The Problem with Being Your Child’s Best Friend

We have had some seriously funny—and humbling—moments lately with our 3-year-old son. Not long ago I was giving him a bath when he leaned over the tub, put his little pointer finger in my face, and in a tone so hilarious I belly-laughed as solidly as I had in years, and proclaimed, "Don't you hit people, understand?"

Then, just last week, Christi noticed a pattern that when she called on him, he was beginning to answer in a disrespectful tone with one word—“what?!

The hilarious—and not-so-hilarious—part about this is how he's mimicking how we talk to him.

When Christi is overwhelmed and being "mommied" to death, she realized she was answering with a curt, "What?!"

And I have no idea why, but I had a habit of pointing my finger at him when he pushed or hit his little sister.

Yes, we had some humble pie over the holidays.

We genuinely want our kids to be respectful of others and treat them as they would want to be treated. But we're learning just how much we need to do the same under our own roof for these values to stick.

In other words, to raise empathetic kids, we need to confront the disrespect, but not disrespectfully.

With over 22 million Millennial parents in the U.S., and about 9,000 babies born to them each day, the influence of the Millennial generation in shaping our future society—simply by how we raise our children—is compelling.

As Millennial parents ourselves, we're encouraged that one of the qualities Millennial parents hope their kids develop is empathythe ability to understand and share the feelings of another—a character trait that requires the child to step outside of himself and be respectful.

What's concerning is the path we may be taking to raise such kids.

A study recently released by The Family Room LLC, FocusVision, and Lightspeed GMI reveals that 54 percent of Millennial parents consider their children as “one of my best friends.”

This parenting style is, generally speaking, a reaction to the overprotective and overscheduled “helicopter homes” many Millennials themselves grew up in. Rather than controlling and commanding our children’s diets, clothes, and extracurricular activities, many Millennial parents are swinging to the other end of the spectrum, making our homes look more like a democracy with equal votes for all.

As a result, this new study found that kids today see their parent more as a “buddy” than an authority figure.

So what’s the problem with being our child’s BFF?

I'm afraid we’re sincere, but sincerely wrong.

First, to not be misunderstood, the BFF parent hesitates telling the child ‘no,’ or redirecting her at all, fearing this will squelch her personality or uniqueness. So we comply with our child’s demands, even when they’re unreasonable or disrespectful. While this might result in a happier trip to the grocery store, or a stress-free weekend, we’re teaching our children that the world revolves around them—a path far from empathy.

In spite of our well-meaning desire to give them the freedom to “be themselves,”—allowing them to eat and go to bed whenever they want— without appropriate structure we’re not preparing them to function in a world of rules, expectations, and consequences.

When something bad happens to our child, the BFF Parent, not unlike the Helicopter Parent, overprotects his child from experiencing the negative emotions of life’s realities. Instead of using it as a teaching moment, the BFF Parent is quick to blame the world for the child’s problems.

If he punches another peer, it’s not his behavior that’s in question, it’s the other child’s actions and the way the teacher handled it. If she gets pregnant at 16, it’s not because mom allowed her boyfriend to begin sleeping over when she was 15, it’s because the condom broke.

The irony is that over time, many BFF parents tend to become emotionally absent, or eventually agitated with their willful kids. Inconsistency, or no rules can lead parents to “walk on eggshells” around a child who believes the world revolves around him. Or they continue to make excuses for and rescue them. Note the recent "affluenza teen" case hitting the news. (See Dr. John Townsend's tips on this issue here).

If your parenting style matches this description, I respectfully but boldly urge you to find friends your own age. You’re not doing your kids any favors. Research shows they are far more likely to grow up with feelings of entitlement, impulsivity, poor self-control and disrespect for authority. [i]

As a generation, we should not rob our children from the profit of painful moments. The more we embrace the undesirable emotions of human experience, the more we appreciate the desirable ones. To allow our children to feel—to genuinely experience the best, the worst, and every other emotion in between—is to raise children sensitive and responsive to others around them.

For children to genuinely “understand and share the feelings of another,” they need a respectful authority figure, not a friend.

To learn more about how to balance the walls of protection and exploration, check out Safe House: How Emotional Safety is the Key to Raising Kids Who Live, Love, and Lead Well.


Joshua Straub, Ph.D. is an author, speaker, and president and co-founder of the Connextion Group, a company designed to empower parents and families. Josh speaks and writes on emotionally safe parents and spouses and the influence of technology on today's family. He is the author of the newly released Safe House: How Emotional Safety is the Key to Raising Kids Who Live, Love, and Lead Well (Waterbrook Multnomah) and along with his wife, Christi, is the producer and co-author of the video curriculum The Screen-Balanced Family: Six Secrets to a More Connected Family in the 21st CenturyHe wakes up each day striving to love others better beginning with his wife, Christi, and their son, Landon, and daughter, Kennedy.

For more encouragement and ideas on marriage and parenting in the 21st century, you can join Josh and a growing tribe of awesome families at www.joshuastraub.com and follow him on Twitter @joshuastraub or Facebook.


[i] D. Baumrind, “Rearing Competent Children,” in Child Development Today and Tomorrow, ed. William Damon (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1989). Retrieved at http://social.jrank.org/pages/352/Laissez-Faire-Parents.html”>Laissez-Faire Parents.