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Can You Be Friends with Your Child?

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Can You Be Friends with Your Child?

I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard, Never be friends with your child. The thinking behind this, I presume, is that children need a parent’s authority; they do not need to be the parent’s confidante who gets way too much information and who is counted on to fill the parent’s emotional needs. Very true. However, this is a definition of poor boundaries not good friendships. Parents need strong boundaries with their children as well as their friends. Parents would do far better if they took some pointers from the way they treat their friends.

Imagine a dinner with your friends:

“Mona, stop eating so many appetizers. You’ll spoil your dinner. I worked hard on this meal. Don’t fill up on cheese and crackers. Fred, pick up your napkin. Don’t expect me to get it for you. Mona, did you hear me? Why don’t you ever listen to me? Stop reaching, Fred. Ask for what you want. Mona, you’re not eating your dinner. Put your phone away. Honestly, you make me so mad. Ok, that’s it. Hand over that iPhone. You don’t get it back until you can show me some respect.”

On the contrary, it would behoove us to treat our children much more like dear friends—with respect, consideration, support, and care. We cherish our close friends and put effort into maintaining trusting, connected relationships in which we listen to each other, have empathy for one another but also have good boundaries that prevent us from asking our friends to take on our problems and responsibilities. I want my friend to understand when I’m having a problem and to support me, but I don’t expect her to solve the problem for me—merely to listen and be there.

We are usually much better at listening to and helping a friend in pain—to be that needed sounding board—whereas we often cannot tolerate our children’s pain and do not give them the support and listening ear they need. Instead it seems easier to get annoyed or angry toward a demanding child and misinterpret their pain altogether. Typically we react automatically to our children without listening, especially when their behavior is inconvenient, often causing them to distrust and resist us, turning deaf ears.

We do not (hopefully) overpower and bully a friend with threats and guilt trips the way we do our children. We don’t say, “If you don’t make time for me this weekend, I’m taking your cellphone away.” Or, “How many times do I have to tell you not to call me after eight?” Instead you would likely say, “Can you make time this weekend? I really need to talk.” Or, “I’ve decided I’m not responding to calls after eight, so you’ll go onto voicemail.” These statements are considerate and respectful but still get across the point. Is there any reason, we should not speak this way to our kids? To treat them like people who care how they are spoken to?

We work hard to control our children’s behavior because it reflects on our competency as parents. Ironically our control leads our children in the opposite direction than we intend. There we control, the more they resist and the cycle spins often out of control. We don’t control our friends because we don’t have the same stake in their behavior. We are more likely to feel renewed and satisfied after talking with a friend. That same satisfaction can happen with our children—if we treat them with the respect with which we treat our friends.

We know it is not our job to teach our friends how to be, think, and feel—what to do and when to do it. While our children depend on us for learning how to behave in ways we cannot expect them to on their own, we would be far better parents if we listened and learned who our children are and what they are telling us with their behavior and emotions before we try to control that behavior. Isn’t that what we do with our friends?

Yes, they have to brush their teeth, go to bed, do their homework, get out the door and help out—when they don’t want to. We must insure that they learn how to get along with others and be respectful. But so much of their behavior is developmentally appropriate and simply needs redirecting until they are ready to be more cooperative, and so much of their learning comes through watching the adults in their lives, that we could accomplish much more simply being with our children rather than teaching or controlling with manipulative strategies like punishments and threats. Ironically what we force on them, especially when they are not ready developmentally, is what they inevitably turn away from. And the manipulative tactics we use on them teaches them all too well how to get what they want.

Of course it is the parent’s job to set limits and not allow children to do whatever they want. However, don’t you set limits with your friends? Do your friends do whatever they want without the consequences of your reactions? I doubt if you would remain friends if either of you were talked to dismissively and disrespectfully the way most of us talk to our children. So many of the qualities of a good friendship are the qualities needed in a strong and healthy parent/child relationship.

Next time you are in conversation with your child, ask yourself if this is the way you would talk to a friend. If not, try putting a good friend in your child’s shoes and adjust your tone and words accordingly. What do you need to let go of in order to do that? What do you think you are losing or doing wrong by doing that?

Ways of establishing a good friendship with your children:

• Listen, hear, and show empathy—even when you don’t agree or need behavior to change.

• Don’t nag or force with coercive tactics like punishments, threats, and arbitrary consequences to get what you want.

• Enjoy your time together, plan outings, laugh, tell stories, play games, get silly.

* Be genuine, honest, responsible, and trustworthy with everything you do and say.

* Be willing to say No, this does not work for me. Do not submit what you believe is important to avoid your children’s upset.

* Allow expression of all feelings, both yours and your children’s.

• Share yourself, don’t preach. Allow your children to get to know who you are as a person, what your childhood was like, what’s important to you, what your values are.

• Respect your children’s ideas, desires, and opinions even when you must say no or disagree. You need never say no to a desire.

Allow arguments and messy communication—negotiate and problem solve so you maintain a balance of needs and wants.

Groups of people, whether members of a family, friendships, or co-workers, are a group of wants. Every human interaction is about getting what you want. The goal in any group is getting those wants to work together. When we are little and developmentally egocentric, we cannot be expected to concede our wants to those of another. As we mature, we learn that others want what they want as much as we do. Then (hopefully) we learn to respect and consider the wants of others. The success of this is determined by how much the child feels respected and considered.

As we go through life, we learn how to coordinate and cooperate our wants with others, often surrendering certain wants in the process. Parents surrender many desires when raising a child. People often surrender individual wants for the goal of a greater cause. Many wants are dropped in lieu of new wants. Life is a dance of wants.

When we allow our children their own thoughts and desires, not necessarily fulfill them or agree with them, they learn their thoughts and desires are important and heard. They then feel free to communicate them and in turn they learn to respect the thoughts and desires of others. Just as we do with good friends.

Now that my children are grown and I no longer actively parent them, I cherish our friendships. We have mutual trust and respect, and although we do not share experiences, we certainly share what we think and feel about those experiences. We ask for each other’s opinions and advice. I believe this is because I have always treated them as I would my dear friends. I have always put respect and consideration first. I would never have spoken to them any differently had a friend or even a stranger been with us. Foremost in my communications with them was always, How would I like hearing what I am saying right now? That question defines empathy. Empathy is the best communicator regardless of friend, foe, or child.

Empathy never interfered with me being the authority, being firm, making important decisions, expressing anger or arguing, setting firm limits on what was okay and what was not. I expect that of my friends, and expect my children to call me on behavior that they would not tolerate from a friend. I want my children to enjoy my company and to be happy, not obligated, to spend time with me.

I am proud to be my children’s friend, and I cherish the closeness that we have and that I also have with dear friends. I sometimes wonder if those who insist on never being their children’s friend know what it’s like to have close friendships they can count on.

Bonnie Harris Bonnie Harris, M.S.Ed. is the director of Connective Parenting and is an international speaker and parent educator. She has taught groups and coached parents privately for thirty years. Bonnie is the author of two books, "When Your Kids Push Your Buttons" and "Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids: 8 Principles for Raising Kids You’ll Love to Live With”. You can learn more about her work at BonnieHarris.com or follow her on Facebook
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