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Rules from great friendships apply to parenting

Parents who consider the advice about not being their kids' friends might want to re-think that approach. What traits from close friendships should you share with your kids?

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    Kiera, 14, and Julia, 11, help their mother, Kelly Dalmass clean dishes after the family dinner at their home on May 7, 2012 in Moorsetown, New Jersey. Chris and Kelly Dalmass eat dinner with their four children every day during the week and have a larger, extended family dinner most Sundays.
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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 a confidante. True enough. However, does the separation of friend and parent give permission to treat children differently from how we treat friends?

Imagine saying to your friends:
“Mona, don’t eat so many appetizers or you’ll spoil your dinner. I worked hard on this meal. Don’t fill up on cheese and crackers. Fred, pick up your napkin. Where were you born, in a barn? Mona, did you hear me? Why don’t you ever listen to me? Stop reaching, Fred. Honestly, you make me so mad. Ok, that’s it. Hand over that iPhone until after dinner.”

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 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 responsibilities.

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We do not (hopefully) overpower and bully a friend with threats and guilt trips the way we do our children. Whereas we can help a friend in pain and be that needed sounding board, we often cannot tolerate our children’s pain and do not give them the support they need.

We work hard to control our children’s behavior because it reflects on our competency as parents. But we don’t have as much stake in our friend’s behavior. We often take out our frustrations and exhaustion on our children with yelling and threatening, but we are more likely to feel renewed and satisfied after talking with a friend. We typically react automatically to our children without listening often causing them to distrust and resist us, turning deaf ears. We are better listeners for 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. We would be far better parents if we took this role with our children. While we need to teach our children what we cannot expect them to do on their own, we need to teach way less and simply be with them far more. It’s important that we open ourselves to see, listen, and learn who our children are and what they are telling us through their behavior and emotions. The way we do with our friends?

Yes, they have to brush their teeth, go to bed, do their homework and keep clean. They are in our charge so we must insure that they learn how to get along with others. But most of their learning comes through watching the adults in their lives. Ironically what we force on them is what they inevitably turn away from. When we allow them 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 respect the thoughts and desires of others.

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 they spoke dismissively and disrespectfully to you. So many of the qualities of a good friendship are the qualities of 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 good 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 letting go of to do that?

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 always treated them as I would my dear friends. I have always put friendship with them first. That never interfered with me being the authority, with me getting angry or arguing with them, with me setting firm limits on what was OK 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.

Ways to establish a good friendship with your children:

  • Listen, hear, and show empathy—even when you don’t agree.
  • 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.
  • 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, decisions, and opinions even when you must say no or disagree.
  • Allow arguments, negotiate and problem solve so you maintain a balance of needs and wants.

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

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Bonnie Harris blogs at www.bonnieharris.com.

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