When it comes to a particular style of child rearing, the truth is that when we become parents, few of us make a conscious choice about it – we just do it, making it up as we go along. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right.
Of course, the big question is, “When we consider the outcomes for the children involved, are some ways of parenting better than others?” Well, let’s take a look at the three main parenting styles:
Parents who are authoritarian know how to put their foot down. Typical comments to the children are, “Just do it!” or “Never mind ‘why?’ It’s because I said so.” If the family were the Army, these parents would be the sergeant majors. They expect their orders to be obeyed instantly and don’t encourage discussion.
These parents are, in some ways, the opposite of the authoritarian type. They do not like either setting or enforcing boundaries, and they back away from confrontation. They are often warm and accepting of their children, but rarely demand high standards in behaviour. If the child of an authoritarian parent left his chocolate wrappers and trainers on the floor in front of the television they might expect to be yelled at. The child of permissive parents, however, would expect that his parents would probably clear it all up after them.
These parents believe that boundaries are important, but are careful not to back themselves into a corner over things that don’t matter. They are unlikely to hit the roof over minor issues, but on the other hand they will be very firm over things like curfews or homework. They take time to explain why the rules they set are important and are prepared to listen to an opposing view. Their children know they are accepted and loved, but equally know that Mum and Dad are not an easy touch. The children are encouraged to be independent.
I think most people would agree that this is the most effective style of parenting, so let’s spend a little more time on it. With the authoritative parent, the child knows that they are loved and affirmed. They often hear the parent say, “I love you” or “Well done.” Even if the child is testing, the parent looks for ways they can affirm them. In short, the child is secure in the knowledge that although their parent has wishes for them – perhaps in terms of behaviour or achievement – they are loved unconditionally.
In the home there are as few rules as possible, but the child knows that the ones that are in place matter and that breaches of them have consequences. Many of the rules have been agreed between the family members.
A matter of security
Every parent will have their own views on discipline, but enforcing the rules is not just a about discipline; it is a matter of security. There is no faster way to breed insecurity in a child than for them to believe there are no boundaries – and that even if there are, nobody cares if they are crossed.
I once saw a blind man walking along a long hospital corridor. He was tapping his white stick against the wall at the side of him. After a while he stopped tapping – he knew where the wall was. But after he’d gone almost the whole length of the corridor, I saw him reach out with his stick again and tap it against the wall a few times. He needed to test that it was still there – test where the boundaries were. Our children, too, will test the boundaries – push against them every now and then to test they are still there. They will actually feel more secure knowing they are in place.
It is often exhausting, frustrating, and sometimes needs a great deal of persistence and patience, but teaching our kids that boundaries matter is one of the major jobs of every parent.