A Common Situation
“This room is a mess! Thomas, we need to leave for soccer practice in fifteen minutes. I expect you to have this room cleaned up before we go. I’ll be back in ten minutes to check on you.”
Mom returns to the kitchen to complete her unfinished tasks. When she glances at the clock, twenty minutes have passed. Dashing to the family room she yells, “Thomas, we’re late. I hope you cleared that stuff off the floor…OH NO!! This room is still a terrible mess. You’ve done NOTHING. I told you to. Why are you so irresponsible? Can’t I ever count on you to do what I ask? I’m taking you off the soccer team.”
Thomas runs past Mom wailing, “You’re so mean. I hate you.” His bedroom door slams shut.
Understandably, Mom is upset; Thomas did not follow through. Mom lost track of time and reacted strongly upon discovering the mess still existed. Thomas felt attacked and accused by Mom’s words and tone. Off he went. And not to soccer practice.
Has a similar scenario ever played out in your house? Could this situation have been handled better?
Three Different Parenting Styles
Mom’s response can be referred to as an example of the authoritarian style of parenting. Included in this style are loudness, harshness, labeling, shaming, put-downs, and threats.
There is usually a pattern of rigidity, which will definitely come through in this case if the mother actually follows through on her threat to take her son off the soccer team.
The parent acts on her need for absolute control and power. Obedience is expected and demanded, but often the price includes the child’s self-worth and the relationship between the parent and child.
But what if Mom had approached Thomas and the messy room in the following manner: “Thomas, you forgot to clean up. Oh well. Let’s go. We’re gonna be late again. There’s never enough time to finish anything around here. The house will just stay a mess.”
This response might reflect permissive parenting, which is characterized by little, if any, consistent structure. Emotions tend to dictate what happens in the household.
Expectations are unclear, uneven, and unpredictable. Frequently, this lack of leadership leads to uncertainty, confusion and even chaos. Children, feeling that they cannot count on their parents to impose the needed limits, may not view their mother or father as trustworthy directors and may not turn to them for guidance when they need help in the future.
Both the authoritarian style and the permissive approach to parenting are discouraged by parenting experts. Children may survive in these families, but they usually fail to reach their potential because many of their needs and feelings go unrecognized.
Parents in these families may not have had healthy models themselves and may be following the lead of their own parents. Or in an attempt to avoid repeating the negative pattern, they end up swinging to the other extreme which is equally ineffective. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to flip from one style to another, even while dealing with the same issue. The mother in our example may start off yelling and attacking Thomas, then stop and say:
“Forget it, I give up. I’m too tired to deal with it. Do whatever you want.”
Authoritative, Assertive Parenting
The authoritative style is a healthier approach. To distinguish this from authoritarian, take the ending “tive” and relate it to “live”; authoritative is the way we strive to live within our families.
- This approach combines respect and caring with firmness and limits.
- Feelings are acknowledged while rules are enforced.
- Discipline techniques focus on teaching the child while taking into consideration his emotional health and the parent-child relationship. The key is to combine firmness with flexibility.
So let’s return to Mom and Thomas. First, Mom may need to take a moment to become calm. When startled, surprised or rushed, it can help to stop, take a breath and let emotions settle down so thinking can occur. Then she might say:
“Thomas, I neglected to look at the clock. We’re late for soccer practice. I see you haven’t cleaned up. Let’s get ready to leave as quickly as we can. You will need to clean up this room as soon as we get home.”
Mom admits her mistake, addresses the lack of compliance, takes action and applies a logical consequence. She keeps her son’s dignity intact as well as the relationship between them. Thomas may moan and groan about being late or having to clean the room later. And Mom can stand firm. In doing so, she sends her son important messages about how to handle mistakes.
Style vs. Reality
Most parents would agree that authoritative parenting is best. Yet the demands of real life can often interfere with your desire to do your best. Rarely do you have the right response at any given moment. In fact, rarely is there a right response.
Parents can usually identify which of three styles of parenting governs their interactions based on how discipline is carried out in the family. Their approach influences the emotional health of each member of the family as well as the quality of the relationships that exists between members. Although most parents are not always one way or the other, there is usually one style that dominates their approach to parenting.
It can help to think about what you would like to change from how you were parented and what you would like to repeat as you parent your own children.
- Seek the support of your spouse or a friend.
- Read books on healthy parenting.
- Give yourself time to get calm and think before responding.
- Remember to congratulate yourself when you succeed.
- When you give a “less than perfect” response, take a few moments afterward to reflect on how you could handle it differently in the future.
Children give you many opportunities to discipline, teach, and guide them over the years. By putting forth the effort, you can reap the benefits a healthy approach can yield as your children not only survive, but thrive in preparation for the world beyond your home.
By Pam Nicholson, Certified Parenting Educator
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