What Will Your Parenting Style Be?
Many Types of Parenting, No One Right Answer
All parents face certain big questions when it comes to raising, teaching, and disciplining their children. Try to feel confidence in your own decisions and instincts. As we mentioned in our article on newborn parenting, BabyList is supportive and inclusive of a wide range of family choices. We don’t advocate for one parenting style over another, but want to let you know about the range of choices parents make.
Everyone has an opinion on parenting: there’s no way to convince the whole world you’re doing it right. So just listen to the helpful advice, ignore the unhelpful advice, and focus on getting on the same page as your spouse or other caregivers. In fact, the questions on this list can be great to discuss with other caregivers. Try to approach areas of disagreement with a sense of curiosity. What life experience have shaped each of your beliefs about parenting?
When there are tough calls to make, it’s easy to end up doubting yourself. Just remember, every parent makes mistakes. It’s impossible to do everything perfectly! But if you add lots of love, and it will all turn out okay.
- What can I learn from my own childhood?
- What are my goals for my child?
- What kind of parenting makes a child happy?
- What kind of parenting makes a child successful and high-achieving?
- What kind of parenting makes a child empathetic and kind?
- Should I push my child to learn and succeed faster? What kind of parenting makes a child smart?
- How should I react when my child does something wrong?
- Should I try to motivate my kid with rewards or bribes?
- Should I emphasize obedience to rules or independent reasoning when I’m teaching my kid to do the right thing?
- Will my child benefit more from structured activities or unstructured play time?
- How involved should I be in my child’s problems and decisions as they grow?
- How and when should I approach giving my children freedom and independence?
What can I learn from my own childhood?
Try to remember what it felt like to be a child. Since your child will be different from you, not all your memories will apply, but it can be a useful perspective. Think about how your own parents treated you. What turned out well? What didn’t turn out so well?
You might wonder whether you are likely to repeat your parent’s mistakes. Well, whether you had a happy or traumatic childhood, psychological research shows the important thing is that you form a narrative about what happened to you. When you form a narrative about your own childhood, it helps you avoid your parent’s mistakes and duplicate their successes.
One interesting study is that 50% of millennial parents agree with the statement “I am raising my kids the way I was raised,” while 28% disagree and 22% are neutral. So whether you liked, disliked, or felt pretty neutral about your childhood– you’re not alone.
What are my goals for my child?
How do you measure “good parenting?” Part of the difficulty is that different parents may have different goals for their children. In other words, to know whether you’re being a good parent, you first have to define what “good” means to you. True, there are certain things everyone wants for their kids (success, happiness, and safety, to name a few), but we may prioritize them differently or define them differently.
The Pew Research Center did a study on what qualities parents most want their children to have. Fascinatingly enough, responsibility was the top-ranked quality! From most to least popular, these were all the top-ranked qualities: responsibility, hard work, helping others, good manners, independence, creativity, empathy, persistence, tolerance, obedience, religious faith, and curiosity.
It’s important that your daily actions reflect your parenting values. Otherwise, there may be a gap between what you believe and what your kids think you expect of them. For example, in this study, 80% of youth said they believed their parents valued achievement and good grades over being a kind or happy person. It’s easy to see how this could happen; the parents were probably constantly checking up on grades, and not on other things.
It helps to be conscious of your own parenting goals. Try sitting down by yourself or with your fellow caregiver(s), and brainstorming a list of the qualities you hope to impart to your child. Which values are most important to you? Which are least important? How can your daily actions reinforce those values?
Your little bundle of joy is learning from you each and every day! Children are profoundly influenced by their parent’s hopes and fears for them, although as they become young adults they may reject or accept those hopes and fears in various ways. All we can really do is try to choose our hopes and fears as wisely as possible.
What kind of parenting makes a child happy?
What makes children happy? We reviewed some studies on the matter, and these were a few things came up over and over again:
Happy parents help!
Being connected (to parents, friends, relatives, community) is really key.
They need to be taught a healthy mental response to adversity and misfortune because, let’s face it, no one’s life is only sunshine!
As far as happy parents go, we have a bit of bad news to share. Study after study has shown that in the United States, parents are LESS happy than childless individuals. Interestingly enough, parental happiness levels depend largely on what country you live in. In countries that have more support for parents, parents tend to be happier than their childless counterparts. In countries that have low levels of support for parents (like the United States) parents are less happy on average.
Sociologist Jennifer Glass said of her research, “American parents tend to feel that the challenges they face when raising kids are more of an individual burden than a social problem–that if only they were more organized, or if they had more energy, they could do a better job at balancing family and work. Instead, they should recognize that what they’re experiencing may be part of a much bigger social issue.” So if you’re not feeling happy right now, don’t feel guilty about it. It’s not your fault. However, if there’s anything you can invest in that would make you happier–it’ll help both you and your kids brighten up.
When it comes to connection with others, there are tons of things you can do as a parent to help your child feel more connected. Do your best to teach them good relationship skills and emotional intelligence. Don’t let screen time become a substitute for real life interaction (a danger for adults as well as children–so make sure you set a good example). Schedule quality time with your kids; one study showed that families who had regular family dinners were less likely to have troubled teens. (If dinnertime doesn’t work with your family’s schedule, you could schedule regular quality time for another hour). Giving your kids important responsibilities within the family can also help them feel more connected to you. Being valued is key to the happiness of both children and adults.
Teaching good responses to adversity could be the most important happiness skill you impart to your child. “Praise the effort rather than the result” is a common recommendation in the parenting literature. This teaches your kid to be happy they’ve tried, instead of linking their happiness to success or failure which could be totally outside of their control. Giving your kid a habit of counting their blessings in times of adversity is important too; there’s a lot of evidence that gratitude makes you happier. Teaching your kids how to express, understand, and process their negative emotions can be helpful too. Not only is it impossible to protect your child from every misfortune, psychologists say it could be damaging to try. However, you can protect your child’s happiness by teaching them to bounce back!
What kind of parenting makes a child successful and high-achieving?
Thankfully, one of the answers to this question is ridiculously simple: make sure they have a good breakfast and a good night’s sleep, says the National Library of Medicine. Good eating and sleeping habits make a huge, quantifiable difference to achievement. Scientific American also specifies that you should praise kids for their hard work rather than their innate talents. This makes them believe that success is about how hard you try rather than who you are–which makes them try harder and succeed more.
The big parenting debate when it comes to fostering your kid’s success is whether putting pressure on them builds them up or breaks them down. There’s unlikely to ever be consensus on this question–in large part because different kids will respond differently to pressure. This NY Times columnist makes the point that it’s important to teach kids to be self-motivated, and if you’re always being pressured externally (by nagging, rewards, etc) you don’t learn the skill of motivating yourself.
What kind of parenting makes a child empathetic and kind?
Leading by example works great! Another helpful thing is to make kids aware of experiences outside their own: they can volunteer, befriend people who are different from them, or read books. Reading the right kinds of books is proven to increase empathy, and you’ll notice that baby books in particular tend to emphasize themes of kindness and compassion. Selecting media that reflects your values can be a great way to influence your child’s character at an early age.
You can also read the Harvard research on what it takes to raise children who are kind and caring. One interesting point from the research is “zoom in and zoom out.” You “zoom in” by teaching kids to care for those who are close to them, but you “zoom out” by teaching them to care for people who are different or far away. Although zooming in and zooming out both fall under the category of empathy, they can be fairly different skills to learn and practice.
Another interesting point in this research is that teaching kids to care for others can open them up to the sadness of the world. So if you’re going to teach them to be kind, you also need to teach them to process negative emotions in healthy ways, and understand that certain events are beyond their control. Despite this concern, research also shows that kinder people are happier people in the long run.
Should I push my child to learn and succeed faster? What kind of parenting makes a child smart?
Pushing your child to reach developmental milestones and become “successful” as quickly as possible is something of a cultural norm. In the United States, you can send your toddler to prep school and parents frequently experience great anxiety if their kids aren’t learning as fast as the other kids. In times of economic uncertainty, being a fast learner is seen as a hedge of safety against a tough and competitive future.
Taking anything to an extreme can have negative consequences. In areas of the country where parental pressure to succeed is highest, we see clusters of teen suicides. So there’s also been a backlash against pressuring kids to learn fast. The founder of the “Slow Parenting” movement, Carl Honoré, critiques our success-hungry norms: “Children need to strive and struggle and stretch themselves, but that does not mean childhood should be a race. Slow parents give their children plenty of time and space to explore the world on their own terms.” The RIE (Resources for Infant Educarers) parenting movement has a similar philosophy: “We give the infant plenty of time for uninterrupted play. Instead of trying to teach babies new skills, we appreciate and admire what babies are actually doing.”
What does scientific research say about how parents can make their children smarter? There seems to be a distinction between parental involvement (usually positive) and parental pressure or control (which can backfire). When your child is a baby, the main way to make them smarter is to interact with them as much as possible. This WebMD article quotes a doctor saying, “Experiences that have emotional content and human interaction are what is pleasurable and meaningful to a baby. They act like glue for their memory, helping them to retain what they are picking up and learning.” This study underlines in particular the importance of speaking to your baby: “Children who had experienced more child-directed speech had larger vocabularies by 24 months, compared to children who had heard less child-directed speech.”
For older children, the studies are similar: it’s not like there’s a magic recipe or a one-size-fits-all method, but parental involvement and attention does seem to help kids get smarter. Other things correlated with intelligence include having a lot of books in the house, learning how to play a musical instrument, and exercising regularly. In essence, kids need to know their parents will celebrate their gifts and talents, but they shouldn’t feel in danger of losing love if they fall short of a bar.
How should I react when my child does something wrong?
Discipline is one of the most tricky and contentious topics within parenting. It can be difficult to find neutral and objective descriptions of the different discipline options: most articles are written to promote one discipline style over another. Writers will describe their preferred form of discipline using a positive term, and describe other forms of discipline using negative or mocking names, as a tactic for pressuring you to agree with their opinions. The core controversy is strict vs. gentle, but when you dig deeper that starts to look more and more like a false dichotomy.
Let’s begin with what medical professionals recommend. The National Library of Medicine advises that “discipline should given by an adult with an affective bond to the child; consistent, close to the behaviour needing change; perceived as ‘fair’ by the child; developmentally and temperamentally appropriate; and self-enhancing, i.e., ultimately leading to self-discipline.” The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends similar things: “1) a learning environment characterized by positive, supportive parent–child relationships; 2) a strategy for systematic teaching and strengthening of desired behaviors (proactive); and 3) a strategy for decreasing or eliminating undesired or ineffective behaviors (reactive).” The Mayo Clinic’s top tip for improving toddler behavior is “show love.”
As you can see, all three of these respected medical authorities focused on the parent-child relationship as the most important factor in their discipline advice. Whether consequences are strict or gentle might not matter quite as much as the love and respect the child feels for the person delivering the consequences. This can apply to adults too. When you think about your own responses to feedback over the years, you might notice that the severity of the criticism is less important–what is more important is whether you feel like the person giving the criticism is on your side.
Some academics who study parenting and discipline styles have broken them down into three categories: authoritarian, authoritative, and permissive. An attachment parenting style leans more towards the permissive end, and an old-fashioned parenting style would be more towards the authoritarian end of the spectrum. However, the big problem with breaking it down using these words is that the words themselves are pretty laden with value judgments. Neither “authoritarian” nor “permissive” sound like things you want to be.
Mostly when people use this framework, they are advocating for the “authoritative” style which lies between authoritarian and permissive. For example, the American Mental Health Association provides this definition of authoritative parenting: “An authoritative parent has clear expectations and consequences and is affectionate toward his or her child. The authoritative parent allows for flexibility and collaborative problem solving with the child when dealing with behavioral challenges. This is the most effective form of parenting.”
One problem with medical professionals cautioning parents to avoid extremes of strictness and gentleness is that most parents are already there. Parents already seek a reasonable middle ground–the problem is figuring out exactly where you belong within that middle ground. The stressful thing is that people will try to push you to be more like them. If you google parenting styles, you’ll read about the “jellyfish parents” who are too permissive, the “tiger parents” who are too strict, and “dolphin parents” who apparently achieve that perfect tiger-jellyfish blend! (We’re not kidding: people really do compare parents to jellyfish, tigers, and dolphins. Mostly here at BabyList, we like to compare parents to humans. Because… they are humans?)
You get more practical information when you break away from the strict vs. gentle debate and study the how-to’s of different discipline methods. One popular discipline method is positive parenting where you lavish attention on positive behaviors and try to understand and address the root causes of negative behaviors. In the positive parenting philosophy, the best way to hold children responsible for their mistakes is to have them fix the harm their actions caused (rather than ensure they suffer for bad behavior). There’s an accountability side of it for parents too, because parents are supposed to model skills they want their children to learn (like keeping your temper).
Emotion coaching is another discipline style that includes a lot of detailed how-to information. The idea of emotion coaching is to understand and accept the child’s negative feelings then empower them to choose behaviors rather than blindly react to feelings. You’re also supposed to help your child understand why they felt negative in the first place, and (without asking them to change their feelings) do your best to solve together the problem which caused the negativity. If you’ve ever gone to therapy, you might notice a lot of similarity between that and emotion coaching… big people and little people are less different than you’d think!
There are tons of helpful discipline strategies parents can draw on for advice. Here’s just a few more: in boundary-based discipline, you give your child a sense of predictability, order, and safety by drawing boundaries. In gentle discipline, you make sure to deliver layers of warnings before moving to punishment–and when possible you try and redirect them away from bad behavior using silliness or humor. In an egalitarian discipline strategy, you give your kids the freedom to make their own personal choices, but you’re also strict about preventing your kids from harming others.
“What do I want to be permissive about and what do I want to be strict about?” might be the most useful question ask yourself and discuss with other caregivers. (It seems much more useful than “Am I tiger or a jellyfish?”) Parents tend to be strict about behaviors that relate to their core values, and more relaxed about behaviors that don’t relate to core values. Oftentimes when parents label each other as permissive or strict they are just overlooking the fact that values vary between families. A family that prioritizes freedom and self-expression may produce different child behavior than a family that prioritizes courtesy and respect. Although the end goal is for the child to have all those positive attributes, realistically parenting is about making a series of trade-offs. Don’t assume another parent is asleep at the wheel: they might just be making a different decision regarding the trade-offs. Being respectful of other parents is always a good thing to do because parenting is hard.
Should I try to motivate my kid with rewards or bribes?
One discipline strategy not specifically mentioned above is behavior modification, which is basically using rewards and punishments as a form of conditioning your child. This is based on a psychological theory called behaviorism. Behaviorism in parenting is less popular today because of awareness that people (even very young people) have more complex motivations than pleasure and pain. Nonetheless, the impact of a “treat” can still be powerful! The question is, what kind of impact does it have?
There are arguments for and against this tactic. This doctor recommends against bribing kids, because he worries it sends kids messages like “You don’t naturally want to have good behavior” and “You’re not capable of good behavior without bribery.” In general, people who argue against the use of bribes and rewards want kids to be internally motivated, not dependent on external motivations. They say the desire not to disappoint your parents should matter more to you than a treat.
A Freakonomics podcast is in favor of bribes: “So many people — kids and adults — have a hard time making good short-term decisions that will have a long-term benefit.” The argument is that having a reward system leverages our short-term impulses to help us make good long-term decisions. This psychologist says that the right kind of bribe can be okay: she recommends bribing toddlers with silliness, fun, and games. She also adds that it’s important to reward good behavior before your child has a chance to misbehave–that way it’s like you’re not rewarding the bad behavior. In her opinion, expecting a child to be totally internally motivated is expecting an awful lot of maturity from them! (Even adults have trouble with that one.)
We enjoyed this cordial back-and-forth debate column in the New York Times on the topic of parental bribery. We learned from it that a lot of parents’ reservations around bribery stem from fear of making their children greedy. However, it seems like in the trenches of parenthood, bribery is often an expedient way to get a badly needed quick result. One handy tip is that surprising kids with rewards can be more effective and motivational than negotiating bribes (that can get mercenary fast).
Should I emphasize obedience to rules or independent reasoning when I’m teaching my kid to do the right thing?
Parents who value obedience see a connection between obedience and unselfishness: teaching their child to obey is teaching the child to prioritize the needs of the larger group above their own desires. Safety is another concern for parents who value obedience, since failure to obey can sometimes put you in physical, social, or emotional danger.
Parents who prioritize independent thinking above obedience bring up the issue that obeying the wrong person can be dangerous. They point out that obedient children will become obedient adults, and adults with a habit of obedience can easily become doormats in relationships or be manipulated by unscrupulous authority figures.
Many parents seek middle ground on this issue. For example, they might teach their kids to independently reason their way to obedience. An example of this would be, “You should obey the rules of spelling and grammar at school so that people will respect you more when you communicate.” But what if your smart aleck teenager points out that the famous poet e.e. cummings didn’t respect any of those rules? You could try pointing out that you can’t innovate on a system (like language) unless you first obtain mastery of the regular system.
One approach is to teach your kid which situations call for obedience and which call for independent thinking. After all, both approaches to life can potentially unlock impressive success. Respect for authority can help you move up within a hierarchy, and disrespect for authority can free up your mind to innovate. Realistically, most people grow up practicing a blend of both, and depending on your personality, one or the other might be more difficult to learn. Both an excessively rebellious child and an excessively obedient child might be cause for concern in different ways.
Will my child benefit more from structured activities or unstructured play time?
The “concerted cultivation” approach to parenting is when you schedule your child’s life full of organized activities. In “natural growth parenting,” you give children unstructured time and let them create activities to occupy themselves. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. If you’re always doing activities, you master the skill of how to navigate through institutions, which can be a really useful skill for adult life; plus you get exposed to a wide variety of topics. However, a more unscheduled life gives you more time to hang out with family members, and perhaps a more organic approach to self-discovery.
Originally concerted cultivation was associated especially with affluent parents because purchasing all those activities can take a substantial chunk of change. That’s beginning to change however as affluent parents begin to worry about “over-parenting” and place more value on unstructured time. Both of the phrases were originally coined by a book about class differences in parenting called Unequal Childhoods. Interestingly enough, the book didn’t argue that the upper-class approach was necessarily better; it just pointed out that lower-class kids got more free time and upper-class kids got more monetary investment.
How involved should I be in my child’s problems and decisions as they grow?
What level of parental involvement is best for children? An “uninvolved” parent ignores or doesn’t notice bad behavior, rather than using gentle or strict approaches to correct it. Research tends to criticize “uninvolved” parenting because of all the evidence about the importance of quality time with parents. However, recently there’s also been huge criticism of parents who are “over-involved.” That makes the question “How involved should I be?” a confusing one to answer for parents.
The term “helicopter parent” was invented to disparage over-involved parents. “Helicopter parents typically take too much responsibility for their children’s experiences and, specifically, their successes or failures,” one doctor says. A journalist for Quartz writing about the rise of helicopter parenting explains that media-driven fears about child endangerment plus economy-driven anxieties about child success drove parents to “hover” over their children like a helicopter. Parenting fads tend to follow a cycle where people go too far in one direction, and then there’s a backlash against it, and just now the torrent of criticism against helicopter parenting is running high.
Bringing Up Bébé, a best-selling parenting book, argues that French parents have learned how to strike a good balance when it comes to the question of involvement. Here’s a sample of the author’s thinking: “The French have managed to be involved with their families without becoming obsessive. They assume that even good parents aren’t at the constant service of their children, and that there is no need to feel guilty about this. ‘For me, the evenings are for the parents,’ one Parisian mother told me. ‘My daughter can be with us if she wants, but it’s adult time.’ French parents want their kids to be stimulated, but not all the time. While some American toddlers are getting Mandarin tutors and preliteracy training, French kids are—by design—toddling around by themselves.”
One measure of whether you’re involved enough could be the way you feel. If you’re getting too involved, you may start to be stressed out because you’re not saving enough of your time for yourself. If you’re not involved enough, you may start to miss your kids. This study says that quality time trumps quantity of time; spending a lot of time with a parent who is anxious and stressed can actually have negative results. So you should feel good about taking the time for yourself–it allows you to be at the top of your parenting game.
“Lighthouse parenting” offers another philosophy of moderation: give unconditional love, but let your children fail in small ways. Like a lighthouse, you enable them to ride choppy waters without crashing against the rocks. In other words, small failures can be great life lessons; but irreversible failures are something a parent might wish to intervene to prevent.
How and when should I approach giving my children freedom and independence?
Controversy is roaring over “free-range parenting,” a parenting style which gives children “as much freedom as they can handle” to encourage their independence. The Free-Range Kids & Parents Bill of Rights is an interesting read. A couple of free-range parents in Maryland made national headlines when they were accused of child neglect because they allowed their children to roam about the neighborhood unsupervised (the children’s ages were six and ten). Everyone had an opinion on whether that was appropriate or not.
One interesting thing to note is that there’s been a historical trend in the United States of allowing children less and less freedom over time: “In 1971, 80% of third graders walked to school alone—but by 1990 that number dwindled to only nine percent. The same trend goes for walking between one to five miles from home, going to the playground alone, and going out at night.” Why have parent’s attitudes changed? Is modern life really more hazardous, or is it only our fears that have grown?
Parents with less money may be obliged to give their kids more freedom by necessity. Kids will end up being on their own while their parents struggle to make ends meet. Making constant supervision of children a legal requirement has been criticized by some as a form of class warfare, essentially criminalizing poverty. Laws about when you’re allowed to leave children home alone vary widely; Illinois law requires children to be fourteen years old; Maryland says eight years old, and Oregon says ten years. There are even more rules about leaving children in cars. Child neglect laws can vary even by municipality, and their enforcement is more varied still.
Beyond the question of what is legal, there’s the question of what’s right for your child. Many parents reject the idea of picking a certain age to bestow certain freedoms, saying what matters most is how responsible the child has proven themselves to be. In general, seeking the right balance between autonomy and guidance is key.
Despite the numberless “parenting studies” trying to convince you that the tiniest wrong move will destroy your child’s life, the truth is that parenting is hard to mess up. Our instincts are pretty trustworthy, and children are tremendously flexible and resilient beings. It’s normal to worry about your child–but try to divest yourself from the stress caused by all the judgment and all the hype. Odds are, your children will easily weather even your very worst mistakes.
Plus well-intentioned parental mistakes can actually be healthy learning experiences for children! Sooner or later, your children are going to discover that you’re not perfect–so what? Understanding and emotionally accepting the imperfection of your parents can be a step towards becoming a mature and warmhearted human being. When your children grow enough to understand and forgive your imperfections, they learn to become the kind of person who knows how to forgive themselves and others. There are no perfect parents, but love is a perfect emotion that fills parents’ hearts.