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When Parenting Goes Awry: How Being Your Child's Buddy Can Backfire

During her years as a teacher and mother, Ms. Meyers discovered that not all praise was equal and some kinds were even deleterious to kids.

Baby boomers lavished their children with praise, rewarded them with trophies, and treated them like friends. Now, their kids are young adults who are dubbed "snowflakes" because they're delicate and can't handle life.

Baby boomers lavished their children with praise, rewarded them with trophies, and treated them like friends. Now, their kids are young adults who are dubbed "snowflakes" because they're delicate and can't handle life.

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.

Parents, struggling in their marriage, can unconsciously sabotage their children's independence. They want them to remain at home as buffers between them and their spouse.

Parents, struggling in their marriage, can unconsciously sabotage their children's independence. They want them to remain at home as buffers between them and their spouse.

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 Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, 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.

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

'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, The Narcissism Epidemic, 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.

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?

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.

© 2017 McKenna Meyers


McKenna Meyers (author) on April 29, 2020:

Eric, congratulations on successfully maneuvering two tricky situations: being a friend to your children and having a buddy-buddy boss-employee dynamic. These types of relationships often blow up in people’s faces. Over the years, I’ve heard many moms and dads wax poetic about being a pal to their youngsters. However, in my work with troubled teens and young adults, I usually hear them say something to the effect: “I already had lots of friends. What I needed was a parent.” Take care!

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on April 28, 2020:

Interesting that I caught this. I don't try to be my contemporaries buddies. I just am with a few. I don't try to be my children's good friend I just am. Bosses and workers and mom's and dads can be buddies, why not parents and children. Ego's is probably the answer. At ten my youngest 90% does what I say, because experience has taught him I keep my mouth shut if I do not know what I am talking about.

McKenna Meyers (author) on January 05, 2018:

Thanks, rocbass, for your thoughtful comments. As the daughter of an emotionally absent mother, my sister "overcorrected" for how she was parented. While I certainly understand her desire to do things differently than our mom, I think she was far too permissive with her kids and tried too hard to be their buddy. Now her kids are young adults who struggle to break away and become independent. They struggle to make friends their own age and to start dating. Not surprisingly, my sister went into overdrive to meet her kids' emotional needs and, in the process, made them rather weak, anxious, and thin-skinned—not a good combination for the real world. You sound like a wonderful mom who has a good handle on how she wants to parent after having a difficult time of it as a kid. I wish you much joy with your children.

rocbass on January 05, 2018:

I don't agree that being a child's friend is mutually exclusive from being a good parental guide or that it is equivalent to being a helicopter parent. I am a younger Millenial with three children of my own who was NOT helicopter parented. In fact, I arrived to this article by way of your writing on emotionally absent mothers and fathers because that is my background. What I see in my peers who WERE helicoptered is a profound sense of inability and anxiety, not unbridled narcissism. There is plenty of research to support this outcome as well, so I'm very surprised to see those ideas conflated in this piece. As for my own parenting, I want my children to both trust my judgement as their parent as well as see me as a safe and friendly confidante. Neither the adult that is disinterested in their child's life nor the adult that is enmeshed with their child are parenting correctly in my estimation; in fact, the bulk of parenting advice today suggests striking an authoritative balance between the two. In any case, to me, this article does not seem in line with your previous work.

McKenna Meyers (author) on December 29, 2017:

Yes, robynbase, I agree that parents need to develop their inner voice and discover what's best for them and their child. But, I still think it's important to keep abreast of what child development experts are saying. Otherwise, we tend to do what our peers are doing and that is often wrong. The American Academy of Pediatrics, for example, recommends only one hour of screen time a day for children 2-5. When I taught preschool and kindergarten, I had kids who watched 5 hours of television each day plus computer time, cell phone time, etc. This was considered normal in their community, but it was contributing to childhood obesity, poor gross motor skills, and poor reading readiness. Thanks for commenting!

robynbase on December 29, 2017:

I think what you're saying is very wise. The only major disagreement I have is that good parents "listen to advice from child development experts." We know that advice varies from one expert to the next, from one study to the next, from one decade to the next. Do we still follow Dr. Spock's advice? If parents don't develop their own sense of wisdom and maturity, and follow every new parenting trend, they will never know if what they're doing is right.