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David Baxter PhD

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Parents want to be teens' pals
October 12, 2004
By Nanci Hellmich, USA TODAY

Many parents would like to be best friends with their teenagers and young adult children, and they'd give their kids everything they want if they could, a new survey reveals.
This doesn't surprise several national family experts, who say these findings are a sign of our times.

Researchers with Synovate, a market research firm, surveyed 1,000 parents with kids ages 12 to 30 who are living at home and 500 children within that age range from other families. The findings:
  • • 43% of parents say they want to be their child's best friend.
    • 40% would buy their children everything they wanted if they could.
    • 73% say the last purchase they made for their kids was something they guessed their teen or young adult would want rather than something he or she asked for. [/list:u] The results have both positive and negative connotations, says Ian Pierpoint, a senior vice president for the company. Some parents felt their own parents didn't understand them, and they see a best friend as someone who is fun to be around, listens and is non-judgmental, he says.

    But unlike a traditional parent, a best-friend parent "doesn't give you rules and tell you what to do," Pierpoint says.

    He spent time with 45 families and says some of the parents didn't insist that their teens do such tasks as homework or household chores.

    "One mother wouldn't make her child do homework because it would make him unhappy. This is the extreme side of best-friend parenting," Pierpoint says. "The majority of best-friend parents are just not setting guidelines and rules."

    The findings indicate that children don't have to pester their parents much to persuade them to buy them things. Pester power is being replaced by "guess-ter" power, he says.

    Experts have different views on this parenting style. Psychologist Frank Farley of Temple University in Philadelphia says being a best friend to your child doesn't necessarily mean you've abdicated your parental role; it just means you've changed it and are talking and reasoning things through instead of simply laying down the law.

    "A parental best friend is going to be a shoulder to cry on," he says. "It's a best friend who is wise, reasonable, understanding and knowledgeable."

    Farley has done research that shows kids in this age range often consider their parents their No. 1 hero. This survey makes it look as if this "family bonding is a two-way street," says Farley, former president of the American Psychological Association.

    Others aren't convinced this style is the way to go. Though being a friend and someone teens and young adults can look up to is good, being a best friend is being too enmeshed in their lives, says Carol Freeman, a school psychologist and author of A Parent's Guide to Surviving High School. "Part of parenting is letting go."

    Sampson Lee Blair, associate professor of sociology at the State University of New York-Buffalo, says that years ago parents saw their children as financial assets who were needed to help run the farm, but parents today view their kids as "emotional assets, the objects of their love and affection."

    Many parents are working long days, so they want "quality time" with their children to be friendly and non-confrontational, he says.

    Some parents even share their personal and work-related problems with their children because they don't live near their own parents, siblings or other relatives. This isn't always appropriate because the child may be too young to hear these details, Blair says.

    He believes many parents would like to get their children everything they want in order to "buy their affection," but "trying to play to every little whim or desire will create problems for the child later in life."

    If children have every need and desire met, they are going to have a letdown in adulthood, he says.

    The Synovate findings show that kids today aren't necessarily going to follow in their parents' footsteps when it comes to parenting, Pierpoint says.

    Only 28% of the teens and young adults say they intend to be a best friend to their children. Only 10% of teens say they intend to buy their kids everything.

    Some of the twentysomethings he interviewed had never paid their own bills or bought their own personal items like deodorant or toothpaste. One young man didn't know how to make coffee.

    "We call them 'adult-escents.' They are 25 years old but have the life skills of a teenager," Pierpoint says.

    Many parents are creating a home where the adult children want to stay, he says. "No bills. No rent. Very little in the way of chores. And the parents fill the house with things like PlayStations, pool tables ... "

    Still, Pierpoint reports talking to one 22-year-old man who said: "There's no way I'm going to be like my mom. My mom does everything for me. She's made me lazy. There is no way the kids are going to rule my house. I'm going to be a bad-ass parent."
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