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Parent or pal? The downsides of being best friends with your kids

Editor's Note: This article is part of “The Ten Today,” a series that examines the Ten Commandments in modern society. This story explores the fifth commandment, “Honor thy father and thy mother.”

Arizona Gallagher would happily call her mom, Sheri Gallagher, “just to hang out.” At 18, she’s passed through different stages in their mother-daughter relationship, from “You’re the boss” to “I don’t have to listen to you” to “I’m glad you’re my mom.”

The journey has not always been easy or the roles clear, though the St. George, Utah, teen said she’s always been able in crisis to talk to her mom and her dad, Shayne Gallagher. At one point, they put her through a wilderness rehab program to head off problems that seemed likely. That was a pretty tumultuous time, though she's now grateful and considers them her friends, she said.

Arizona's take on parent-child dynamics is pretty typical for her age. Research shows that young millennials are closer than other generations to their parents. According to a comprehensive 2010 survey of young adults by the Pew Research Center, they have fewer spats with their parents and they are more likely than previous generations to live at home. Arizona does.

Just 7 percent of young adults ages 18 to 29 talk to their parents less than once a week — and more than half talk to a parent every single day, the 2013 Clark University Poll of Emerging Adults found.

That closeness sometimes blurs familial lines and may come at a price if parents struggle over whether to be parents or pals to their offspring — including the younger ones. How the fifth commandment to honor father and mother plays out in a family can largely hinge on parenting practices, experts said.

“I think friend is a role that a parent can take, but it's a bit of a trap,” said Sherlyn Pang Luedtke, parent educator and mother of two kids, 5 and 10, from West Hills, California. “You really lose authority if being a friend is the primary role you have with your kids.”

Hard to pull away

Seattle-area relationship coach Luis Congdon calls this an era where kids are treated with emotional respect and talking to kids is encouraged — not the case in earlier times.

“Along with that, men are being encouraged to be more involved, which has done wonders for parental connection,” he said.

It is also quite likely that parents and their children seem much closer “because of the real-time technological opportunities to connect with your kids,” said Shannon Battle, a licensed professional counselor in Fayetteville, North Carolina. “Working parents can talk to their children in between classes. … Parents can see daily grades and be accessible while working. Because of the community of social networking, friends may connect with your kids and keep you updated on their status.”

Teen rebellion has not changed, said Battle, who has five kids ages 8 to 19. It remains a natural part of human development during early to late adolescence. But tech innovations sometimes make it harder for children to pull away.

Julie Smith, a marriage and family therapist in Louisville, Colorado, cautions parents to be wary of false closeness, where parents and kids have only shallow interaction, however frequent. Parents and teens should be talking about serious things like what to do if someone's smoking pot at a party or a teen feels pressured to have sex. Too many settle for the illusion of parent-child intimacy. Some kids rebel in secretive ways, like creating false online accounts where they can rail about their parents and others.

“I don't think you need to monitor everything because they have to grow up and learn some things,” Smith said. “But I think parents start to learn their children's tells … to have an overall awareness of the child and who they are.”

It's good to acknowledge that you can read what's going on, she said, and that you care and are there if a child needs to talk.

Shifting sand

Relationships often play out between generations on cultural lines, Battle added. “When you're looking at traditional homes, the parenting aspect of how respect is drawn is always culturally inherent. It's really strong in some cultures and it seems that in more modernized cultures it's different.” Asian cultures, for example, place value on respecting hierarchy and taking care of one another, she said.

Culture changes over time, too. Fewer children now go into a family business or live a “because I said so” life. “Children are taught to be free thinkers and individuality is encouraged,” said Battle, who believes that inevitably changes at least the appearance of parental authority.

It was easier to be an “authority figure” when a parent was home all day and always available, she said. Most parents now work. But the authority position itself should not change. Parents must consider how to engage with their children in healthy ways that maintain some authority, which should extend into a child's adulthood, she added. “If you've never taken that role in their life and been respected as an authority figure, it's going to be hard to be that when they become adults.”

A shift from authoritarian to more indulgent parenting has come at a time when teenagers seem “less mature, responsible and emotionally intelligent than those in the past because many have not navigated through the harsh realities of post-depression, major world wars or growing up on farms,” said Julie Nelson, author of “Parenting With Spiritual Power,” and mother of five.

Families are increasingly egalitarian, giving the children a stronger voice, which Nelson deems a good thing only to the point parents hand the power to their children. Children need to learn from their parents how to work for things, to deny themselves, to have goals, she said. “This trending toward entitlement produces kids with a unique type of rebellion. We still have overt rebellion, where kids do all types of crazy stuff, like delinquency and drugs, but we also have kids who are indifferent, whose parents always rescue them, who fail to launch, who don't respect parental authority — or other authority.”

It matters, said Nelson. “I think we raise children who are ill-equipped to become mature citizens of tomorrow's world. We raise kids who think of themselves rather than others.”

Setting limits

Arizona is one of six kids, ages 16 to 23, and her parents both grew up in somewhat dysfunctional homes, so they were determined to do things differently. Because both help run the WinGate Wilderness Therapy Program in Kanab, Utah, they also see as professionals what happens when family relationships break down. Most of the families they deal with “exercise too much control or have a crazy amount of indulgence, without having enough of a relationship” said Shayne Gallagher, 46. Kids who are too indulged tend to manipulate, while kids who are over-controlled can’t wait to break away.

Parents need to parent, he said, placing the relationship with their child at the center.

Shayne Gallagher describes his parenting as “slightly lenient, but tracking them.” He wants his children to know they can talk to him if they encounter trouble and it will be OK. Sheri Gallagher, 53, believes people instinctively know right from wrong, and her rule is “don't do anything you know to be not right.” Beyond that, she's tried to free her kids to choose their paths and make small mistakes from which they can learn and grow. She thinks personal struggles are an important part of the process and that one way you honor parents is by tackling challenges.

Parenting means setting three types of limits for children: safety limits, societal or how-we-interact limits, and cultural limits, according to Luedtke, author of a best-seller, “The Mommy Advantage: How Having Kids Can Make You Happier, Healthier and Wealthier.” On the safety front, a parent teaches a child not to run in the street. Courteous interactions are an example of societal limits, she said. Culturally, it's things like “here is how we express our faith.”

“Parents need to own a place of authority that springs from love rather than a need to control,” she said. Setting limits helps children thrive, but many parents lack life skills, from organization to interpersonal communication, financial skills or personal care. If there are no role boundaries between children and their parents, children may not even realize they are supposed to honor a parent.

Natural progression

When kids are little, their parents tend to be the center of their world. Around 10 or 11, they begin to see a bigger world, said Smith. “They are taught to honor their parents, maybe, but they question more. You see more eye rolls and they don't take mom and dad's word as the only word.”

Parents sometimes view that as a lack of respect. Really, she said, children challenge a parent's view because they see it's not the only view out there. That's healthy.

“The primary job for kids is to grow up and separate from their parents — to create their own identity, said Smith. She goes through it with her kids, 11, 13 and 14. “It's not you. They're questioning everything. That's their job, to see the world through their own eyes.”

But a parent who feels a child lacks respect may lash out and trigger, in turn, a backlash. Smith said she's seen it escalate into feuds that last years.

Luedtke warns that parental rage can be addictive. “Anger physiology is powerful, though destructive.”

“The advice I give parents is you've got to check in with yourself first,” said Smith. “Is some of this feeling of not being honored because you miss them being a little child, miss all the things you used to do? You need to be very honest with yourself.”

If that's the case, she said, parents need to figure out how to “evolve” the relationship to maintain its important aspects while letting children grow and separate from parents. It's OK to be honest about it.

“Children prefer that we don't act like we know everything. It's OK to say 'I am struggling with you growing up. I miss …,’ ” Smith said.

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco