven relationships are healthier and will often naturally produce friendship.
    I read a parenting book that once described our three voices we use with our kids: playmate/friend, colleague/coworker, and boss/authority. She suggests using playmate/friend as often as possible, and if not possible, see you kids as co-laborers. Save the authoritative voice only for high stakes scenarios so your kids will know you mean business.
    I understand my kids do not have the maturity level that I do as their parent, but their opinions, wants, and feelings matter to me, and I try to show them everyday that I respect and adore them as their own unique person. And I believe this is why my 12 and 10 year olds come to me and not to their hyper conservative punishment-driven dad.
    Childism is a thing. And it is alive and well in high-control Christianity.

    Reply
  6. E

    My 15 year old wonders why all tv shows portrays teenagers as hating their parents. I’m so glad she doesn’t see me the same way. It is so nice to talk and go for walks together and have hobbies that we both enjoy (crafts). It is so hard when it is time to be stern about issues though because you don’t want to hurt the relationship. But we try for their to be natural consequences rather than yelling.
    It is hard when I’m with some other moms and they complain about the sullen teens. How can I encourage them to enjoy their teens? Everyone expects teens to be horrible. Why is that?

    Reply
  7. Belinda

    Ok. I was initially like, “Ummm, I don’t see that working,” but reading through the post and the comments, I realize that I have a hybridized friendship with my kids. I love spending time with them. They don’t hate spending time with me. I rarely feel the need to yell, and often feel the need to apologize if I do. I much prefer to explain why I’m upset calmly. Because of their father (we’re divorced) and even our parents and grandparents, I know what it’s like to be under the dictatorship of an adult. I don’t want that for them. I make choices that I hope please God because He’s good to me and I love Him. I trust Him. I want that with my kids. I want them to be more capable of thinking for themselves than I was in early adulthood. I have an 18 y/o. I’ve been working toward her independence gradually for years. I’ve turned her accounts, her phone, etc., over to her since her bday. I don’t tell her to help with chores. I ask, and even offer to pay if it’s something unusual. We’ve talked about what’s the right thing to do as a guest for ages, usually while visiting grands.
    Her father tried to send her to bed early and ground her recently. She chose to leave his house & come to mine. I didn’t know about the grounding until later, but my gosh. She’s 18, dude. Set expectations for living there like any rent agreement, but you can’t hold an adult without their consent. I use that example to explain how I believe the gradual release is easier for everyone than the sudden break. If I understand what you’re saying, Sheila, that’s your stance, too?
    Boundaries with Teens showed me I was doing pretty well in a lot of areas and gave me constructive criticism where I wasn’t. I *HIGHLY* recommend it.
    Funny story to finish, my DD2 turned 16 yesterday. I worked it out for one of her friends to spend time with her during the day. She chose to wake up earlier than normal and do some housework to prepare for that visit! (Housework is an area of contention for us.) Maybe I should have her friends over more often! LOL Hey, it works on me, too. ;P

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I love that she did housework! my girls used to do that before friends came over too! Yes, I totally believe in gradually relaxing the rules. By the last year the kids were in the house they had no rules. But nothing really changed, actually. What we were doing before was just based on wisdom, and they just chose to do that as well!

      Reply
      • Kym

        I get the point FOTF was likely trying to make, and dont necessarily disagree, but I don’t think it was appropriate to exaggerate it into that meme. It sent a very different message, especially to teens or young people who are more likely to misunderstand the *joke* if you can call it that.
        I believe that we are to be parents first, being willing to discipline and use authority in a way that doesnt look like a.friendship. But when relationship building in the family is the priority in parenting, it naturally follows that you.shouldnt have to be the bad guy nearly as often, and you should have a good friendship to base it on. My four kids are young adults now and are our best friends. I’ve always enjoyed their company and that of their friends, and am so grateful for the warm and open relationships we have with all of them.

        Reply
  8. Amy

    Here’s my different perspective. I divorced my daughter’s dad when she was 1 year old and she started spending the night 50% of the time at her dad’s when she turned 5. The circumstances of our situation forced me to focus my parental energy on relationship building rather than the things that groups like FOTF encourage like education and discipline. My daughter knows that on the days she is with her dad I will make contact with her via phone. Especially when she was younger I would send cards in the mail to her at her dad’s house (now that she has her own phone we text). As I watch her friends’ parents do the disciplinarian thing, I’ve realized that relationship building was the better path. My daughter is now 13. I don’t really have to do much disciplining because we have a trusting relationship and I can feel confident that she will make good choices.

    Reply
  9. Alex

    The parent in me tends to agree. My kids are just barely entering the teenage years, but yes, I do like them. I miss the baby stage, but look forward to having them be adults, and yes, my friends.
    And I do 100% agree on the fact that relationships are so important. This is something we talk about a lot as teachers.
    And it is that teacher in me that is also disagreeing a little. I have seen waaaay too many parents who don’t really parent. So I have found myself often thinking “you aren’t their friend, you are a parent”.
    So it would seem like so many things in life it is about a fine line. Finding that healthy balance is important. But if you spent too much time just being a friend, then you may need to act more like a parent later.
    Also, some kids need that more. I have a single mom friend who adopted her daughter. As her daughter enters puberty a lot of issues are surfacing from the drug abuse bio-mom had caused in-utero. My friend is having to figure out how to keep her daughter safe, while watching their relationship also suffer. It’s so hard for both of them, but being a parent is much more important than a friend right now.
    So while some families are blessed to be able to reap the fruit of friendship since that is what they sowed into their littles lives, others just haven’t had as much luck. Something may have gone wrong, and they are having to work harder at disciplining- sometimes because they were too friendly at first, sometimes because bad stuff just happens to good people too.

    Reply
    • faith

      I think we can be our kids friends, but at the same time I think we can go too far. I was really close with my mom as a teen and we did a lot together. But to this day I now feel it was to the point that it inhibited me on developing other close relationships with peers.
      I was also homeschooled and did not have a lot of meaningful relationships with others until I began working.. Everything was about me and my moms relationship. Even today my mom calls me her best friend and really has no close friends outside of me. She’s always telling me I’m her best friend and over the years has dumped a lot of her feelings, frustrations, and marriage issues on me that make me feel burdened. And sometimes I just want her to be my mom.

      Reply
  10. Cynthia

    YES. Rebecca’s response was perfect. As parents, we are more than just friends because we can’t just strive to be popular, but building relationships is key. Kids always need to know that they can rely on us, be physically and emotionally safe, and trust that we genuinely want the best for them. If that relationship exists, they will eventually trust us and naturally want to follow our example (while still being their own person). If it doesn’t, they will shut us out and reject even good advice. If we have a good relationship and model good moral and ethical behavior ourselves, we set a great foundation.
    My kids are now 21, 18 and almost 17. I’ve loved the teen years, getting to know the amazing people that my kids are becoming.

    Reply
  11. Evelyn

    Thank you so much for addressing this! It’s definitely how my mom intentionally parented me, and it’s the reason I have zero relationship with her now beyond a couple of minutes on the phone every few weeks and an obligatory 2-3 day visit once a year. Once I moved away from home, I had no need for her controlling role in my life and I was relieved to get away. My kids are my friends and I enjoy their company tremendously, but I always felt a little guilty about it, because “I’m not supposed to be their friend.” Your article really helped me be able to articulate that my mom chose her role, and by repeatedly refusing to leave or change it, she has excluded herself from my life. It’s sad, but understanding it helps.

    Reply
  12. EOF

    Wow, that FOF meme is really disturbing. 😳
    If you compare it to the Bible, it doesn’t stand up. Are we called to flip out or have self-control? To be a worst nightmare or show the love of God? The Bible I read tells parents not to exasperate their children.
    I completely agree with Rebecca’s response to the post!
    Now that I think about it, one of my parents was very similar to what the meme describes, and when I grew up I very nearly cut that parent out of my life. The ONLY reason I didn’t was because I became a Christian and saw that I was called to honor my parents.
    On the other hand, I’ve had many people ask what I’ve done to have such respectful, well-mannered kids. My honest answer is always that I’ve done nothing special. I’ve simply chosen to listen to them and respect them rather than to order them around and talk down to them. It isn’t rocket science. Essentially, I’ve done everything in my power to raise them the opposite way from how I was raised (like that stupid FOF meme). As a result, we enjoy being around each other (even in the teen and preteen years!)

    Reply
  13. Naomi

    I agree with you that the FOTF post is gross. I am a mother and I subscribe to respectful parenting strategies and believe that connection is key to nurturing little humans who become healthy, well-adjusted adults.
    I guess what rubs me the wrong way about this insistence that we can be friends with our young kids is that it comes across kind of like: “I figured out the best way to parent and if you just do it like I did everything will turn out swell and you just didn’t do it right if you’re child isn’t pleasant and well-behaved like mine.” I guess it feels a bit smug (even though I don’t believe that’s how you actually feel).
    We’re all doing our best and while I also believe there are certain broad parenting strategies that are likely preferred in most situations, I also recognize that there are so many different factors that can affect outcomes, as well as an infinite number of different parent-child personality match-ups.
    I’ve known Christian families where the parents were nurturing and led by the Holy Spirit, yet their children rebelled or they may have a good relationship with their child, but are not necessarily best friends with them. Sin can get in the way.
    There is also a degree of luck. Some people just get easier kids than others. I am certainly one of them. I have a great, mostly easy kid – but I certainly don’t think that’s entirely because of how I parented. I mess-up often!
    Also, true friends are able to be open and honest with one another about their struggles. It’s certainly good to be open and honest with your kids and teens, but laying all of your cares and burdens on them would not be appropriate at that stage in their lives. I guess one could say they are friends with their child, to a point, but I don’t think you can be friends with your child (before adulthood) in the same way that you would be friends with a peer. It wouldn’t be appropriate.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, absolutely, different temperaments, neurodiversity, and just plain difficult kids play a part!
      At the same time, Rebecca did a HUGE literature review for her book, and cited many different academic studies which showed that the key to having kids who chose wisely was not being a firm disciplinarian, but was rather about the quality of your relationship with your kids. So many studies have shown this. It’s about secure attachment and respecting kids as well as good parenting techniques.
      So it’s not only about luck? We really do need to talk more about the centrality of relationship rather than the discipline/authoritarian model. If you think about it, it makes sense that the relationship model has been shown to be most effective, because that’s what God does with us. Yes, he disciplines us on occasion, but the main thing is that he has a loving relationship with us where he nurtures us and truly knows us. As parents, we should do the same to our children.
      Does that mean kids will always turn out well? No. But it’s certainly more likely, AND, as I said in the post, even if they don’t turn out well, they tend to have better relationships with you so you still have influence on them, which is key.

      Reply
    • Katydid

      “I guess what rubs me the wrong way about this insistence that we can be friends with our young kids is that it comes across kind of like: “I figured out the best way to parent and if you just do it like I did everything will turn out swell and you just didn’t do it right if you’re child isn’t pleasant and well-behaved like mine.” I guess it feels a bit smug (even though I don’t believe that’s how you actually feel).”
      I didn’t get the vibe or feeling at all. In fact I felt like Sheila’s post countered the FOTF meme and post which indeed gave off that very vibe (if you are friends with your kids, you’ll screw them up).
      I am indeed friends with my kids. Does it look the same as their peer friends? Of course not! Does this method guarantee my kids will come out ok? Nope. But, I can say with confidence that they have a FAR better and closer relationship with me than I had with my more authoritarian parents growing up.

      Reply
    • Becky

      I’m inclined to agree with you. It didn’t come across as smug to me, but it’s definitely challenging with smaller kids! Especially when said smaller kid is of a more challenging temperament to begin with. I did read through a parenting book that Sheila recommended last year (blanking on the name at the moment). I thought it was an excellent book, and have been trying to implement the more respectful parenting strategies. It’s just hard to act like a friend when the kid is consistently fighting me on everything. But I’m still trying (and having to work very hard on controlling my own angry impulses), in hopes that someday it will click.

      Reply
  14. Lena

    These comments are super helpful and I hope more get posted! I love my mom a lot (and she has changed for the most part) but I was raised to feel like I was loved, but definitely not “liked”. There was tons of control, emotional manipulation, frustration, ridiculous expectations, and zero trust. I wasn’t even a bad kid! I wanted to do right, but it was never good enough. I’ve dealt with some with enmeshment and not being great with boundaries with her, but am working on that. I’ve found that I’m repeating some of those same attitudes with my son and I hate it! Would love to see more advice about this, raising a child, having a good attitude towards them without letting them walk all over you or anyone else (because I’ve seen that too). Teaching kids respect but also respecting them in the process.
    My dad, on the other hand, was really respectful towards us and loved playing with us. I remember that so well. His kindness and genuine joy being around us. I always wanted to be his friend.
    Thanks for the comments!!

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      That’s awesome about your dad, Lena! I think kids feeling as if their parents genuinely enjoy them is such a huge deal.

      Reply
    • Bonnie

      I, too, was that type of mom. I grieve at the memories, but have asked my older children to forgive me for being so controlling, and for not focusing on enjoying them, and have been able to work on enjoying them as young adults. My youngest is now 17, and our relationship is amazing! She actually told me just the other day, “Mom, I can’t believe I really WANT to hang out with you!” I know I did the best I could with what tools I had to work with, but am so appreciative of Sheila’s articles. Perhaps it will prevent other well-meaning parents from living with the mindset of CONTROL!

      Reply
  15. Angelina

    I just wanted to say, I was really encouraged to read the comments on the Instagram post from FOTF, because most people recognized that is a very unhealthy way of parenting. I am really hoping that more Christian parents raising the next generation are going to do it in a healthier way that models the fruit of the Spirit and imitates Christ!

    Reply
  16. Mom2Littles

    Our eldest is 17 now and we started our parenting journey much like the meme from FOTF, and as she became a teen, the fruit of that parenting style reared its ugly head and she started rebelling, lying, sneaking behind our backs…etc. We quickly realized our part in it and have been seeking to understand her and build relationship with her instead of asserting control. Both my husband and I have apologized profusely for the past and sought to reconcile with her, but we are still finding out from friends and family that she is doing things behind our back that are unhealthy and against our family’s rules. I do not want to come at her, I want to come along side her. Any advice or resource recommendations would be extremely helpful!!! How do we enforce our family’s rules without her feeling like we’re going back to the overly controlling days? We are so ready to learn and do better.

    Reply
    • Cynthia

      At 17, she needs to know WHY the rule is there. Do research together if it is something health safety related. You can also use what I call relentless logic – calmly asking someone to explain why they would do certain things, and why they think something would be a good choice.

      Reply
  17. Laura

    I lost my respect for FOTF after hearing that they endorsed “Love and Respect” and their support for complementarianism beliefs in marriage. To hear about their parenting strategies does not surprise me.
    Although I don’t have children, I think they need to be treated like people. Of course, when you’re children are growing up, the dynamics are different. Now that I’m 45 and live with my widowed mother, we are more like friends. Yet, I still honor her as the Bible says, but she does not dictate how I live my life. Of course, when my brother and I were growing up, both my parents set boundaries and gave us rules to follow, but they were not overbearing the way FOTF seems to insist on doing.

    Reply
  18. Maria Bernadette

    Just had a thought. Most people spent large chunks of their childhood in schools that segregate by age. Little to no experience forming friendships across age groups.
    Does that make it seem like friendship among peers is all there is?
    Some arguments are that if you are friends with your kids it means you think of them as if they are your age, not a child in need of your guidance. But being a friend and offering guidance, setting boundaries, parenting in other words, those are not mutually exclusive.
    Being a friend does not mean treating someone like they are your age. It’s about enjoying their company. About wanting to know them and understand them. And genuinely wanting what’s best for them.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      This is really interesting, Maria! I think you’re on to something. It’s just enjoying them and wanting what’s best for them and respecting them. But, yes, I think you’re right that we don’t do friendships across the ages.

      Reply
  19. Lisa

    This is fantastic! I saw that post and commented. Rebecca’s story is gone from her IG page, though, but I love it!
    My kids are I are friends. They are ages 5, 11, 13, 15, and 17. My family is my favorite group of people.

    Reply
  20. Jane Eyre

    That graphic is something my family of origin has quoted (even though they aren’t religious). I guess it got the kids to knuckle under when we were growing up. Problem is, unless you plan on dropping dead the moment your kids get their high school diplomas, you want a relationship with an adult child, too.
    That relationship cannot be based on control. You eventually lose all leverage and the answer to screaming, control, harassment, and stalking is: “I am an adult who lives under his/her own roof. Get out of my life.” And the next time you call that phone number, it’s been disconnected.

    Reply
    • Lisa

      True.

      Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, this is very true, Jane. If you want a good relationship with adult children, and to retain influence in their lives, you have to actually respect your kids as well.

      Reply

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