Be a parent, not a friend? Michelle Obama believes so but some people have an issue with this.
Should you be friends with your children? This article takes a look at both sides of the debate. Here’s how we break it down.
Be A Parent, Not A Friend: Michelle Obama’s Philosophy On Parenting
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There seems to be backlash from some members of the public who are taking aim at Michelle Obama’s stance that she’s not her children’s friend, she’s their parent.
Michelle Obama talked about her experiences of parenting in a recent sit down with Angie Martinez, Winnie Harlow, Mrs. Tina Knowles-Lawson, Kelly Rowland and Gabriella Wilson (H.E.R.) on the Revolt x Michelle event aired on the Revolt YouTube channel on 15 December 2022.
Sitting down with a group of dynamic Black women from different age groups, Mrs. Obama discussed various topics linked to the themes in her new book, The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times.
On the topic of parenting, Mrs. Obama shared that she struggled with being protective of her daughters while giving them space to grow and develop as independent adults.
She said that she used her mother’s parenting philosophy to guide her parenting approach to her children. Mrs. Obama described her mother’s parenting philosophy as “common-sense parenting”. She told the group that her mother would often say that “she wasn’t raising children; she was raising adults”.
For Mrs. Obama, common-sense parenting is making sure that your children can survive in the world without you, letting them make mistakes, and making them realise before they’re 30 years that the world isn’t fair.
Parenting for Mrs. Obama is making tough decisions that her children didn’t like or appreciated which she took in stride because she wasn’t trying to be their friend.
Mrs. Obama expressed no desire to be friends with her children because her main job is parenting.
When asked by Kelly Rowland, “isn’t there a part of you that wants to be a trusted friend too or do you just put yourself in the parent box?”
Mrs. Obama responded, “no, once you decide you want your child to be your friend now you’re worried about them liking you…there’s so much of parenting that has nothing to do with them liking you. So much of what you’re gonna have to teach them is counter to what they want.”
She continued, “with a friend you want them happy all the time. Your kids have to learn how to live in their unhappiness. They have to learn how to live with unfairness, and they have to learn it in their house. Their first bout of unfairness can’t be at school, you know, or when they’re 30.”
Mrs. Obama’s perspective is that parents who are friends with their children are more concerned with their children liking them. Rather, parents should be concerned with providing the guidance, structure and tools their children will need for the real world.
Being friends with your children in Mrs. Obama’s view would be a real disservice to them because you’re not giving them the tools to survive in the world without you.
Be a Parent, Not a Friend: A Generational Divide?
Although Mrs. Obama made her point clear that she wasn’t her children’s “little friend” because there is a parent-child relationship that involves guidance, structure and authority on the part of the parent, some people seem to take issue with this approach.
Some Twitter users have expressed their discontent with Mrs. Obama’s parenting philosophy to be a parent, not a friend.
One Twitter user wrote a long thread chiding Mrs. Obama’s philosophy and suggested that the alternative is not to have children if you’re not going to be their friend. They wrote, “Black people, you can absolutely be your child’s friend and parent. If you can’t figure that balance and understand why it’s necessary, maybe don’t have kids”.
The thread continued with a criticism of the authoritarian style of parenting that many Black parents often adopt, “a Black child’s first and best friends should be at home. I’ve worked with too many young people over the years who can’t tell their parents anything because that relationship is strictly “do what I say or else”.”
Without any cited data or research, the Twitter user linked Black parents not being friends with their children to “Black children being overrepresented in unaccompanied homeless youth [population] and Black youth suicide”, this was before admitting to not being a parent.
Others agreed with this sentiment, and one person responded, “I couldn’t come to her [my mom] about anything but she truly believed I could. And she would always hit me with the “I’m the parent, you’re the child” even when she knew she was DEAD wrong.”
Another person commented, “Thank You! I love [the] First Lady lord knows I do BUT I cringed when she said that…fortunately, I got parents that [were]not so strict, gave me room to make mistakes, let me know they were my friend and showed me how to navigate through life and identify real relationships.”
However, many in the thread sided with Mrs. Obama. One person commented, “Nope. We can be friends later when they are grown. For now, I’m the parent and my job is to guide them best as I can to independent adulthood. There’s going to be plenty of things to say and demand [o]f them they won’t like. They’ll be mad at me sometimes. That’s ok.”
Another Twitter user commented, “I hear your frustration and I’ve been in the space of empowering parent advocates for 30+ years. I raised a Black child in a world that delights in demonizing & marginalizing Black parents. There are ginormous issues [with] how you frame this swing at BP & spitting Don’t Have Kids”.
Could this be an issue that’s drawn along the generational line? Or is it a misunderstanding of the concept of friendship?
Parents as Friends: What Do the Experts Say?
The prevailing guideline from experts is that parents should not be friends with their children. However, this is not as clear-cut as you would think.
While researchers and psychologists believe that there need to be boundaries and structures in the parent-child relationship, this does not mean that parents should not have a warm, close and even friendly relationship with their children.
Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Kai Morgan, breaks it down like this. She says, a parent has to be both a friend and a parent because there are elements of a friendship that are important in a relationship with your child, especially, as they get older.
These elements are supportive, sharing and guiding aspects of a friendship which Dr. Morgan believes should be inherent in being a parent.
From this perspective, parents should have a close bond with their children that will let their children know that they are supported and they can share things with them.
This is a type of secure attachment which is the foundation for strong relationships. The benefits of this are a healthy, open and close relationship between the parent and the child.
However, she notes that the parent-child relationship is unlike a friendship and needs boundaries.
Firstly, the parent-child relationship is not a friendship because the parent and the child are not equals in the relationship. The parent is an authority figure or at least should be. The parent is the one who provides the structure and is oftentimes responsible for disciplining the child.
Secondly, friendships are usually reciprocal with the parties sharing, supporting and guiding each other. While children should feel confident to share things and even sensitive information with their parents, this is not the case for the parents.
In the parent-child relationship, Dr. Morgan says that reciprocity needs to be carefully monitored and parents need to be careful of the things that they share with their children.
For example, Dr. Morgan warns parents against sharing certain information such as their relationship problems and other sensitive information with their children.
Without strong boundaries, parents being friends with their children risk blurring the lines in the parent-child relationship which could have implications for discipline, child welfare and mental well-being.
Research has shown that children whose parents treated them as confidants by sharing sensitive information with them were more likely to be psychologically distressed.
In fact, parents sharing sensitive information with their children did not increase closeness in the parent-child relationship. It produced the opposite effect as children were more likely to worry about their parents.
The research supports Dr. Morgan’s advice about the risks of friendship in the parent-child relationship and the undue burden it can place on the child if boundaries and structures don’t exist.
Despite this, Dr. Morgan thinks that the dynamic of the relationship can change as children become older. In this scenario, the role of the parent becomes less about managing and disciplining children and more about advising and supporting them. This, in her view, can be a friendship of sorts between parents and children.
Wrapping it Up
“Be a parent, not a friend” is a parenting philosophy that is shared by the former First Lady of the USA, Michelle Obama, and many others including researchers and psychologists. However, to be a parent, not a friend, is not that simple and clear-cut.
There are elements of friendship that can be nurtured and beneficial in the parent-child relationship.
However, there need to be boundaries, and parents need to recognise that the relationship is not equal as they are the authority figure that plays the role of the disciplinarian.
Additionally, parents risk putting undue burden on their children if they don’t monitor what they share with them, which could cause their children psychological distress.
Friendship in the parent-child relationship is very nuanced. While many have taken issue with Mrs. Obama’s seemingly old-school type of Black parenting, many have supported her in recognising that parenting is a hard job and there are no prescriptions. Many parents are doing the best that they can do.
Dr. Kai Morgan is a registered clinical psychologist in Jamaica. She worked as a Clinical Psychologist at the University of the West Indies as a lecturer and at the University Hospital of the West Indies for 15 years as a consultant in the Department of Community Health & Psychiatry. In 2016, she started a private practice and consultancy work.
She is currently the Co-Chair of the Professional Practice & Standards Committee of the Caribbean Alliance of National Psychological Associations (CANPA), sits on the Executive Board of the Lister Mair/Gilby School for the Deaf, and is a member of the American Psychological Association’s Global.