Parenting Styles and Outcomes

A conversation I had with a friend recently led to my searching through my old parenting files from my teaching days. We were talking about teen rebellion and I said out of my distorted memory that when kids rebel against their parents, they will tend to choose a lifestyle, religious or political expression that is the opposite of the one their parents lived or attempted to teach them. They do that, I said, because they know it will hurt their parents.

My friend agreed with me, but noted that these rebellious teens tended to choose lifestyles and belief systems that were left-leaning. I  tried to say that he was wrong.”If the parents a teen is rebelling against is liberal, they will choose a conservative path,” I said.

Even as I spoke, I knew I was wrong. But something wasn’t jelling quite right. I should have been right, but when I revisited my my old lesson plans, I had to admit that I’d been wrong. But I realized we were comparing apples to oranges.

I once taught a class on parenting styles using a video series that I borrowed from a local Lutheran church, “Active Christian Parenting”. I remember liking it so much because it showed real-life scenarios that typified specific child behaviors and parents modeling the various ways that they can handle these behaviors. It was non-judgmental toward parents and children and very positive. What I learned as I reviews the lesson plan is that different parenting styles tend to result in different outcomes in children, not all of them rebellion.

When I taught the class, I gave the parents an article “Our Parents, Ourselves: Echoes of the Past” published by Child Magazine, Dec./Jan/1991. As I read it I realized what I was recalling, a bit distorted as I said above. Author, Dr. Lawrence Kutner, licensed consulting psychologist and columnist, suggests that new parents will find themselves repeating the words and behaviors of their parents even though they believed their parent manner of raising was wrong, even harmful. On the other hand, he writes, “Parents may choose a certain style or approach to raising children because it’s different, even completely opposite from what (their) parents did. But this can be very difficult,” he adds, “…because we don’t have a strong model of what we should do with our kids, only one of what we shouldn’t.” I know I chose this article because it rang true for me. I tried to use modern parenting styles while constantly finding myself repeating the parenting behaviors of my mother.I know this resulted in mixed messages for my children.

Dr. Ronald Levant, professor of counseling psychology and author of Between Father and Child, sees this choice of an opposite parenting style as a form of rebellion. He says that he recalled his father as being extremely strict and overbearing and promised himself he would never act that way toward his own children. As a result, he says, he abdicated some of his responsibilities as a parent. “I bounced too far in the other direction…I should have forgiven my father for his limitations. That way, I wouldn’t have seen discipline as inherently destructive.”

I hope you can see the source of my assumption about rebellion in the context of how we choose to parent. But what I was trying to tell my friend was not about parenting in particular. It was about lifestyle. He had witnessed a young man totally rejecting his parents by choosing to drink and party. It seemed he was seeking a lifestyle strictly for the shock power. “Active Christian Parenting” teaches more clearly how kids react when raised in certain households.

The series suggests three types of parenting: The Permissive Approach, the Democratic Approach, and the Autocratic or Punitive Approach. Here is a summary of each:

Permissive Approach:
* Parents’ Beliefs: Children will cooperate  when they understand that cooperation is the      right thing to do. My job is to serve my children and keep them happy. Consequences  that upset my children cannot be effective.
* Power and Control are in the hands of the children.
* Problem-solving Process: Problem solving by persuasion. In a Win-lose situation,              children always win. Parents do most of the problem solving.
*What Children Learn: “Rules are for others, not me. I do as I wish.” Parents serve children. They are responsible for solving children’s problems. They tend to grow up dependent, disrespectful  and self-centered.
*How Children Respond: They test limits, challenge and defy rules and authority, ignore and tune out words, and wear down their parents with words.

Autocratic or Punitive Approach:
*Parents’ Belief: If it doesn’t hurt, the child won’t learn. Children won’t respect your rules unless they fear your methods. It’s my job to control my children. It’s my job to solve my children’s problems.
*Power and control are in the hands of the parents.
*Problem-solving Process: Problem solving by force, adversarial, In a Win-Lose situation, the parent wins. Parents do all the problem solving and make all the decisions. The parents direct and control the process.
*What Children Learn: Parents are Responsible for Solving Children’s Problems. Hurtful methods of communication are problem solving.
*How Children Respond: Anger, stubbornness, Revenge and rebellion or withdrawal and fearful submission.

Dr. Levant’s story is one of his choosing a permissive approach in reaction to his father’s punitive approach. But one can clearly see that either approach has its pitfalls. When people complain about children of today, they will say that, lacking discipline, they tend to have an attitude of privilege and entitlement. They don’t know how to work thinking the world owes them a living. I hear employers complain ll the time about the lack of work ethic among today’s youth. These folks tend to recall the punitive style of their parents and insist that this was far better.

But punitive parenting has its pitfalls. If parents are too severe, their children are apt to rebel  or even take revenge. Studies show that some choose another route. They go into their adult lives looking for someone to serve as surrogate parents who will to tell them what to do. During my years as a youth minister, I learned that these kids were the ones most vulnerable to being taken in by cults where they found leaders to tell them how to think and act.

The course offered a third parenting style that they say works much better than the other two. Here is what it looks like:

The Democratic Approach:
* Parents’ beliefs: Children are capable of solving problems on their own. Children should be given choices and allowed to learn from the consequences of those choices. Encouragement is an effective way to motivate cooperation.
* Power and Control: Children are given only as much power and control as they can handle responsibly.
* Problem-solving process: Cooperative, Win-win, based on mutual respect. Children are active participants in the problem-solving process.
* What Children Learn: Responsibility, cooperation, independence, respect for rules and authority, and self-control.
* How Children Respond: More cooperative, less testing of limits. They learn to resolve problems on their own. They regard their parents’ words seriously.

No one is a perfect parent. The reality is that few of us come into the role fully prepared. We try different things and many parents will shift gears after they begin to see that what they are doing isn’t working with their kids. This is one reason older kids might accuse their parents of being more strict on them than on their younger siblings. Parents are learning as they go.

To complicate matters, couples raised in different households will often use different styles with their children. This can cause behaviors like children playing one parent against the other to get what they want.

Clearly a more democratic approach is better, but kids are resilient. Unless parents are extreme, most children will survive to face the same issues their parents had to deal with when they decided to have kids.

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