Should parents be friends with their kids?

Some thoughts on the right and wrong ways to befriend children

Should parents be friends–or buddies–with their kids?

father and son drawing pictures together on the grass in a park

In their book, The Narcissism Epidemic, authors Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell note that parents contribute to the problem when they try to befriend their kids. That’s because parents who style themselves as “buddies” may find it hard to enforce rules and standards.

Other researchers point to the costs of treating children as confidants. Kids may get stressed out by negative personal confessions. For example, when researchers interviewed the adolescent daughters of divorce, they found that girls were more likely to experience psychological distress if their mothers made detailed disclosures to them about their financial worries, employment hassles, personal problems, and negative feelings about their ex-husbands (Koerner et al 2002).

So is friendship between parent and child a bad thing? Surely it depends on what you mean by “friendship.”

Notions of friends

Notions of friendship: Should parents be friends with kids if this means “nobody is in charge”?

To some people, friendship means “nobody is in charge.” Friendship is strictly egalitarian. Neither partner exercises any authority over the other.

If this is what you mean by “friendship,” then the question seems to be about the effects of permissive (or even neglectful) parenting.

Research suggests that kids do better when their parents show affection and enforce age-appropriate limits on their children’s behavior (see below).

There is also evidence linking permissive parenting with the development of poor self-control.

For example, a study of African-American adolescents asked kids to consider a series of hypothetical situations that involved disappointment and conflict. The kids who characterized their parents as more permissive were also more likely to say that they would respond violently to situations of conflict (Miller 2002)

“Friendship” may also cause problems if it means “treating a child as an adult therapist.” In fact, it’s not even clear that intimate confessions from parents make kids feel like friends — at least not when the confessions are distressing. In the study mentioned above, more detailed disclosures from moms were not linked with greater feelings of closeness in their daughters (Koerner et al 2002).

But not all intimate confessions are of a distressing nature, and it’s likely that some forms of sharing strengthen the parent-child relationship. In a recent study of 790 Dutch adolescents, researchers found that kids who reported sharing secrets with their parents had higher-quality relationships and lower rates of deliquency (Frijns et al 2013).

Another study of Swedish teens found that the key to good behavior and family harmony wasn’t heavy-handed parental surveillance. It was the child’s perception that his parents trusted him (Stattin 2001).

So intimacy needn’t imply that you are burdening your child with your personal troubles. And communicating trust needn’t send the message that “anything goes.”

Parents can build close, personal relationships with their kids and still remain responsible adults. Not every friendship is based on sharing equal status.

Friendships with authority figures: Warmth, trust, companionship…and limits

Consider the parent who enforces limits and avoids worrying her kids with detailed accounts of her adult personal problems.

She is first and foremost a mother to her kids.

But she might also see herself as a friend because she and her kids share a sense of mutual loyalty, trust, and respect.

In addition…

  • She treats her children as individuals with minds of their own.
  • She talks with her kids about their thoughts, hopes, ideas, and feelings.
  • She shares bits of her own “mental life” with them–not the bits likely to distress kids, but bits that help kids see their parents as human beings (Example: “I’m disappointed. I wish we could go to Disneyland, too, but we can’t afford it.”)

This notion of friendship seems consistent with the literature on secure attachments, “mind-minded parenting,” inductive discipline (explaining why it’s important to follow rules), and authoritative parenting (parenting that is warm and responsive, but also associated with high standards).

Is this really friendship?

It’s not a strictly egalitarian friendship. It’s more like the sort of friendship that some adults manage to have with authority figures–like senior colleagues, supervisors, mentors, community leaders, or religious advisors.

Both parties respect each other. They care about and trust each other. They can have meaningful conversations and enjoy each other’s company in informal settings. But there are constraints. The dominant party has to keep some information to himself. And there are times when the dominant party must exercise his authority.

Is it worth it? I suppose it depends on your personal characteristics and cultural beliefs. And maybe some kids don’t adapt well to the parent-as-authoritative-friend model.

But studies on Western kids are generally supportive of the rational, friendly,authoritative approach to parenting. 

  • “Mind-minded parenting” appears to contribute to a child’s development of empathy (read more about the research here). 
  • Inductive discipline (explaining the reasons for rules and the social, moral consequences of bad behavior) is linked with more self-control, less aggression, and more mature moral reasoning (Krevans and Gibb 1996; Kerr et al 2004; Choe 2013).
  • Friendly, rational, responsive parents may have more moral influence over their teenagers. In one study, American college students were given hypothetical moral decisions and asked how they would tackle them. Students raised by authoritative parents were more likely than other kids to reference their parents–not their peers–in decision making about moral issues (Bednar and Fisher 2003).
  • Close parent-child relationships built on trust and open communication may protect adolescents from dangerous behavior. In a study of American 9th and 10th graders, researchers found teens were more likely to engage in sexual activity if they were unsupervised. But friendly parent-child relationships were important, too. Girls who perceived their parents as trusting were less likely to engage in sexual activity, tobacco, and marijuana use. Boys who perceived their parents as more trusting were less likely to use alcohol (Borawski et al 2003). Other, similar studies support these findings (Stattin 2001; DeVore and Ginsburg 2005).

None of this evidence is conclusive. The studies I’ve cited report correlations only. Moreover, these studies focus on kids living in Western societies. Possibly, cultural beliefs in other societies could make the “parent-as-friend” approach less successful.

But for now, I think there is ample evidence to support those who take a friendly, “mind-minded,” authoritative approach to parenting.

References: Should parents be friends with their kids?

Bednar DE and Fisher TD. 2003. Peer referencing in adolescent decision making as a function of perceived parenting style. Adolescence 38(152):607-21.

Borawski EA, Ievers-Landis CE, Lovegreen LD, and Trapl ES. 2003. Parental monitoring, negotiated unsupervised time, and parental trust: the role of perceived parenting practices in adolescent health risk behaviors. J Adolesc Health 33(2):60-70.

Choe DE, Olson SL, and Sameroff AJ. 2013. The Interplay of Externalizing Problems and Physical and Inductive Discipline During Childhood. Dev Psychol. 2013 Mar 4. [Epub ahead of print]

DeVore ER and Ginsburg KR. 2005. The protective effects of good parenting on adolescents. Curr Opin Pediatr. 17(4):460-5.

Frijns T, Finkenauer C, and Keijsers L. 2013. Shared secrets versus secrets kept private are linked to better adolescent adjustment. J Adolesc. 36(1):55-64.

Kerr DC, Lopez NL, Olson SL, and Sameroff AJ. 2004. Parental Discipline and Externalizing Behavior Problems in Early Childhood: The Roles of Moral Regulation and Child Gender. J Abnorm Child Psychol. 32(4):369-83.

Koerner SS, Wallace S, Lehman SJ, and Raymond M. 2002. Mother-to-Daughter Disclosure After Divorce: Are There Costs and Benefits? Journal of Child and Family Studies 11(4): 1062-1024 .

Miller JM, DiIorio C, Dudley W. 2002. Parenting style and adolescent’s reaction to conflict: is there a relationship? J Adolesc Health. 31(6):463-8.

Stattin H. 2001. [Candid, not monitored children run less risk of becoming delinquent]. Lakartidningen. 98(25):3009-13. [Article in Swedish].

image of father and son drawing pictures together by istock / justocker

Written content last modified 2013