Update: I’ve been reflecting with a friend about how this post feels more stern than I’d like. Let’s say I have personal experience, though not yet as a parent. I’m tempted to edit the piece to adjust its tone. But perhaps it would be better to just acknowledge where I was coming from, when I wrote it. I was feeling strongly.
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Reflections on the parent-child relationship, so commonly relevant for single parents, where the line between “friend” and “parent” can be more tempting to blur: What exactly is that line?
Part of the parent role is this: My child is not here to meet my emotional needs. I am here to meet his or her needs. With friends, that relationship is bi-directional. With a child, it’s uni-directional, at least until the child is largely an adult inside. (Then perhaps you get an extra reward for being a good parent — you get a good friend.)
Until then, I must stand on guard against my own tendency to use my child to satisfy my own ego needs. I should meet those needs like any other adult, with someone in my own league. Just as you don’t use a child to meet your sexual needs, you don’t use a child to meet your emotional needs. When you think about it this way, the line gets brighter.
So what else does a parent do that a friend doesn’t? You provide a container, a firm sense of right and wrong, a kind of unconditional love that also comes with clear limits and expectations.
You give the child a sense of living in a knowable world where their relationships to others, especially, are knowable, navigable, manageable. In this way, it can be less like a friendship and more like a job.
When you use a child to meet your emotional needs, suddenly their relationships to others are less knowable, navigable, and manageable. Their sense of self is not yet formed, and here you are requiring them to navigate boundaries of self-and-other that even grown adults find hard to navigate, many times.
When do I say “no”? Where do I end, and you begin? Who am I to trust? How do I know? Answering such questions is easier when your parents didn’t create conflicts of interest while you were growing up, by asking you to meet their emotional needs.
So your child is not your friend. And if you are ever tempted to think he or she is, you should probably think hard about the implications.