“Mom, am I your friend?” my then 13 year old daughter asked me while I was driving her somewhere several months ago. I did not have to think about my answer, as my husband and I had already had this conversation several times over the course of our parenting career. I did, however, have to think twice about how I was going to explain my answer to her.
“No honey. I am your parent. I love you and I like you, but you cannot be my friend right now.”
It was like a stab to her heart. She kept repeating, “but why?” and, “I’m not your friend?” And for months following, every time I would ask her a probing question, she would retort, “It’s not your business. We aren’t friends.” Ouch (even though I explained why, in spades).
But here’s the thing:
I know that in my heart of hearts, I firmly believe that the concept of “friend” should not be included in my job as a parent to a child or an adolescent. There is plenty of time for that when they have reached adulthood. For now, my children need time to be kids. Not my confidante. I do not need to overshare with them. They are not emotionally mature enough to handle that — it’s hard enough for them to handle their own emotions at this age.
The way I see it, being a parent comes with responsibilities and obligations. It’s not that I want to be feared as this overbearing dictator, but I do fear that if they see me as a friend, they will not respect me the way that I feel I need to be respected. As a parent, I can hold them accountable for things. I can expect certain things out of them. If I treat my child as a friend, I am essentially telling them that their power is equal to mine.
Yes, I want to be that person that my child comes to when they have good news to share, or when they have a heavy heart and need to work something out. But I also have to be that person who sets expectations for their behavior, enforces the rules, and sets boundaries. And there’s a fine line there. Why? Because children (yes, that includes teens) need structure. Whether they know it or not, they crave it and thrive off of it. And when they break the rules and I have to give them consequences for their behavior, they learn from these moments. A friend cannot lay down the law and set limits. But a parent can. A friend cannot make tough decisions (that may be unpopular in the moment) or hold children accountable. But a parent can.
My job is to mold my children into functional humans so that they can go out and BE and DO in this world. I want them to be their own person. And to do that, they need separation from me. They need to be able to individuate in order to grow, mature, and develop their own sense of self. My job is a guide, supporter, limit setter, positive model. My job is not to be a friend.