• Being a parent can and should include friendship, but not as peers.
  • Parent-child friendship is different than peer friendships but just as important.
  • Play and conversation are the building blocks of friendship between parent and child.
Source: fizkes/Shutterstock

“Don’t be their friend, be their parent.” That's Parenting 101, right? It rings true. And as a kid who first tried pot when I was 12 because a friend’s parent supplied it, I understand the intent of the saying. I experienced a parent trying to be a peer, and I agree that such an interaction isn’t safe or healthy parenting.

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At the same time, while it’s true that parents shouldn’t provide alcohol or drugs to their children, is that the only way to be a friend?

And while it’s also true that parents need to set developmentally appropriate boundaries and guidelines for children—to keep them safe and to support physical and mental development—is that all there is to being a parent?


This “common sense” parent guidance means well but falls flat, creating an all-or-none story. It emphasizes only boundaries, implying that friendly connections can’t co-exist with parenting. We know parents need to be the adult in the parental relationship, not a peer. But does being a grown-up parent mean we have to jettison friendships with our children?


Parenting roles evolve from the full control and safekeeping of an infant to the delicate dance between independence and guidance in adolescence. Ultimately, our children become adults, and if we are lucky, we will have lifelong friendships with them. But if we only define ourselves as a rule-setting parent throughout childhood, it can be a heavy lift to transition into adult friendship and connection with our kids.

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How can we be the adult in the relationship and be a friend? By keeping in mind two fundamental elements of friendship: good times (play) and good conversation (being heard).

Play is part of a parent-child friendship

Play is a key element of friendship with children. With babies and very young children, we intuitively play with them, engaging in back-and-forth activities like peekaboo and tower building. They often start the game, and we join in. They pull us into play, and we love it (although peekaboo with the child in the seat in front of us on a plane can get old). In the language of experts who research children from birth to 3 years old, we express delight in these interactions.


But delight often hits a snag when our child learns how to say "no.” From this point onward—into adolescence—we focus on getting a child to behave. We are told, in many ways and from many sources, to be the parent, not the friend. It’s parenting dogma, not specifically defined, but often translated into “because I said so.”

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While we as parents must help children learn to meet adult demands, when we limit our parenting focus to “command and control” we can crowd out “delight.” Highlighting our role as taskmasters limits our parenting tools. If we can leave time and space for child-driven play and activities—without adult demands or expectations—we can return to delight. These friendly interactions expand our relationship with our child and help our child learn self-regulation and communication skills. It’s not the same as peer friendship, but we are being a friend.

Friendly play with our children can range from tea parties to fort building, from Legos to playground chases. The key is following your child’s lead. As they get older and they are deep into other things, friendly play might include asking your child to teach you how to play their favorite video game or to share their favorite YouTube or TikTok channel. You don’t have to love those activities, and your child won’t want you to be their primary friend in these spaces, but being curious and kind about their interests, and sharing delight in their spaces, is a way to be a friend and a parent. You will be an uncool friend who will never fully get it, but you will be a friend.


Kids won’t always want you to play with them, and especially as they get older, they will set more limits on it. But if you make a habit of friendly play with your child, that space will always be there between you, and it will vastly expand your parenting toolbox.

Source: MMD Creative/Shutterstock
Source: MMD Creative/Shutterstock

Conversation grows parent-child friendship bonds

Beyond play, the other foundational component of parent friendship is conversation. Once again, this looks different from infancy to adolescence but it’s always essential. With babies, we listen to their babble and we respond with delight, talking to them and engaging in a back-and-forth that builds language and emotional bonds. As kids get older, conversation with them doesn’t always feel delightful, but it can be a powerful tool for developing parent-child friendship bonds.

With older kids and teens, conversation starts with respecting their boundaries when they don’t want to talk. Being quiet and not saying anything are undervalued parenting tools. Instead, we can keep our ears open for informal chatter and then listen with intention and presence. And it’s usually best if we don’t offer advice unless asked for it. Being curious and compassionate and listening deeply to their stories and worries builds emotional bonds, maintains communication, and engenders trust. Sounds like friendship to me.

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Maintaining a friendly, non-judgmental, non-reactive stance in conversation with your kids can provide you with a world of trust and engagement. We don’t have to take every conversation as an opportunity to teach or lecture or guide. Just like child-directed play, child-directed conversation is a type of friendly connection that enriches parent and child alike.


These conversations differ from our adult-to-adult interactions. We don’t share developmentally inappropriate content. We aren’t dishing our colleagues or family members. But it’s a type of friendship, and it’s golden. Kids don’t want us to be their peers; they have their own friend groups. But keeping components of friendship in parenting isn’t bad; in fact, I think it’s amazing.


In my experience as a child, a parent, and a child psychiatrist, I firmly believe that we can treat children with affection and esteem, as companions; we don’t have to exclude those types of connections. We can be more than command-and-control; we can be their friend.