Should You Be Your Child's Friend or Parent? How Moms and Dads Cripple Their Kids When Turning Them Into Buddies

Updated on April 7, 2018
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Ms. Meyers is a credentialed teacher with a master's degree in special education. She spent many years teaching preschool and kindergarten.

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

When Parents Were Parents and Kids Were Kids

When I was a kid growing up in the 1970's, my parents and those of my classmates never considered being their child's friend as many moms and dads do nowadays. That would be an absurd notion to them—an abdication of their role as heads of the household, moral leaders, and strict disciplinarians. They 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 from large families where the kids got assigned household chores and 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, have times changed!

Baby Boomers Wanted to Be Friends With Their Kids, Not Authority Figures

When we became adults and parents, many of us from traditional homes veered away from the rigid family structure of our childhood. We wanted a different dynamic with our own kids—closer, less formal, and more relaxed. Some baby boomers like my sister and her husband chose a radical approach to parenting by becoming buddies with their kids, not authority figures. My sister's three kids were given a lot of autonomy and little structure with no set bed times, no chores, but endless extracurricular activities of their choosing. Today, we now see the results of this unique experiment as many young adults (often called “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, Not Be Their Buddies

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. In many conversations with my niece and nephew, I was surprised how 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 and experienced leaders, not buddies.

Kids Crave Structure Because It Makes Them Feel Safe, Secure, and Loved

As I started my journey as a new mom (and 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 a friend 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 moms and dads should be parents and not friends:

Moms and dads who act like a friend to their children don't prepare them to leave the nest.
Moms and dads who act like a friend to their children don't prepare them to leave the nest. | Source

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 youngster.

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 and imaginative play. They believe the lack of downtime can lead to depression, anxiety, fatigue, irritability and less creative energy.

When kids have unstructured play time with friends, they're happier, better adjusted, and more creative.
When kids have unstructured play time with friends, they're happier, better adjusted, and more creative. | Source

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.

I Highly Recommend This Book for New Moms and Dads or Those Who Feel Stressed Out and Overwhelmed

How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success
How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success

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, 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."

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


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        7 months ago

        The moment you become your child friend, automatically, you both are mate. this may sound ridiculous to the premature in mind, who are under the delusion of the illusion that their child can be their friend. being nice and caring to your child does not entail friendship , but a role of a mother. you cannot order around your friend and this is application to that your child when made your friend. finally, playing the role of a parent does not make you friend with your child, but a good mother and father.

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        15 months ago

        This is the worst blog peice of crock ive ever read mainly because this is opinions not facts. You could be someone who comes from the “strict” your parent only relationship and you can have all the same problems listed. Or you can come from a friendly parent and become highly sucessful with an independent mind set and friends. Flip of the coin.

      • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

        McKenna Meyers 

        19 months ago from Bend, OR

        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.

      • profile image


        19 months ago

        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.

      • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

        McKenna Meyers 

        19 months ago from Bend, OR

        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!

      • profile image


        19 months ago

        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.


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