Q: Is it really true that I should be an authority figure and not a friend to my daughter?
A: I hear this idea sometimes, too. Something along the lines of “Your child already has lots of friends; she needs you to be the parent.” I think this notion was probably cleverly expressed by someone, and it started getting passed around as gospel without any critical examination.
I can see why parents have been advised that they should be authority figures. After all, children need structure and boundaries and to be held accountable for their behavior, and an authority figure provides these types of important limits. All of this is backed up by scientific research.
But does that mean that we have to be only an authority figure? Why this forced dichotomy? Why can’t we be both?
Definitions always matter. What do you think of when you think of a friend? Predominantly, friends are people we like spending time with and have fun with. Friends are people we talk with, share our lives with, lean on when things are tough, celebrate with when things are good, etc. Hmmm. Sound like something that would be great for a parent-child relationship?
In fact, the research shows that the best outcomes for kids result from having caregivers who have high expectations and enforce limits (as an authority figure does), but who also are very warm and nurturing (as a friend would be). (I’ll be writing an article on this subject soon.)
The concern comes when parents rely on their kids to meet needs that other adults should be meeting for them. It’s clearly inappropriate for parents to depend on their child to listen to them complain about their serious financial problems or to comfort their emotional turmoil, since doing so can cause all kinds of problems for the child.
What is OK, more than OK, is to have a parent-child relationship with a strong friendship dynamic as well. Because, think about it: If you have to turn in your friend hat and put on your “authority figure” hat instead, won’t you miss out on a lot in your relationship with your daughter? And won’t she?
With my boys, I try to be both. I’m not always able to make it happen, but I hope they think I’m fun and want to spend time with me. I hope they want to tell me things, and I hope they feel like they have a friend in me—even though they know I’m also going to be a hard-nosed disciplinarian when they need me to be one.