You hear a lot about parenting style these days. Just scan the shelves of your local bookstore to see how many different modes are out there. You can practice Attachment, Unconditional, Positive, and Conscious parenting, or you could aim to be an Idle, Playful, or Mindful parent. After reading a recent article in the Wall Street Journal about Asian “Tiger” mothers whose habit is to shame and berate performance out of their children, I got to thinking about the importance of a balanced parenting style.
Developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind conducted research in the 1960s and identified four styles based on whether or not parents were demanding and/or responsive. These are the academic words she chose, but the concepts might be more accessible if you think of demanding as holding accountable or having expectations. Responsive could be translated as connected or attached. A breakdown of the four different styles looks like this:
Permissive parents are far more responsive than they are demanding. Also known as indulgent, laid-back, or “the friend” parent, many assess this style as too flexible and lenient.
Neglectful or uninvolved parents are neither interested, nor demanding. These are parents who may meet their children’s basic needs, but do not form adequate bonds with them so they can flourish.
Authoritarian parents are what Love and Logic author Jim Fay calls the “drill sergeants.” These parents don’t discuss or negotiate, and they don’t take “no” for an answer. Most regard this style as too demanding and rigid.
Authoritative parents use their authority in a benign way while maintaining love and positive regard. They have reasonable expectations and are communicative and responsive to children’s needs. This desirable kind of parent is sometimes described as balanced, consulting, or as a benevolent CEO.
I agree with the experts that the authoritative, middle-of-the-road style is where children thrive. Kids need both sides of the coin: structure and nurturing, and this approach supplies both. Incidentally, the memoir of the tiger mother has been met with quite a bit of disapproval from the public. Authority is necessary—yes—but it need not be harsh. Research shows that a controlling parenting style generally produce children who are compliant and capable, but who are less happy, socially aware, and confident.
I was recently interviewed for a parenting education series on local Community Television Network 5. One of the scenarios discussed portrayed a young girl whining and ramping up towards a tantrum at the grocery store. You could see the father’s frustration and panic as he contemplated the fit he might have to live through if he holds the limit with his daughter. We all know that panic well—having gotten such clear messages to keep a tight rein on our kids. We feel that their behavior, loudness, and lack of emotional regulation, while probably developmentally appropriate, reflects poorly on our parenting skills. It is not helpful to feel that we should control our children. The only person we can control is ourselves; the only behavior we can truly change is our own. Our children are their own people; they deserve sovereignty, to be treated with dignity and respect. It is fair and necessary to set limits with kids, but it is unreasonable to expect them to like it.
Our kids do need someone to be in charge. “Yes” to in charge, but “no” to in control. The safety and security of someone else calling the shots and holding boundaries is comforting. It is good for us parents to feel at ease in this powerful role, yet be flexible enough to temper it, or even set it aside every once in a while. Children want us to be the boss, this is true, but let’s aim to be the boss they wouldn’t mind going out to lunch with every once in a while.
Originally published as an article in the March/April 2011 issue of Parent and Family