Like coloring books or meals composed entirely of vegetables, befriending one’s parents is something that, by early adulthood, seems to take on a new sheen of coolness. If you’re a millennial on any form of social media, you’ve probably seen the evidence: heartfelt posts popping up on birthdays, anniversaries, Mother’s and Father’s Days, declaring that the poster’s parents aren’t just the best parents, but also their best friends. We’re a generation raised on Gilmore Girls, and it shows.
I can’t say I’m particularly pleased about this development. I was kind of a weird, shy kid growing up, one who often preferred family time at home to socializing out in the wild. It stuck even after the awkwardness faded — when I turned 21, my mom and I went to Vegas together to celebrate. And now, like a dedicated hipster whose favorite band has suddenly gone mainstream, I can’t help but feel a little bit like everyone’s stepping on my turf — like a special thing I used to have is now less so, because everyone else has it, too.
Yes, I know this is irrational. But then again, so is the idea of parent-child friendship in the first place. Ideally, a friendship is a reciprocal relationship, each person both leaning on and propping up the other. And a parent-child relationship, ideally, is not that. It’s something much more hierarchical, with more defined ideas about appropriate levels of closeness and distance. It’s a relationship where the best possible outcome is for one party to grow away from the other.
And yet my peers and I bestow declarations of friendship on our parents like a badge of honor — like their love has been amplified and elevated by the fact that they can give it while also being our pals. Psychologists say those two labels — parent, friend — are best kept separate if a kid wants any shot at growing into an emotionally healthy adult. Are we deluding ourselves?
According to family historian Stephanie Coontz, the idea that parents and kids would even want to be friends is a relatively new idea, one that emerged along with “more democratic child-rearing practices” in the mid-20th century.
“Parents today really want their kids to be individuals — they try and shape their values and decision-making skills, but they back off from the idea that they know better what these kids should be, should do, should think,” says Coontz, the director of research and education for the Council on Contemporary Families. “And that’s a tremendous change from most of history, when parents really did think … their kids would be safest if they obeyed them or followed in their footsteps, or at least followed their instructions for how to do better.”
In the Venn diagram between friendship and parent-child relationships, there is some overlap. Psychological research on parenting and research on friendship often focuses on the same elements, says Ken Rubin, a professor of human development at the University of Maryland. “The constructs that get studied are things like instrumental aid, helping each other to solve problems; intimacy; nurturance; affection; enhancing worth, or making the other person feel better; and being a reliable companion,” he says. “Those are the social-support pieces that cross lines” from one type of relationship to another.
And there are times, Rubin adds, when a parent can be a kid’s sole or most important source of social support — particularly during adolescence, when friendships can be particularly volatile. “If you have a patient, caring, supportive parent, and things happen with your best friend, you can always turn back to your parent for support,” Rubin says. We’re social creatures; if we can’t fulfill those needs in homeroom, a lucky kid will have someone back at home to step in. “So when people say, ‘My mom is my best friend,’ that could be entirely correct” — often by default, and sometimes out of necessity, but correct nonetheless.
But social support, possibly the central component of a healthy friendship, is just one part of the job for parents, who also have to devote their energy to shaping a human into a functional adult — meaning that affection and intimacy are often bound up in other things, like rules and boundaries.
“I think there are elements of friendship. Parent-child relationships can be warm, accepting, responsive, trusting,” agrees Judith Smetana, a psychology professor at the University of Rochester who studies child development. “But at some point, the buck stops with the parents,” she says. “Making sure your child stays safe and out of trouble — sometimes that means pulling rank, saying something’s not acceptable, in a way a friend probably wouldn’t or couldn’t do.”
It also means drawing lines around what gets discussed, though the boundaries aren’t necessarily mutual. There are some things a kid may elect to share with a parent, Smetana says, that are rarely appropriate the other way around — money issues, for example, or details about their romantic or sex lives. When parents ignore that one-sidedness and unload too much on their children, it can result in what’s known as enmeshment — where parent and child are so unhealthily close that the boundaries between them blur, making it difficult for the kid to develop into their own independent person.
The opposite of enmeshment may be what’s known as authoritative parenting — parents who are nurturing, who respond to their kids’ emotional needs, but also provide structure and consistency in their lives. It’s a parenting style that researchers often hold up as the best way to raise well-adjusted, securely attached kids. It’s also a top-down style that precludes buddy-style reciprocity.
Authoritative parenting sits somewhere between authoritarian parenting (all of the structure, none of the warmth) on one end of the spectrum, and permissive parenting (all of the warmth, none of the structure) on the other. And when parents are bent on befriending their kids, they often slip toward permissive, says Phil Cowan, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies family dynamics together with his wife, Berkeley psychologist Carolyn Cowan. The reality is less Lorelai Gilmore — somehow both tough-loving and judgment-free, dispensing advice that’s simultaneously maternal-wise and gal-pal-sassy — and more like Amy Poehler’s booze-pushing, Juicy-sweatsuit-bedecked “cool mom” of Mean Girls.
“Some of what we’re saying is based on what the field of child development has shown that kids need. Parents often have different needs of their own,” Carolyn tells me. “And sometimes the parents’ behavior is dictated more on those inner needs — to be loved, to be accepted, to be respected.”
“[When] the parent says ‘I want to be best friends with my kid, what they really mean is, ‘I want the kid to like me,’” Phil adds. “And the best way of getting the kid to like them, they think, is to be warm and supportive and just a peer” — all of the fuzzier elements of authoritative parenting, but none of the tougher ones. But “kids are ultimately going to be warmer and more respectful if the parent is a parent.”
Then the Cowans turn it around on me: What did I think about parents and kids being friends?
I try the gentle, complimentary shrug-off: “I don’t really know,” I say. “That’s why you guys have been so helpful.”
Carolyn isn’t having it. She had an inkling that “you have the idea that it’s possible or maybe even desirable,” she tells me. “So what were you picturing?”
I try again. “Well, I’ve heard a lot of friends say it …”
This, I think, is when she starts to feel bad, like she’s unwittingly stomped all over a dearly held myth: Santa isn’t real, and also your mom is not your pal. “I think we’re just saying, or suggesting, that it’s not quite friendship in the usual sense, but you sure hope it’s friendly and warm,” she says, especially as kids move into adulthood. “We all hope for that on both sides, I think.”
“That’s how I would interpret what those friends are saying: ‘I have a warm, affectionate relationship with my parents,’” Phil agrees.
Parent-child friendship, then — true friendship, like the kind you’d have with people who didn’t raise you — may be something of an illusion. On the other hand, the content of the relationship matters more than the label; if labeling it a friendship helps keep it friendly and warm, then screw it, call it a friendship. Call it whatever it is that makes you feel it’s something worth preserving. It’s the rare lie that can actually strengthen the bond between parents and their kids, whatever that bond may be.