When Parenting Goes Awry: How Being Your Child's Buddy Can Backfire
When Parents Were Parents and Kids Were Kids
As children growing up in the 1970's, my siblings and I never would have envisioned our parents as anything other than what they were: strict and stern authority figures to be respected and feared. That our mom and dad might act as our buddies would have been an absurd notion indeed.
Just like other parents of that era, ours had grown up during the 1950's in traditional families where moms stayed at home, dads went to work, kids attended Sunday school, and everyone gathered to watch “Father Knows Best” on the black and white television set with rabbit ear antennas. Many of them were born into large families where everyone pitched in to ensure the household ran smoothly. They had a lengthy list of daily household chores to complete in addition to their nightly homework.
They were expected to be respectful of adult authority, especially that of parents, teachers, and religious figures. In those days, it was often said that little children should be seen and not heard. Boy, times have changed and now we see more moms and dads abdicating their roles as matriarchs and patriarchs in favor of being their kids' buddies!
Baby Boomers Wanted to Be Friends With Their Kids, Not Authority Figures
When baby boomers became parents themselves, many of them intentionally veered away from the rigid family structure of their childhoods. They wanted a different relationship with their own kids: closer, less formal, and more relaxed. Some, like my sister and her husband, adopted a radically new approach to parenting and became buddies to their kids instead of authority figures.
My sister's three kids were given a lot of autonomy and little structure with no set bed times and no chores but endless extracurricular activities of their choosing. Today, we can see the results of this unique experiment as many young adults (dubbed “snowflakes”) are unprepared for the real world and seem destined to live in their parents' basements forever.
Children of Baby Boomers Wanted Their Moms and Dads to Parent Them, Not Befriend Them
Two of of my sister's three adult children now live at home—college graduates but with only part-time work. One is pursing her passion in theater and the other is chasing his dream in the culinary arts. Through conversations with my niece and nephew, I discovered that they missed having traditional parents and a structured childhood with a solid daily routine.
They look back on their growing up years as being chaotic: over-programmed with too many extracurricular activities and not enough time for healthy dinners together, homework in the evenings, walks around the neighborhood, and lazy days spent with grandparents and extended family. While they love their parents, they longed for a mom and dad who were there for them as wise, experienced leaders and not buddies.
They wish that their parents had focused more on their marriage instead of devoting all their time and energy into their kids and careers. Never having witnessed a loving relationship between their parents, my niece and nephew are now skeptical about their own prospects of finding wedding bliss. They both wonder if their mom and dad make living at home so incredibly comfortable and easy for them so they continue to stay, acting as buffers for their troubled marriage.
Kids Crave Structure Because It Makes Them Feel Safe, Secure, and Loved
As I started my journey as a new mom (keeping in mind what my niece and nephew shared), I decided to research what experts had to say about whether it's best to be a parent or buddy to our children. What I discovered, without a doubt, is that kids want and need their moms and dads to be role models and leaders.
They want grownups in their lives who provide routine and structure, making them feel safe, secure, and loved. Kids know they'll have plenty of friends come and go throughout their lifetime but only one mom and one dad who will be there forever. Here's what I learned from experts, convincing me that moms and dads should be parents and not buddies:
A mother's job is to be there to be left.— Anna Freud
Anna Freud—founder of child psychoanalysis, leader in child psychology
Anna Freud (daughter of Sigmund) believed parents should be like mother birds, pushing their babies out of the nest so they can learn to fly. She didn't see a healthy mother-child bond as one between friends but as one in which the mother is constantly being left by the youngster. This happens early on when she weans the baby. It happens again and again when she takes her to nursery school, sends her to summer camps and sleepovers, prepares her to go off to college, and grooms her for an autonomous life.
The well-adjusted mother accepts being left as an inevitable part of her child's growing independence. She has her own set of friends, hobbies, and interests and doesn't expect her child to be her buddy.
Children need what I call 'space out time'—the chance to dream and play, to work out their fantasies.— T. Berry Brazelton
T. Berry Brazelton—renown pediatrician and author
Moms and dads who act like a friend to their child are often immature themselves, easily succumbing to peer pressure. They're the parents who over-program their kid with too many activities—music lessons, Spanish tutoring, soccer teams, yoga classes, and computer camp because they see their friends and neighbors doing it. Their competitive nature kicks in, and they want “to keep up with the Joneses” even when they know it's bad for their kid.
Moms and dads who act like a parent want what's best for their youngster and listen to advice from child development experts. The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees with long-time pediatrician and author, T. Berry Brazelton, on the danger of signing up kids for too many extracurricular activities. They argue that youngsters need more downtime for unstructured play. They believe the lack of downtime can lead to depression, anxiety, fatigue, irritability and less creative energy.
Dr. Peter Gray—research professor of psychology, author
In Dr. Peter Gray argues that kids need fewer adult-led activities and more self-directed play. He advises parents to free themselves of the widely held misconception that children require grownups in order to learn. He urges moms and dads to take a step back and allow kids to learn from one another and by themselves. Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life,
Dr. Gray makes a strong case that the increase in serious mental disorders among youngsters today correlates with the dramatic decline in play we've experienced in the past 60-70 years. His passionate advocacy for kids and his researched-based approach has profoundly shaped my own philosophy as both a parent and a teacher. He confirmed my belief that youngsters do indeed need buddies, but they should be kid ones, not adult ones.
In this widely-viewed TED Talk, Dr. Peter Gray discusses why kids benefit enormously from unstructured play with no adult interference.
Tremendous good can be said about the baby boomers—they were drafted into and questioned the Vietnam War, lay their bodies on the line in the monumental civil rights and civil liberties struggles of their day, and fueled the greatest economic growth our nation has ever seen. But did Boomers’ egos become interlaced with the accomplishments of their children to such an extent that they felt their own success was compromised if their children fell short of expectations?— Julie Lythcott-Haims
Julie Lythcott-Haims—former dean at Stanford University, author, and public speaker
In her book, How to Raise an Adult, Julie Lythcott-Haims talks about the disturbing changes she witnessed while Dean of Freshman at Stanford University. Near the end of her decades-long tenure, she became increasingly concerned by the over-involvement of moms and dads in the lives of their college-aged kids, who were attending one of the top universities in the nation.
These “helicopter parents” were showing up on campus to talk with professors about their adult children's grades, schedules, and internships. They were going to the housing office to request a roommate change for their kids or demand a quieter floor in their dormitory. These moms and dads, who saw themselves as their children's friends—always boosting their self-esteem, sheltering them from failure and hardship, and sharing in their successes—were now crippling them.
Moms and dads who act as parents, not friends, have their own identities and don't live vicariously through their children. Their mission is to prepare their youngsters for life, not protect them from it. They want their kids to get increasingly independent and know how to handle real-world problems, not just live in a bubble of academic achievement.
In this TED Talk, Julie Lythcott-Haims discusses the dangers of an adult-driven "check-listed childhood."
I Highly Recommend This Book for New Moms and Dads or Those Who Feel Stressed Out and Overwhelmed
If your parent friends are always frazzled—shuttling their kids from one activity to another, helping them with homework, and praising them for every little thing they do—you're not alone. As a mom and a teacher, I'm around these folks constantly and their over-the-top anxiety makes me stressed out and exhausted. These over-involved helicopter parents are making major mistakes as this eye-opening book reveals. With only the best of intentions, they're rearing incompetent kids who are unable to make it in the real world. This book makes a wonderful gift for those parents who are off track and need some expert advice.
'Just be yourself' sounds like good advice at first, but what if you’re a jerk? What if you’re a serial killer? Maybe you should be someone else. 'Believe in yourself' is fine, but 'anything is possible'? No, it’s not. Expressing yourself, respecting yourself, and being honest with yourself are somewhat tautological but not usually directly harmful. But 'you have to love yourself first' has a crucial flaw: people who really love themselves are called narcissists...— Jean Twenge, PH.D
Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell—professors of psychology and authors
In their book, Twenge and Campbell argue that moms and dads who act like friends to their children helped create our current "selfie culture." Young adults today have an inflated view of themselves because their parents were always on the sidelines cheering them on, stroking their egos, and praising their accomplishments. They didn't act like parents of the past— enforcing rules, setting high standards, and acting as mentors. The Narcissism Epidemic,
They weren't comfortable giving their children the critical feedback they needed—both their strengths and weaknesses—so they could see themselves clearly and make improvements. When moms and dads see their children as wholly wonderful, they lose a lot of credibility in their kids' eyes. When they enter the real world and people aren't always singing their praises, these kids realize their parents were "full of it" and no longer value their judgment.
What Do You Think?
How do you relate to your kids?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
© 2017 McKenna Meyers