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.

The Brains of a 25-Year-Old

This morning I read a lecture by Jason M Satterfield for a course he taught called “Mind-body Medicine.” The professor was talking about various brain parts, the frontal lobes in particular, located in the front of our head just behind our foreheads. In humans, he says, the frontal lobe is particularly large compared to other animals. But it is also developmental and doesn’t fully develop until we are 25 years old. “Now, there’s a reason why teenagers act like teenagers – they don’t have fully developed frontal lobes.” He goes on to say that “our frontal lobes are responsible for delayed gratification (and for) emotions regulation.” Well now, doesn’t that explain a thing or two!

Satterfield talks about teens but consider the fact that before age 25, young people are ending their high school years and having to make choices about careers, college, possibly going into the military.  They are buying their first cars, taking on living away from home where they are expected to pay their own bills, and often choosing their life-long partners in marriage or entering a religious community.

Bernie and I married at 21. In fact, we recently celebrated our 50th anniversary which is quite a miracle considering the mental deficiency of our brains when we chose to get married.  I say that only half jokingly. I think both of us at some point looked at the other and wondered:  who is this stranger I am living with? Or even weirder: who is this stranger that I am?

These times from teen to young adult are years when many financial decision need to be made that have long range implications but are being made by brains that have trouble with the long-range concept. Parents will tell about their teens who purchase vehicles that are pieces of junk because they are “cool”. Then they spend four times what they paid for it for repair after repair. There are the kids that “have to” take the spring break trip with their friends because “they deserve it” or because “these are the times of their lives.” Meanwhile, the bucks spent mean coming up short when it is time to pay for books and supplies as the next semester begins. Credit card companies jump on the band wagon by offering great deals on credit cards to new college students. They know the money will be spent on non-essential luxuries because they know that these young people aren’t able to think long range about later payments and then they charge so much interest that the money they saved at the “sale” that enticed them to buy is surpassed.

If all of this is related to brain development, then I am not sure what a solution might be. You can’t teach a child to ride a bike before they are mentally and physically mature enough to do so. Maybe parents need to jump on that other wagon, the one that says young people seem to think short term. For example, allow young people to suffer the immediate consequences of their imperfect decisions.  If a kid’s junker car fails him, let him deal with the problems of repairs popping up two weeks after the purchase rather than protecting hum by paying for the repairs or rescuing him by buying another car. If a young person has to suffer shortage of money for fun stuff because they weren’t prepared to pay the rent when it was due, let it happen. Rather than helping them with the rent, let them negotiate with the landlord or even let them find lose the apartment. These are all short term consequences that should work for their almost-but-not-quite developed brains.

A name for these kinds of parent strategies might be “tough love” or “school of hard knocks”. During the Great Depression, everyone, young or not, had to face these problems and it led to a generation of folks who learned the lessons of postponing pleasure, of saving to pay bills or for possible hard times in the future, of conserving, preserving, reusing, repairing and making-do.  It was a generation of survivors. We may not be able to force a young adult to think long range, but we can capitalize on their ability to think short range by letting the immediate consequences of their mismanagement happen.

Parenting Without Punishment – 3

There is one more parenting skill I want to share in this little series that I have started here. I had an opportunity to use it yesterday so it is fresh in my mind.

I do water aerobics a couple of times each week, not in a class, but on my own which I do in the pool of the local AmericInn which is open to people who want to use the pool for this purpose. I have learned that it is the best therapy for my osteoarthritis and the more I do it the more effective it is. Yesterday my daughter asked me to watch my 5-year-old grandson, Jackson. I’d taken him with me to the pool before but only when an older sibling was along to keep an eye on him while I did my exercises. He has a life jacket but he is eager to be able to swim without it and once in a while gives me a hard time about being able to take it off. He will test me when he doesn’t have it on by walking near the edge of the pool and threatening to jump in. Having another able-bodied person like his older brother or sister is a great help if I am to allow myself the distraction of doing my exercises.

I knew that if he was a problem, I could surrender my exercise regime and turn my full attention to him, but there was a second problem that wasn’t so easily solved. I might have to go to the bathroom while we are at the pool and after the swim, I would be in the bathroom changing, which takes several minutes. I didn’t trust him but I took a risk. I told him that whenever I went into the bathroom, he would have to sit on one of the lawn chairs around the pool until I came out. First I told him that it is a motel rule that a child under 14 has to be accompanied by an adult and that if we break the rule, he, and perhaps even I, won’t be permitted to come back again. I added that, even if that were not the rule, I am a worrying Grandma and if he breaks the rule I won’t not bring him back to the pool because I won’t know if he will stay safe while I leave him.

Jackson was great in the pool. He stayed near the shallow end when I asked him to and when I was done with my exercises I let him swim freely with his jacket in the deep water and in the shallower end I let him practice swimming without it while I stayed close to him.

When it came time to end our fun, I reminded him of the rule and had him sit on one of the chairs. When I was dressed and came out of the bathroom Jackson was still sitting on the chair where I had left him. I said to him, “This makes me feel like I can bring you back again and I won’t have to worry about your safety.” As we left, the motel manager and assistant were standing at the reception desk. I stopped to tell them what had just happened. “He did exactly what I asked him to do and now I can bring him back,” I said. He was beaming, and  the manager and her assistant, thankfully, supported me by smiling and telling him what a trustworthy kid he is.

The parenting skill I was using is this: “Catch them at being good.” The principle is, “A child will do more of what give your attention to than those things you don’t”.  I prefer the latter statement because we aren’t always talking about being good or bad nor are we talking about obedience. We are talking about giving attention. When we can acknowledge a behavior that we want a child to repeat by simply naming it and they are more likely to repeat it. For example, a parent might say, “You remembered to say thank you.” You don’t even have to say that you are proud of them. If their behavior is always about making you proud, that can lead to a kind of codependent relationship in which they will always be looking for your approval. You can add to an acknowledgement what you see as a positive consequence of their behavior. “Did you see the smile on that lady’s face when you thanked her? I think it made her feel appreciated.”  Even when a child behaves a certain way because we asked them to, their doing what we asked is their choice and that is what we should acknowledge. It is empowering because the power is within them rather than coming from the parent.

When I began my career as a parent educator, I learned that many of the techniques I used when I raised my own children were wrong no matter how well intentioned I was. One of the mistakes I made was because of the wrong belief that when children are told what they were doing wrong, they will automatically seek to do the right thing. It wasn’t very effective. When I learned this principal, I realized that the negative attention I was giving children by always noticing where they had failed was actually encouraging the negative behavior rather than the opposite. Negative attention is, after all, attention.

The principle I have shared here of giving attention to the behaviors you want repeated is the opposite of what I had been taught and practiced, and yet it is probably the most powerful of any I have learned. I see it working in my grandchildren all the time. I am grateful for this second chance.

Parenting Without Punishment – 2

In yesterday’s blog I began a discussion about parenting in response to the article “What if Everything You Knew About Disciplining Kids Was Wrong?” by Katherine Reynolds Lewis. I spoke about the unaffectedness of punishing by spanking and offered an example of another way to handle a difficult parenting situation. The scenario I chose was one in which a child was in danger and required a pretty significant response by her parent. But what about the lesser behavior problems that parents face every day?

Today’s parents will often talk about consequences. This sounds better than punishment but is often just a nicer word for what is really punishment. What is the difference and why are consequences better for teaching kids to behave than punishment?

Punishment is by definition unpleasant or painful. Consequences follow behaviors that are positive or negative. Punishment is imposed by a person in power. Consequences follow naturally from our actions. They fit in nicely with the idea of karma. Punishment is intended to make a person feel fear. Consequences teach us about life, what to avoid, what to seek in order to get what we want or what will make us happy. Punishment teaches children that harming others is acceptable in certain circumstances. It also teaches about power over others. It depowers children. Consequences can be a forum for empowering children by giving them the tools to avoid things that are unpleasant or fearful.

There are two kinds of consequences, natural and logical. Natural consequences are those that automatically flow from our behaviors. If a child fails to bring her bike in at night and it gets stolen, that is a natural consequence. If a child brings food into his room and fails to clean it up, getting mice as roommates is a possible natural consequence. Good consequences might include getting an award for excelling in a sport after they gave their best in practicing. Another is the good grades that come from study. A good feeling after helping someone is a natural consequence, too, one that comes from the inside. Note that these consequences don’t have anything to do with the parent. In these situations a parent can serve as a support simply by pointing out the link between behavior and outcome. The child is responsible in each case for the outcome.

Things aren’t always so neat and tidy, however. If a parent says, “Bring your bike in or it’ll get stolen” they cannot depend on thieves to show up to provide the logical consequence. And even if they do, is it worth the loss of a bike to prove a point? This is when logical consequences come in useful. I always tell parents that, when choosing a logical consequence, choose one that most resembles the natural one. If a child leaves his bike out, a parent might take the bike away for a few days explaining that they want him to know what it feels like not to have a bike. This is not so much a punishment as it is a teaching about what the natural consequence would feel like.

I have heard about some other logical consequences that were quite creative. One dad got tired of his son continually neglecting to take out the garbage before garbage day and the dad was always having  to do it for him. Finally one day, when it came time to give his son his allowance, he handed the boy two dollars. “Hey, Dad, I am supposed to get 10 dollars.” The father responded in a very matter-of-fact manner, “Yes you are right. But I took the garbage out for you twice this week and my services are very expensive.” He then made the link to real life. “In the real world, if you don’t show up for work, you don’t get paid.”

The thing I like about using consequences to deal with children’s behavior is that they put responsibility for behavior where it belongs – on the child. I used to think that the purpose of parenting was to teach children to obey, but now I believe that the purpose of parenting is to help children to develop the inner strength that will help them to make good choices. Consequences do a better job of teaching lessons that can support  this important process.

Parenting Without Punishment – 1

As many as there are of frustrations with Facebook, I have to admit that postings by other people is one of the reasons I find myself going there. Yesterday, someone posted an article on parenting by Katherine Reynolds Lewis,  “What if Everything You Knew about Disciplining Kids Was Wrong?”, (Mother Jones Magazine, July/August, 2015). Being a parent educator I was drawn to reading it, expecting some radical crazy thing, but I found it far from radical. I suppose you might say that is because I am radical myself, but I am also a parent educator and what Ms. Lewis wrote about is what I have been teaching in parenting classes for years.

One of my favorite classes to teach was on the difference between punishment and discipline. Old methods of child-rearing was to teach children by doing something negative to them when they misbehaved. The basic belief was that children are born basically evil and will naturally do bad or rebellious things. A parent’s job was to make sure that when children misbehaved they only needed to follow the misbehavior with something painful, Whether a spanking or sending them into time-out, it didn’t matter so much as that it was unpleasant to the child. They were like little Pavlov dogs and if parents did this painful thing often enough they would change their nature from bad to good. What the children learned instead is that hitting is okay and that if you do something you know is breaking the rules, don’t get caught. A third thing they learned is to fear people in power and that it is best to follow what people in power tell you to do.

The gift to parents today is the research that has been done on child development. We know now, for example, that children don’t automatically come into the world with any a sense of right and wrong. I have heard parents say about children as young as 1 or 2, “Oh, he knows that what he did was wrong!” My role as a parent-educator is to let them know that that is not correct. A child is a born explorer and learns from trial and error what is okay and what is not okay. This is why we put little caps on the plug-ins around the house. It is why we put them in strollers in the mall. It is why we put them in playpens (people of my generation know what that is).

In a way, punishment is a way of teaching them that something is harmful without them having to experiencing it firsthand. Moving cars are dangerous. We would not want them to learn that fact from experience. I had to concede to parents that there may be experiences that serve as exceptions to the rule. A woman in one of my classes told me that she remembered the one time she ever got a spanking from her mother. “I was about 5 years old and lived on a farm. One day I went into the corn field. It looked like a big forest to me. I got lost. People came from all over to help in the search. They finally found me and when they brought me to my mother she first hugged me, then she spanked me and said, ‘Don’t you ever go into the cornfield again.’ I never did. I knew she spanked me because she loved me.”

I asked the woman, “Is that the only time you were ever spanked?”

She said, “Yes.”

“And that is why it worked. If your mother spanked you for failing to clean your room and for breaking a dish or for throwing something at your brother, it is very likely that your memory of that event would be different. All of these other behaviors would have been put on an equal plane in terms of seriousness as walking in to a cornfield at 5.” I wasn’t trying to tell my parents that spanking is okay but, rather, the use of spanking by the mother in this scenerio was perfectly understandable.

I think, though, that there was another way the mother could have handled the situation without spanking. I am guessing that the child was pretty frightened when alone among the stalks not knowing if she would ever be found. The lesson of the dangers of wandering into a cornfield alone had already been impressed upon her by her experience. The mother could have followed it with a serious talk as well as lots of hugs and “I love you and would never want anything bad to happen to you.” There could also be some restrictions set that might feel like punishment to a child, but would be a precaution until the parent was able to trust that she had indeed learned the lesson.

I have more thoughts to share in the following blogs. I would love for you to share your experiences and ideas.

Failing Well

There are so many ways to fail. We can fail at bringing quality to a project, pulling an event together, showing up on time, or at remembering things we feel we should remember. We can fail at communicating well, at being there for a friend, or at keeping a promise. But it is by exeriencing the outcomes of our misteps that we learn how to live life well. Most of life’s lessons are learned by trial and error, in fact, that is the superior way to learn. Failure makes our learning go down deep.

I watched a video posted on Facebook this morning that shows how important failing is to success. Note how parents in the video don’t protect their children from messing up, but they stand by to heal and support them.

Two Children

Two little children spilled their milk.

One parent said, “Look what you did! If you hadn’t been goofing around that would not have happened!” and went to fetch a rag.

The other parent said, “Opps! Accidents happen. Here is a rag. I’ll hold your plate while you wipe.”

The first child knew that she was bad.

The second child knew that he is human.

The first child knew that she was incompetent.

The second child knew that he was capable.

The first child felt alone.

The second child felt part of a community of helpers.