A Reasonable Question and a Good Answer Regarding Parenthood

A colleague picked up his son at kindergarten. He watched him wave goodbye to some of the other children and said “You are making friends!”

“Yes” said his son happily. He then went quiet for 30 seconds, seemingly lost in thought.

He then asked “Are you my friend, Daddy?”.

A parent could answer this question in many ways, but my favorite comes from the book Beating the Odds, a study of highly academically successful young black men.

Whenever he had to discipline or set limits for his son, the father of one of the remarkable young men in the book would explain his role to his child as follows:

“I am your father first, and your friend second. Some day I will be your friend first and your father second. I will let you know when that day has come.”

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

10 thoughts on “A Reasonable Question and a Good Answer Regarding Parenthood”

  1. that’s not a bad answer for other contexts. i teach 6th grade–mostly 11-12 year-olds. frequently my kids ask “are you my friend?” and i always answer “no, i am not your friend i am your teacher. it is possible that someday we could be friends but not while i’m teaching you.”

    some of them are disappointed by that answer but most of them understand it.

  2. This anecdote sounds strange to me. Had the kid been raised entirely at home before kindergarten? In our neck of the woods those kinds of conversations seem to take place around 3-4 rather than 5 and up.

    A lot depends here on what the child is using the word “friend” to mean — in a world of simple dichotomies, the alternative to “friend” is “stranger” or “enemy”, in which case it may be more useful to work with the idea of different classes of friend.

  3. for a 5 year old, the answer can be “Yes” or “I’m more than your friend – I’m your dad, and dads are for life.”

  4. Not to switch genders on you, but an entire children’s literature meme has been built around the alternative question, “Are you my Mother?”

  5. I’m told there’s an old Arab proverb (sexist, directed at dads): “when your son is a man, make of him a friend.” Whether that’s really an Arab proverb or made up, it’s a fine sentiment and one that should apply to both sexes (or all sexes, if we’re counting less usual identities).

    The previous comments stress what kids should hear from their parents, but I think the second part of your statement is just as important. Parents need to realize that once our kids reach adulthood we’ll need to accomplish the wrenching shift of treating them as something like equals. If we don’t, we’ll ensure that our kids are superficially “respectful of their elders” but in practice strangers to us, as beings who keep trying to dominate them without warrant.

  6. It’s better when other people recognize the relationship: he’s not only his dad, they are friends, too.

    But you can’t be a dad and a buddy to a minor child. That’s inappropriate — not quite on the order of playing Heloise and Abelard, but inappropriate.

    1. “But you can’t be a dad and a buddy to a minor child. That’s inappropriate”

      Why, precisely?

      And what in the name of Mitt Romney’s quarter-horse does the sexual relationship between Abelard and Heloise have to do with this? No-one here is suggesting that friendship has to mean sex, unless I am missing some very well-hidden sub-texts.

      I have to say that if my (hypothetical) son were to ask whether I was his friend, I would damn well say yes, rather than engaging in a bout of self-referential semantics that fail to answer what the child is really asking. Do we have to sign some sort of mutual definition pact with a kindergartner who just wants to be reassured that his parents love him?

      1. Easy one first: Heloise was Abelard’s student before she was his lover. Both of them extended the relationship beyond what it should have been at the time. At another point in their lives, the relationship might not be inappropriate. Obviously in the context of the time and place, their relationship would never be appropriate.

        A buddy is an especially close friend — someone to learn with, as opposed to someone to learn from. For a minor child (and especially in the age group under discussion here) a father is first a teacher, someone to learn from. This is not to say that we do not learn from our children: far from it. But the lessons we learn are not the things our children are learning.

  7. The toughest thing you can do with an adult child is to make the child your friend. You are telling the child: “There are no grownups who have the answers, so you can’t rely on me to be one.” It’s an absolutely necessary lesson, but a harsh one. I sometimes have to deal with extended family problems, which used to be the job of my mother and uncle, before they died. I often wish that I could hold a seance, so they could tell me what to do. But I know that even if I could, they couldn’t.

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