Many couples struggle with their different parenting styles, one being generally strict and one laissez faire. We also struggle within ourselves-if we are too permissive and things become chaotic, we may explode with anger. If we are overly strict and that doesn’t work, we may give up completely. Often, one spouse allows the other to do all the parenting or to determine the style of parenting because of his or her fear of conflict. Although there’s no apparent struggle here, one spouse has given up his or her ability to take a stand in relation to the spouse and children. This is neither good for the relationship nor good role modeling for the children.
Differences between spouses on methods of parenting stem mostly from what we experienced from our own parents. Our primary parenting style is often either a reflection of or a negative response to the more dominant parenting style of our two parents. As such, it is deeply ingrained. The two dominant parenting styles reflect two dominant values in our culture: responsibility and freedom. Responsibility places emphasis on the work ethic, which values productivity & organization. Freedom has its emphasis on creativity, choices, and feelings.
The hero myth and its emphasis on accomplishment are in large part responsible for the authoritarian in our western culture. The positive aspects of authoritarianism-efficiency, discipline, capability and productivity-are important components in life and advantageous in the hero culture. When discipline becomes all encompassing, however, life loses something else of value.
Positive Motivations of the Authoritarian
Authoritarian parents want their children to be successful, capable, independent, and productive in life. Key to success is learning self-discipline and the ability to postpone gratification, which are necessary to be able to study, to hold a job, and to maintain long-term relationships.
Problems with Excessive Strictness
1. Little or no relationship
Within the context of family, the authoritarian wants to efficiently achieve what needs to be done for “the child’s own good” through a commanding style. Many of us in contemporary western culture strive to lead and have our children lead “full” lives, mentally, athletically, and socially. To accomplish so much, we have to plan and organize rigorously, and are often left with little time and patience for simply hanging out with our children on their own terms of imagination and creativity. It seems that it is precisely during such unstructured time of play where there are no lectures or commands that the best connection between parents and children occurs. It is also the time where the imagination can run freely.
2. Harsh inner critic
The child develops a debilitating inner critic, which leads to destructive feelings of inadequacy. A severe inner critic can lead the child to resort to drugs or alcohol to quiet that inner critical parent.
3. Child becomes equally domineering or a target for domineering people
A child who feels overly controlled often feels resentful, angry, and impotent, and may lash out or become completely passive. Such a child may then try to find a sense of power by imitating his or her parents resulting in controlling or bullying behavior. Or that child develops a pattern of appeasing bully behavior, and thus, becomes a target for bossy, domineering people, including future wives and husbands.
4. Child lies and lives secret life
Fear of an domineering parent causes many children to appear obedient and to hide any disagreement or behavior that is not acceptable to the parent.
5. Child becomes angry, and potentially violent
Authoritarianism sometimes stems from parents being driven to push their children to do the things they themselves crave to have done, such as become athletes, musicians, or scholars. When we find ourselves exerting excessive pressure on our children to accomplish what we long to accomplish, we need to consider whether we are making our children compensate for what is missing in our lives. While we should provide opportunities, engage in conversations about the benefits of such opportunities, and even insist on study or practice, excessive pressure and control rob a child of the ability to gain authentic power.
When an authoritarian parent resorts to punishment, shame, and humiliation in an attempt to motivate or to punish a child, that child feels belittled and loses all self-empowerment. Excessive shame and punishment lead to feelings of anger and impotence, a terrible combination, which can result in violence, depression, or passive aggressive behavior.
The Permissive Parent
Permissive parents generally want their kids to be happy, creative, enjoy life, and feel loved. They also want to enhance their children’s sense of self-empowerment. They enjoy connection with their children. It is precisely during times of play and hanging out when there are no lectures or commands that the best connection between parents and children occurs.
Permissiveness in parenting sometimes stems from the desire to let the child’s creativity flourish and to avoid crushing the child’s sense of empowerment. Permissiveness can also result from not knowing how else to parent. It takes a great deal of effort to consistently engage a child and to take the time to encourage life-promoting behaviors and attitudes.
Problems with Excessive Lenience
1. Demanding and spoiled
Fear of conflict may lead a parent to over-indulge a child. When a child wants to stay up late or to skip soccer practice without a good reason, a parent dreads the child’s whining and protests. Allowing a child to skip one more activity seems to be a small price to pay to avoid a tantrum. Yet, over the long term, responding to whining or begging may cause the behavior to become a pattern. Repeatedly placating a child to minimize resistance only creates greater resistance in the future and into adulthood.
2. Anxious and insecure
Although the child of a permissive parent may get more of her immediate desires fulfilled, the child often feels apprehensive about her excessive power and the chaos that ensues when she gets out of control. Lacking boundaries, the child can suffer from insecurity and find it difficult to cultivate self-discipline into adulthood. Such a child is denied the gift of being able to delay gratification–an ability necessary in attaining any long-term goals, and very important as an adult.
3. No self-discipline
The child doesn’t learn self-discipline and the ability to postpone gratification. An excessively permissive parent cheats his or her child out of the ability to set goals and the self-discipline to achieve them. Without these abilities, a child expects to be passively entertained. This is not gratifying, and it can lead to dependence on others or addictions to bring temporary relief from boredom. Also, the child’s habit of instant gratification makes it difficult for him or her to attain long-term goals, such as learning skills, and succeeding in school, work and long-term relationships.
4. No Respect
The child loses respect for the parent, who cannot handle the anxiety of not immediately gratifying the child. The child also loses the possibility of having a good role model for someone with the self-respect to withstand not gratifying and pleasing those around.
How do we establish boundaries and guidelines for our children without being too oppressive on the one hand and too permissive on the other?
In determining how we would like to parent our children, let’s examine the values at the core of each parenting style. The values at the core of strict discipline are responsibility, self-discipline, and perseverance, all of which enable us to do things we don’t feel like doing, such as homework and demanding work. The values at the core of permissive parenting are respect, kindness, and creativity-qualities that make life enjoyable. The lenient parent fears that the child’s imagination and sensibilities will be crushed by an overbearing approach.
Both sets of values are essential and valid, and the good news is that they are not mutually exclusive. Both sets of needs can be met simultaneously. In fact, it is one-sided parenting that causes most problems. An excessively stern parent becomes machine like in only valuing the child’s results and productivity, losing sight of the ineffable qualities of humanity-such as the joy of humor, imagination, spontaneity, and the importance of feelings and relationships. The purpose of productivity loses its meaning when the vitality of life vanishes–a root problem of so many challenges today.
In contrast, an excessively permissive parent cheats his or her child out of the ability to set goals and the self-discipline to achieve them. Without these abilities, a child expects be gratified by being passively entertained. Not only is this not fulfiiling, it inevitably leads to dependence on others or on addictive behaviors that bring temporary relief from boredom of passivity.
Thus, children need both to be treated with respect and to learn self-discipline. Discipline can be effective if the manner of giving it is respectful and done with a non-threatening manner and voice. You can, for instance, be extremely strict about the rule of a child’s not going into the fenced-off swimming pool without a parent being present. The reasons can be explained firmly, though not threateningly. The child has to believe the parent is very serious, but not angry.
The most important means of teaching our children is by being a role model and living the attributes we wish to impart to our children. Children watch their parents’ behavior more than they listen to their lectures. So, we can attempt to develop the qualities we desire in our children, qualities such as empathy, respect, self-discipline, and patience.
1. Discipline with respect
It’s important to provide expectations, boundaries, rules, and consequences, and this can be done with an attitude of respect–for the child and for oneself. Respect differs from permissiveness in that it allows for disagreement, rather than indulgence and agreement. Respect differs from obedience in that obedience is externally coerced through the use of fear or rewards, while respectful behavior is internally motivated by authentic power developed by being treated respectfully and expected to be responsible.
We can be firm while expressing compassion. For example, when a child doesn’t want to go to soccer practice, we acknowledge that it’s part of life to not always feel like practicing, working, and following through with commitments. While validating such feelings, we can insist that they follow through anyway, unless there is a big problem or an urgent situation interfering. Not only are others on the team counting on us, but we can only enjoy increased skills and accomplishments if we generally follow through with our commitments.
By expressing boundaries in this way, we teach our children how to create boundaries in a respectful way for themselves and, later, how to take a stand in the world.
The first step is to really listen to the child before responding. When parents use authentic power, they empower others. They motivate children by paying attention to feelings, needs, and desires. This doesn’t mean they need to give the child what he or she wants. By finding out what the child is thinking or feeling, they can speak more effectively to that child, and the child is more likely to listen. They can help children develop control from inside themselves, maintained by the child’s own set of internalized values.
3. Stand firm when necessary
Don’t be afraid to insist on important rules and their consequences if they fail to comply. Don’t be motivated by trying to be liked or trying to please your child. You only give up your personal power by trying to please. While you want to be kind, do not be motivated by having them like you.
4. Be reasonable
Don’t be afraid to amend a rule, if it’s unreasonable. People make mistakes and can change. But don’t make change the rule.
If we want our children to be compassionate, respectful, self-empowered, and capable of both intimacy and solitude, we need to embody these attributes ourselves. It is an ongoing journey, challenging and rewarding, and of greater benefits to children and parents than harsh criticism or giving up could ever be.
How to get on the same page with your spouse about parenting children
We can deal with our spouse, as well as all human beings for that matter, with respect and kindness, while clarifying our opinions, beliefs, expectations, and boundaries. We can start by recognizing and appreciating the values underlying his or her style of parenting. When we sincerely validate someone else’s needs or values, they are less apt to become defensive. This is not a manipulative maneuver. To have a meaningful discussion, we need to identify both our own concerns and desires while also considering our spouse’s needs and fears.
What are the core values of each parenting style? The authoritarian wants the child to develop the self-discipline and perseverance to make it in the world. The permissive parent desires that the child experience kindness, creativity, and compassion. We need to approach our spouse keeping the merits of both sets of values in mind.
In discussing parenting with our spouse, we don’t want to be authoritarian, that is, using coercion, blame, and threats; nor do we want to be permissive, that is, doing anything to please or giving up boundaries completely. For example, a father or mother says overly sternly to his child “Go to bed!” when the child has come out of the bedroom to ask for something. Later, the spouse could say, “I agree that it’s important that the child go to bed early on school nights, and not get in the habit of getting up too often to ask for things. I also prefer that we use a kinder tone of voice in asking him to go to bed.”
Thus, we can convey to our partners respectfully rather than dictatorially. When we truly integrate both sets of values, not only do wild fluctuations between lenience and severity toward the children diminish, but we set a good example for the children, and struggles between spouses lessen.
by Alison Poulsen, PhD