A parent’s job is to prepare their children to be adults who are capable of taking care of themselves and overcoming difficulties. It’s not an easy job. Parents have to set appropriate limits, watch their children fail and let them feel the consequences of their actions. Sometimes parents even endure the harsh screams of “I hate you!” or other painful words.
“I tell parents that it’s OK for your kids to be mad at you and not like you because of the limit you set,” said Hannah L. Mulholland, LICSW, MSW, a Mayo Clinic pediatric social worker. “You’re the best person in the world for them not to like and be mad at because you’re the one person who’s not going to desert them. You’re still going to love them, even when they’re mad at you. But for many parents, the reason they don’t set limits is because they want to be liked.”
Parenting is about supporting children while they make their own mistakes, take on age-appropriate responsibilities, think for themselves and solve their own problems. How you do that is up to you.
For example, you can let your kids choose how and when to do their homework — but also let them know that if they don’t do it, there may be consequences at school. “Let your kid be distressed. Let your kid make mistakes,” Mulholland says. “That’s how they learn.”
Kids who don’t learn might enter the adult world woefully unprepared or even afraid because they don’t know how to have relationships, do their laundry or manage their money. “They get in over their heads because they don’t really know what their own capacity is,” Mulholland says.
4 parenting styles
There are four main parenting styles: authoritarian, authoritative, permissive and neglectful. You don’t have to commit to one style. It’s natural to use different styles in different situations. When safety is at stake, a parent might use a firm authoritarian style that leaves no room for negotiation. But a parent might put consequences on hold and lean into a permissive approach to encourage a teenager to call for help if they put themselves in a dangerous situation.
“As parents, we are all doing the best we can each day,” Mulholland says. “Our intentions are always good, but we struggle to execute depending on our own capacity in the moment. Give yourself a break as a parent and recognize your own limits. All of the advice in this article is for when you are your very best self, not necessarily something you can implement all the time.”
Here’s a look at each of the four styles.
Authoritative parenting style
Authoritative parenting is often considered the ideal style for its combination of warmth and flexibility while still making it clear that the parents are in charge. (3) Children of authoritative parents know what is expected of them. Their parents explain reasons for the rules and consequences for breaking them. Parents also listen to their child’s opinions, but the parent remains the ultimate decision maker.
Authoritative parents develop close, nurturing relationships with their children. Children with authoritative parents tend to grow up confident, responsible and capable of managing their emotions. They are also friendly, curious and achievement-oriented.
What is an example of authoritative parenting style?
One place where parenting style shows is at mealtimes. Authoritative parents have more family meals where the parents model eating behaviors — rather than imposing strict restrictions. The parents will include the children in meal preparation. Perhaps the child will choose what’s for dinner one night a week or choose the side dish. Research shows that children of authoritative mothers have a high quality of diet and eat more fruit than children from different parenting styles.
Permissive parenting style
Permissive parents might pride themselves on being their child’s best friend. These parents are warm and nurturing with open communication. They are actively involved in their children’s emotional well-being. They also have low expectations and use discipline sparingly. Permissive parents let children make their own choices, but also bail them out if it doesn’t go well.
Children of permissive parents have the freedom to make decisions like what to eat, when to go to bed and whether to do their homework. These children tend to have good self-esteem and social skills. But they can be impulsive, demanding and lack the ability to self-regulate. (1) Permissive parents often try to control their child’s environment, so the child doesn’t have to experience rejection or failure. This means the child might enter adulthood unprepared.
What is an example of permissive parenting style?
When it comes to food, permissive parents might have lax rules. They allow the children to choose what they want, even if that means the parents make a special meal. This could lead to picky eating and unhealthy diet choices. Permissive parenting is associated with lower fruit and vegetable intake. It may also result in inexperience in trying new things or going with the flow and difficulty in social settings involving food.
Authoritarian parenting style
Authoritarian parenting uses strict rules, high standards and punishment to regulate the child’s behavior. Authoritarian parents have high expectations and are not flexible on them. The children might not even know a rule is in place until they’re punished for breaking it.
Children of authoritarian parents are good at following instructions and behave well. However, these children might grow up with a fear of punishment and lack experience making their own decisions. As a result, some might become aggressively rebellious, lack social skills and may have difficulty making sound decisions on their own.
What is an example of authoritarian parenting style?
At mealtimes, authoritarian parents might enforce rules, such as the children eat the same meal as everyone else or finish everything on their plate. However, the family is unlikely to discuss why they eat certain foods and how they fit into their culture or affect a child’s health.
Neglectful parenting style
Neglectful parents fulfill the child’s basic needs, but then pay little attention to the child. These parents tend to offer minimal nurturing and have few expectations or limitations for their child. It’s not always a conscious choice parents make, but can be forced by circumstance, such as the need to work late shifts, single parenting, mental health concerns or overall family troubles.
Children of neglectful parents usually grow up to be resilient and self-sufficient out of necessity. They might have trouble controlling emotions, don’t develop effective coping strategies and they have difficulty maintaining social relationships. They tend to have low self-esteem and might seek out inappropriate role models.
What is an example of neglectful parenting style?
Parents who are uninvolved might not buy groceries or plan meals consistently. That could leave the child concerned about when they will next eat. It can lead them to become preoccupied with food. Children who had neglectful parents often overeat when food is available and may become overweight. But these children often have an easier time leaving home when it’s time.
How do I make sure I don’t mess up my child?
There’s no parenting style that is guaranteed to produce perfectly adjusted children. Nobody’s child is going to go through life universally liked and immune to failure or disappointment. Mulholland says everyone experiences difficulties. “It’s just unrealistic to say that a parenting decision is the reason for that.”
Since children will inevitably go through difficult moments, it’s best to equip them with the ability to bounce back. It helps if kids have had some practice from being allowed to try and fail in a safe environment.
For example, if a child played video games instead of studying, they might do poorly on the test. That’s how they learn that they need to manage their time better. But if you let them stay home “sick” to get an extra day to study, they won’t have learned a lesson.
A lot of parents see their child’s successes or failures as a reflection of themselves as a parent. But it’s the parent’s job to give the child the tools they need, not to control the situation.
“I’m always reminding parents that those aren’t your grades,” Mulholland says. “That’s not your college that they end up going to. That’s on them. You shouldn’t measure your worth as a parent on how successful your children are.”
How can parents change their parenting style?
If you find that your child is having some behavior issues, you might decide you need to adjust your parenting style. Behavior change can be as difficult for parents as it is for kids.
Mulholland recommends thinking back to your own childhood and what worked for you and what didn’t. Some people had parents who were very strict. The child wasn’t allowed to talk at the table and was punished severely. As a result, when they became a parent, they went the other way and became permissive. But perhaps a middle ground would work better. As you reflect on your own parenting, think about why you react the way you do.
If you want to change your parenting style, look into parenting workshops. Many schools or early childhood centers offer classes or can refer you to one. Mulholland also recommends the book, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. A mental health therapist can also help you work through issues from your own childhood and find a parenting approach that will work for your family.
Which parenting style is most encouraged?
Authoritative parenting is the most recommended parenting style. The combination of clear communication and age-appropriate standards can lead to emotionally stable adults who can handle themselves in social situations and set goals for themselves.
To take an authoritative approach, parents can:
- Set clear boundaries and communicate them to children.
- Offer children choices and have discussions about what’s appropriate. For example, you can choose which pajamas you want to wear to bed. You cannot wear your winter coat to bed because it will be too warm.
- Listen to and explore their children’s emotional health concerns.
- Frequently express love and affection.
A helpful approach can be to use praise and positive reinforcement to encourage desired behavior. Ignore annoying, but not dangerous, attempts at getting attention, such as banging on a wall or whining. You also can tell children, “I’ll wait and respond to you when you stop whining.”
Another approach is to reward children with something they want. For example, instead of taking away their tablet until they do their homework, use it as a reward. “I’m going to give you your tablet as soon as you’re done with your homework.” That way the tablet is a reinforcer instead of a consequence.
How to set limits for children
A big part of parenting is setting rules and limits for your children. A metaphor from Russell A. Barkley, Ph.D., suggests thinking of parenting like enclosing a pasture for your sheep. You build a fence and put things the sheep need in the pasture — plus some fun things to play with. Then let the sheep roam around within their limits.
“You don’t tell the sheep ‘You need to only be in this corner.’ Or ‘You need to only eat that type of flower,'” Mulholland explains. “They’re likely to run into the good flowers and eat the good stuff. But you’re also going to have the fence around them. So there’s a limit as to how far they can go.”
The same with children. As the parents, you set the limits and provide children with food to eat and toys to play with. As the children show they’re being responsible and can handle more, you can expand their boundaries.
Setting limits together
As much as you can, decide with your child what your limits are ahead of time. For example, before the start of a new school year, decide on your limits for weekday screen time, after-school snacks or homework rules.
If you’re trying to make rules on the fly, you’re more likely to be inconsistent from day to day. If you decide that the kids get 90 minutes of screen time on a school night, then you can always hold to that, and the kids know what to expect.
If you have a spouse or co-parent, discuss limits together. It’s common for two parents to have different ideas of what’s appropriate, so it’s helpful to set the boundaries together. And whether you live in the same house or not, try to maintain the same basic limits.
“The most important thing is — in front of the child — you 100% have your partner’s back, even if you disagree wholeheartedly with how they approached it. In front of the child, you have to have their back,” Mulholland says. “In the moment you say, ‘Yep. Dad said eat your broccoli. ‘” If you would have done things differently, talk to your partner about it away from the kids.
Your relationship with a grown child
Parenting style also plays a role in the relationship between parents and their children when they become adults. Kids who had strict, inflexible parents might not have a close relationship as adults. Kids of permissive parents might come back for help frequently when they are in a bind. Kids who grew up with encouraging, supportive parents tend to have close relationships with their parents. They will be independent, but still go to their parents for advice.
“The best-case scenario is they’re still keeping you involved in their life,” Mulholland says. “They’re telling you about the hardships and maybe even seeking advice, but they’re also not expecting you to fix everything.”
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