Bowling Green mom Shelly Woodward-Booher became best friends with her daughter, Ashley Bielinski, after she and Ashley's father divorced. They even talked about their close relationship on Oprah in April, 1999.
The topic of the show: The biggest mistakes parents make.
“You're supposed to be friendly with your kids. Not friends,” Mrs. Woodward-Booher, 37, says with the clarity of hindsight. Today, she has re-established herself as the parent, losing her “best friend” but regaining her daughter.
And Ashley, now 17, is no longer what she calls “the second mom” - helping to care for her younger siblings and propping up her mother emotionally. “Basically, she has her life and I have my life,” Ashley says.
Mrs. Woodward-Booher isn't afraid to say no to her daughter anymore. Ashley isn't about to tell her mother everything.
“In a healthy family, somebody is always in charge,” write psychologists John C. Friel and Linda D. Friel in their book, The 7 Worst Things Parents Do (Health Communications, Inc., 1999), on which the 1999 Oprah show was based. “When the boundary begins to dissolve, the result is emotional chaos,” they add.
(For the record, the authors' seven parental “worst things” are to baby your child, put your marriage last, push your child into too many activities, ignore your emotional or spiritual life, be your child's best friend, fail to give your child structure, and expect your child to fulfill your dreams.)
The “best friend” approach to parenting puts pressure on the child to be a confidante and leaves the youngster without any sense of limits, explains Dean Sparks, executive director of Lucas County Children Services. “We learn right and wrong from parents, and the parent-friend is oftentimes not able to communicate appropriate boundaries,” he says.
Mr. Sparks stresses that “You can have fun with your kids and still be a parent. You're supposed to be having fun with them. It's only problematic if you have the roles set so you can't be a parent.”
The parent-friend is really trying to meet needs in his or her own life, he continues. “Sometimes you're just lonely.”
So it was for Mrs. Woodward-Booher after her divorce in 1993. Ashley was 8 at the time.
“I felt this emptiness that I needed someone, and because I was so desperate to find someone I would just go out and start attaching myself to whomever, immediately,” she says. Over and over, her heart was broken by men who weren't as eager for a serious relationship as she was.
“I'd come home crying on poor Ashley's shoulder,” Mrs. Woodward-Booher remembers. “I put her in a bad position, and I did that for years.”
The two guess that it went on until Ashley was 14 or 15. “Too long,” Ashley says.
“A lot of times I was really mad at her because she'd leave me at home with [her little sisters, Kayla and Marisa], and she'd come home and be complaining ... and I'd be like, wait a minute. I'm the teenager. I'm supposed to have these troubles, not you. I'm supposed to be the one crying on you. You're not supposed to be crying on me.”
Ashley says she'd try to tell her mother how she felt. “She'd get mad, so I'd just keep my mouth shut and go along with it.” As time went on it became increasingly stressful for her.
Mrs. Woodward-Booher says she thinks Ashley liked being so close, “to a point.” Ashley's friends congregated at the house, and all the kids liked the fun mom they could talk to. “But when it came to the responsibility of being my shoulder to cry on, that was where she drew the line,” she says.
Finally, changes in their lives triggered a correction. Ashley started dating, and Mrs. Woodward-Booher met her husband, Ed.
“It put a wall between us, and it wasn't a bad wall. I think it needed to be there,” Mrs. Woodward-Booher reflects.
Barbara Laraway, founder and director of Parents Helping Parents, says that children need parents who will help them sort out misinformation from their peers, and allow them to experience the consequences of bad decisions and negative behavior. “Parents have to make the tough decisions,” she asserts.
“A parent needs to be strong enough to allow their kids to be angry at them,” Ms. Laraway continues. Weak parents worry that if they discipline their children, the kids won't love them anymore, she says.
“I really think kids want parents to set the boundaries. It's OK for kids to be angry with us. They get over it,” she adds.
Mrs. Woodward-Booher admits that discipline was a problem when she and Ashley were buddies. She simply couldn't handle having Ashley mad at her.
“Her grounding would last maybe an hour. I'd go in and say, ‘OK, your grounding is over but don't do it again,'” Mrs. Woodward-Booher says.
“She basically let me do whatever I wanted to do,” Ashley says. “At first it was nice.”
Kayla, who is now 14, saw what was going on. “Why do you cave to her?” she'd ask her mom.
Mrs. Woodward-Booher also blames feelings of guilt for going easy on Ashley - that her daughter had earned a pass because she had helped her through rough times. “Now, it's like she's paid in full. Now it's time to be the mom,” Mrs. Woodward-Booher says.
It's not unusual for a parent to temporarily seek comfort from an older child during high-stress periods such as separation and divorce, according to Jeanne Funk, professor of psychology and director of the clinical psychology training program at the University of Toledo. “When they get their feet back on the ground, the balance returns.”
In the meantime, being a friend - confiding, asking for advice - breaks the parent-child boundaries, she says. “Parents are supposed to tell their kids what to do, and if you're asking your child what to do, it makes it harder for the child to accept the times when the parent steps back into the parent role,” she explains.
If, prior to the disruption, the child was well-adjusted and the parent-child relationship was appropriate, it's likely that there won't be any permanent damage, Dr. Funk adds.
However, a permanently chummy approach to parenting is tough on children. “They would miss out on learning how to be a parent, and I think it could cause a lot of identity issues. Who is taking care of who?” Dr. Funk explains.
Fayma Allman, a local parenting and family life educator, agrees. She points out that we all know how to be a friend, but not everyone knows how to be a parent. “Perhaps they don't have the skills to relate to the child in other ways.”
Mrs. Allman says that people tend to follow the parenting style of their own parents - or sometimes just the opposite. The child who was raised in a “sit down and shut up” home may reject authoritarianism and swing too far to the permissive side.
She recommends the democratic approach: holding family meetings, setting out rules and expectations for a child's behavior, and coming up with logical consequences if the rules are broken. “So your home is a microcosm of the real world,” Mrs. Allman adds.
Adults should ask themselves whose agenda is being served by being a parent/pal, she says. “Is it good for the child, or for me? Does it make me feel young again? Do I have to be accepted by her crowd? Does it allow me to escape being the disciplinarian?”
Depending on the answers, it may be time for mom or dad to go out and get some grown-up friends.
“The bottom line is one of the most important things we teach children in our parenting style is how to be parents themselves,” Mrs. Allman declares.