Myth Series #2: Kids Need a Parent, Not a Friend

I've been at this whole conscious/gentle parenting thing for a few years now, and I have heard just about every possible criticism of my parenting style from people who are convinced that more traditional methods are the way to go. Some of that criticism has been predictable and easy to deflect, like comments about bedtimes or educational choices. Other swipes have been harder to deal with, like spanking and forcing food choices. But of all of the comments I have received, the one that perplexes me the most is this one, Myth #2:

"You're supposed to be their parent, not their friend."

Hmm. Well, I certainly don't argue with the first part; I mean I am indeed supposed to be their parent, no doubt. But the second part? I don't know. I'm not sure why I can't be both, or at least behave as though I want to be both. In fact, I think I can be both---not because it sounds nice or seems cool and new, but because it doesn't make sense to me to approach it any other way. But this myth is so strong, so pervasive, that it is a particularly thorny one for many parents. After all, this one speaks to a base, fundamental question: What is, in fact, the role of a parent?

In a traditional parenting model, founded on the noble platform of helping your child be prepared to be successful in the real world, parenting is to a large degree about control. In that model, a parent's purpose is to control what their kids are exposed to so they can learn the right things; to keep them away from things that are bad for them so they can stay safe and maintain their trajectory; to direct their energies into productive activities; to prepare them for the real world; to teach them what they need to know and to ensure that they develop independence. After all, do you want them sitting around all day watching South Park? How will they ever grow up to be normal and successful if they're being raised abnormally?

If you view parenting through this framework, of course it is almost impossible to be a friend to your child; so many of the verbs are contrary to deep, connected relationships. But if you view the role of the parent in a different light, you can begin to see the possibilities. Let's break that model down a bit and look at it phrase-by-phrase:

"A parent's purpose is to control . . ." Stop right there; you've lost me already. A parent's whole purpose is to love, empower, explore, coach, aid, listen, learn, care about/for. Control is not part of the job description.

" . . . keep them away from things that are bad for them . . " Shouldn't a human being have a right to have a say in what's good or bad for them? Shouldn't a child be allowed to learn and explore their world so they can define it on their own terms? Doesn't most of our learning come from our own experiences, through which we establish our own sense of boundaries?

" . . . direct their energies into productive activities . . ." Okay. Whose definition of productive do we get to use - yours or your child's? For you, productive might mean lesson plans and cello lessons, while your child might think of Legos and baking brownies. Or the inverse might be true.

" . . . to prepare them for the real world . . ." Yes, and we all know how flawless a place that is, right? Why wouldn't we want to prepare them to change the world for the better if they choose, rather than how to operate in a world that was defined by others? Why not send them out into the world with a sense of all that can be accomplished by unconditional love and high self-worth, rather than a Bachelor's degree? Couldn't the world use a little change?

" . . . to teach them what they need to know . . ." You mean like we were taught about World Civilizations and Trigonometry, even though they may not have had any relevance for what we wanted to do or were passionate about? Hell, I have an MBA and don't know the first thing about that stuff, because it's not important to me to know it. And when I did need to know it to pass the GMAT because I wanted to go to B-school, you know what I did - I learned it. No one alive today can tell us what knowledge our kids will need 20 years from now. But I have a sneaking suspicion that "skills" like reciting Byron and writing geometry proofs will not be among them.

" . . . to ensure they develop independence." How do you ensure someone develops independence? By teaching it to them? By controlling what they do so they learn how to be independent? How does that work exactly? Or should they be allowed to see it modeled and experience it themselves?

"Do you want them sitting around all day watching South Park?" Frankly, no; I much prefer Family Guy. For that matter, South Park isn't even on "all day." But it's not my choice, it's theirs; and I'll watch with them so we can talk about it, and celebrate it as a way to connect with my children.

These are powerful words and actions---love, empower, explore, coach, aid, listen, learn, care about/for, enable, encourage, provide opportunity, open to outcome, committed to the child's self-determination. With some changes and adaptations in thinking, these could easily reflect the role of the parent; I know many, many families in which this is true.

But while these words could reflect the role of the parent, they already do reflect the role of a friend. Think about it; don't we all want friends who will love us, enable us, listen to us and learn with us? Of course we do. We identify with any person - regardless of their title or role in our lives - who can consistently and unconditionally provide us with these things.

Obviously, there are plenty of things that a parent does that a friend does not do, and the responsibility of a parent to their children lasts a lifetime while friends, even best friends, can be fleeting. I know there are, and should be, differences between the two.

But I am not suggesting that a parent has to chose to be either a parent or a friend; I am saying that a parent can choose to be a parent and a friend. Kids need both, especially today. You're the one who knows them best, who understands their needs best, who understands their dreams.

Kids need a parent and a friend, and I bet yours would blossom if you were both.


  1. Bravo! Woohoo! Hurrah! Love this one. :)

  2. I'm so happy that OCtober is featuring a series by you!

  3. Thanks again for yet another fabulous read!

  4. You make some great points. But I think that the model of "parent" role that you are critiquing is a very limited one. There are a lot of people who might say you should be a "parent" and not a "friend," but who do not define parent this way. I think you have set up a straw man to argue against. Many people who see themselves as a "parent" but not a "friend" might define parents as one who nurtures, listens, encourages, assists,protects, and cherishes the child while supporting the child's exploration of their own values and goals. That's what I think a parent should aspire to. Not everyone outside the un-schooling community values control and conformity above everything else, but sometimes the un-schooling gang can't see this.

  5. I agree with much of what you're saying, Anne. Certainly, no single parent is all one thing or all another, as the job of parenting (regardless of philosophy) is challenging and constantly morphs depending on hundreds of different factors. I am usually pretty careful to avoid saying "you're wrong of you do this", instead trying to focus on expanding thinking about traditional methods to hopefully enhance relationships; after all, as I have mentioned many times before there are thousands of different variables that make one family different from another, making it impossible to judge right and wrong in most cases (as if we had a right to judge it anyway.) I believe that we can learn and grow together without believing that we have to do everything a certain way.

    In this piece, I did set up a profile to argue against. That said, it is a profile that I once had myself, and that is exhibited hundreds of parents just within my circle of friends and acquaintances - so I would estimate that is is fairly pervasive and thus worthy of being argued against.

    Thanks for reading -


  6. We successfully raised our children without violence (spanking, hurting or yelling) and they are now successful, kind and wise adults.

    We live in a culture of violence that can and will be broken.

    Keep up the great parenting.

  7. Absolutely love this post. I've always wondered why people say they don't want to be a friend to their kids. And then they're surprised when the kids "rebel" in the teenage years, but what do you expect after years of demonstrating how much control you have over them instead of partnering with them?

  8. Interesting series! Are you still looking for myths? I've always wondered about the one where "kids want limits/feel uncomfortable or upset without limits". My always unschooled little ones sure don't care for limits (as far as I can tell) and I am really curious why or how people can even hold this opinion.

  9. Have not visited your site in quite awhile now but so glad I took the time today to "catch up!" Loving the Myth series, you have always been one of my favorite bloggers in the realm of unschooling! YOU ROCK with your thought provoking, inspiring posts!

  10. I'm loving this series, please keep 'em coming!!!

  11. Love it as well. Thank you. As a parent to little ones (3 and 1!), I enjoy these posts for their wisdom and guidance that I can take with me on my parenting and in the future. Thank you.

  12. Wonderful, as usual, My just-turned-eighteen-year-old asked me yesterday if it was okay that we are so close, because she hears so much about how a teen girl is supposed to shun her mother. Of course, she knows the answer to her question, but the fact that society makes her doubt our friendship is truly sad.