We’re all perfect parents – full of ideas on how to do it best – until we have our own kids.
Then most of us find parenting demands a more complex skillset than we’d anticipated. Decision fatigue, inconsistencies due to being human, or simply being exhausted and outnumbered – many factors stand in the way of being an effective caregiver at times.
Most of us at least start out wanting to succeed at being good parents. Exactly what ‘good’ looks like is not always clear, and even if we could agree, simply knowing what the ‘best’ approach is doesn’t mean it magically channels itself into our brains – we are all influenced by our own picture of what parenting looks like, and are limited by our own communication styles and temperaments.
What the experts do agree on, is that the way you parent has life-long influence on your child’s self-esteem, relationships – even their weight. No pressure!
So, what do the experts reckon?
Research that began in the 60’s came up with four clearly defined styles of parenting; authoritarian, authoritative, permissive and (the newcomer) uninvolved. And while aspects of all styles may come in to play at different times in our lives (or different challenges in the day), most parents tend to find characteristics of one overarching style best describe their approach.
Obedience: ‘No ifs, buts or maybe’s!’ Instead of including children in decisions, the view is that kids should be seen and not heard, do as they’re told – or else. ‘I told you so’ is the main explanation for rules. No negotiation. No exceptions. Rather than teaching a child to make better choices, they’re invested in making kids regret their mistakes. This ‘strict’ style was employed by many baby boomers to raise their (now adult) kids. Punishment is preferred over ‘new age’ star charts and other ‘soft’ approaches that they feel do not instil enough discipline.
Children who grew up with parents with these attitudes tend to follow rules, but at the cost of their self-esteem as they learn their opinions aren’t valued. Anger, lies and deception to avoid punishment are also more likely behaviours of children raised in these dictator-like households.
Signs that this may be your MO include; incessant nagging, barking orders constantly, making every activity a learning experience, listing rules of the house, having a zero tolerance for silliness, making outrageous threats and rarely offering choice.
Consultation: These are the parents that bend down calmly to their child and explain the reasons behind their request (most of us do this in public all the time!). Positive Relationships are paramount for this parenting style, which includes explaining the meaning behind the rules, enforcing consequences for breaking them, and teaching children alternative choices. While they still make clear that adults are in charge, authoritative parents validate their child’s feelings during the process. They’re about preventing challenging behaviour through praising often, ‘catching’ their kids doing something good, and designing star charts and other reward systems that focus on the positive. They exhibit warmth and understanding and communicate their expectations calmly.
Children growing up within this calm, consultative environment are more likely to be happy, successful, more securely attached to caregivers, become better decision makers and make safer choices on their own because they have the confidence to try.
Indulgence: ‘Kids will be kids!’ Permissive parents are often very loving and nurturing, offer treats and toys. Punishment and rules are rarely given or enforced as they feel their child will learn best by figuring it out for themselves without them interfering. Permissive parents are rather lenient, only stepping in when there is a serious problem, and even then, may give in if the child begs. More friend than parent, they are interested in being popular rather than enforcing rules and usually allow their children to make most decisions in their lives.
Any child would love to get permissive parents who let them live on junk food and play the iPad all day, right? In fact, children with lenient parents often struggle at school as they have little structure or routine in their lives, develop weight and dental problems (as parents let them eat whatever they want) and, because they had little expectation placed upon them, have little to strive for. Having their way most of their lives, many struggle with the realisation that you can’t always get what you want, and as adults, often, bleakly, turn to substance abuse.
Dismissive: These parents are too overwhelmed with their own lives to have the emotional energy to tackle parenting, and simply expect kids to fend for themselves. They aren’t demanding, threatening or violent, they simply aren’t responsive to their child’s needs. They provide little guidance, supervision or support and may become emotionally distant, and even deliberately avoid their kids.
While this sounds dreadful, often parents become inconsistent in their availability to parent, or completely uninvolved due to health problems, substance abuse, custody battles or excessive work to reduce financial stress – factors that often are beyond their control.
Nevertheless, neglectful parenting results in unhappy children who do miserably at school with frequent behavioural problems. Often adults who parent in this manner were raised by rather dismissive caregivers and had poor relationships with them – and so the cycle continues.
While most of us can pick our usual MO, we are human, and even the most competent parents find themselves becoming unreasonable and impatient when stressed (or perhaps slip into permissive complacency on a Friday night after a glass of wine). There may also be periods where we are less involved than we hope to be for various reasons beyond our control.
Research is clear, however, that warm, nurturing authoritative parents who show an understanding of their child’s feelings, set clear, firm boundaries and reward positive behaviour choices create happier, healthier children. Sounds easy, right? We’d do anything for our kids, so, surely we can listen and be there for them?
But in reality, with (often) more than one child’s needs to meet and your own lives to lead, these skills are hard for many of us to maintain consistently…for a lifetime.
If, like many of us, you’re looking for ways to vamp up the authoritative parent in you, here are some strategies;
- Be a fair judge. When intervening after an incident – rather than assuming what went down and sentencing before hearing their side – listen and validate your child’s feelings. You may still impose the same consequence, the child may still get upset, but the child feels like their voice was at least, considered.
- Offer warnings for minor misdemeanours; be consistent, but flexible when it’s reasonable to do so.
- Offer consequences that intuitively fit the crime (eg. a ban from the iPad if they continue to play once told to get off). If a rule is broken, imposing logical results that avoid shaming, turn a mistake into a learning opportunity, and offer life lessons (eg if I don’t get off, I miss out tomorrow), not simply ‘punishment’ because they were ‘bad’ and ‘deserve’ it.
- Allow choice (when you can live with either option) to empower your child. (Would you like an apple or banana today? Do you want a shower or a bath today?).
- Boundaries and rules actually allow children and teenagers to feel safe and secure, so don’t feel guilty for sticking to them. Effective parents are confident parents.
- Remind yourself that the days seem long, but the years are short. If you don’t listen to the small things when they’re small, they won’t tell you the big things when they’re not.
Not only is child-focused authoritative parenting great for children, modelling better parenting makes for more relaxed adulting and happier families – now and in the future.