This is the last of five blog posts about the parent-child interaction of a girl accomplishing a rope course. Please see the other four blogs. This last blog discusses in more detail elements of parenting style and attachment that influence successful behavior management.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s a researcher named Dianna Baumrind observed children and families over an extended period of time in order to identify factors that contributed to development of optimal capability in children. Her observations led her to coin four parent styles that have since become engrained in psychological literature and repeatedly studied for their effects on children’s mental health. These parenting styles are Authoritative, Authoritarian, Permissive and Neglecting. The Authoritative parenting style is considered the healthiest and has been proven over time to be associated with improved well-being in domains of social ability, academic performance, mental wellness and behavior.
If the authoritative parenting style is so important and to be sought after instead of Authoritarian parenting which is known to be detrimental, what exactly is it? Unfortunately the terms chosen to define these two types of parenting styles carry little understanding with most parents. The words are similar in nature and carry little intuitive meaning. Authoritative may be as confusing as esoteric words such as attestative, adaptative, commutative, and exhortative. Authoritarian may be as unclear as words like antitrinitarian, egalitarian, futilitarian, unitarian. What do these words mean anyway? How should one distinguish Authoritative and Authoritarian when they sound so much alike but are diametrically opposed? Studies support that successful execution of authoritative parenting is one of the best things we can do for our kids. Allow me to try to make it clear.
The difference between the parenting styles is determined by the method of administration of authority in the family. The suffix -ative means relating to; thus, authoritative is relating to authority. The suffix -arian refers to a person connected with a belief; thus, authoritarian is about a person who controls authority. Dr. Baumrind observed in authoritative parenting the administration of authority based on policy. Thus the children, when old enough, were involved in the discussion, education, and where appropriate, establishment of family policy. Privileges and consequences were administered relevant to following established policy. Parents were highly responsive to the needs, emotions and opinions of the children. Abundant autonomy was encouraged. Dr. Baumrind observed in authoritarian parenting the administration of authority based on the preference and will of the parent. Rules are handed down as the will of the parent with little discussion or education and control upon the child is directed from the wishes of the parent. Parents were more controlling based on their perspective and desires with less responsiveness to the viewpoint of the child. They were obedience oriented without explanation. Permissive parents were very responsive and accepting of children’s autonomy and were very lenient. They were not consistent in directing behavior in response to policy or parental will. Neglecting parents were not responsive to children’s needs or able to structure adequate behavioral guidance.
Research on attachment is closely related to a successful parenting style. Researchers in Minnesota followed children over a 30 year period to determine risk factors for healthy adaptation from birth to adulthood. One of the main study parameters was the health of the infant parent attachment. Four types of attachment have been identified: secure, avoidant, ambivalent and disorganized. Secure attachment is considered the ideal and is thought to occur when caregivers are consistently attuned emotionally and children feel connected, understood and protected. Parents provide coherent and contingent communication. (For more on this please read the other blogs ) In the Minnesota study the children with secure attachments were much more likely to form healthy relationships, succeed academically and vocationally, and develop to emotionally healthy adults.
The long term longitudinal studies referenced don’t directly correlate parenting style with attachment but it seems intuitive they would be associated. Authoritative parenting style very likely promotes healthy secure attachment. What are the key ingredients and how do they relate to our girl’s day on the rope course?
Authoritative parenting establishes structure through policy
For most families the main policies for successful function revolve around a few key issues: safety, healthy sleep habits, healthy eating habits, respectful treatment of others physically and emotionally (ie. No aggression, profanity, emotional abuse), healthy personal care (teeth brushing, hygiene, etc), listening to parents, and work production (chores and homework). These mainstay issues should certainly have policies governing their execution. Sometimes the function of these main issues happens so naturally in the home that policy is implicit and not in need of much work. Occasionally there are challenge areas that need formal policy making, education and emphasis until behavior changes.
Outside of mainstay policy for effective family functioning, policy can be tailored to meet the needs of individual children. For example, our girl on the rope course clearly had some anxiety and adjustment difficulty. A policy for her may have been talent building opportunities or chances to experience new things. Within that framework there would be many opportunities for discussion and decision making.
Authoritative parenting involves children in policy making when possible
Discussion with a six month old about why they need to sleep through the night in their own bed won’t help the baby understand your policy decisions, but it will help you commit to authoritative thinking. By three and half years old children begin to understand through verbal instruction what will happen next. For example, ‘if you go in the road, what will happen?’. “I’ll go to time out.” By four years of age children understand why things happen in simple and direct association. For example, ‘why should you not go in the road?’ “I might get hit by a car.” Our girl on the rope course may have had a discussion with her parents that went something like this. ‘Mom and dad know you are nervous when you try new things. We want you have new experiences to give you lots of life enjoyment. What kinds of things would you like to try?’ At this point child and parent could brainstorm several options and the girl could pick something that sounded interesting.
Most policies have negotiable and nonnegotiable items. For example, it’s not negotiable that you will try new experiences rather than watch tv and play video games all day. What kind of things you try is very negotiable. Policy making should involve lots of love and education about why the policy is important.
Authoritative parenting works more on healthy attachment than behavior control
Children are much more likely to be compliant when they feel a close connection with their parent. (Please see dance of the mosquito blog for more understanding).
Authoritative parenting focuses on understanding and rewards before consequences
Some children seem to need consequences to adjust their behavior but many comply just because of their close relationship with their parent and they know it’s the right thing to do. It’s worth a try to set a policy with lots of teaching before implementing a consequence.
Authoritative parenting practices behavior change before expecting compliance in a pinch
Just like adaptation to trying a rope course could be practiced before getting to the first platform, most behaviors can be practiced before the behavior is needed in timely and effective execution. Practice can be fun with lots of together time with parents and rewards. You should know that your child can do something before assuming that they won’t do something.
Authoritative parenting doesn’t use emotion or coercion for compliance
If preparation is done appropriately, execution should be without emotion, discussion, yelling, threatening, or physical force. Displays of anger, anxiety, sadness or excess happiness distract the child from policy execution to their relationship with the parent. Children and parents reverberate emotion. Anger in a parent can create more anger in a child or a feeling of anxiety. Likewise if children see that their parents are experiencing intense anxiety they will also have anxiety or sadness for the parent. Excess happiness can come across and mockery or sarcasm.
Talking and persuasion from parents also distracts from the task at hand. Children would much rather argue about doing something than do it. Arguing with parents can be fun; plus it can reinforce a great sense of control over the big and powerful people. A simple forewarning or reminder about policy can be done in ten words or less.
Just as our parents on the rope course stood in silence with body language expressing love and confidence in their child’s abilities – at the moment of accomplishment supportive silence is magic.
Authoritative parenting establishes consequences as part of family policy
Hopefully consequences such as timeout, job grounding, and removing privileges aren’t needed. It’s best to try without them first, however, some children don’t change behavior unless consequences are implemented and they learn by experience and unpleasant encounters that breaking policy leads to misery. Consequence implementation should only be done after a policy discussion about the need for consequences and how the consequences relate to the other policies. For example, if you have created policy about doing chores and allowed time for behavior to change, then you could have a formal policy discussion about societal consequences of misbehavior. ‘What happens if daddy drives too fast?’ ‘What happens if mommy or daddy doesn’t do work?’ ‘What happens if big people hurt someone?’ Most children will understand that consequences are necessary, especially if they are first given a chance to change without them.
For our girl on the rope course, consequence for not succeeding is difficult but could be done. For example, she could be helped to understand that not cooperating after so much preparation would result in her paying for much of the expense of the day by working. For an experience like a rope course one would hope to rely on the child’s ingrained sense of structure from past experience in the home. If she is motivated to change mainly by consequence, she should have had lots of experience with other behavior issues at home to teach her consequence follows prior to attempting the rope course. As she looked back at her parents faces she saw an instant cumulative interaction experience and knew how the parents would respond. That connection with her parents helped power her forward both in a secure attachment but also in knowing the results for not performing. Trying was less onerous than not trying.
Authoritative parents administer consequences calmly and lovingly
If proper policy is established, taught and practiced, the execution of consequence should be predictable and done without anger or lecture. Any anger or sermons at this juncture turn the attention off of the policy and the child’s responsibility for execution of the policy and to relationship control dynamics with the parent. A little facial expression of genuine sorrow that the child has chosen poorly can turn the problem back to the child’s responsibility of policy compliance. The more effectively the policy is established, the more loving the consequence can be administered because the responsibility for noncompliance falls on the child, and the predicament the child faces is with the policy – not the parent. The problem is that parents feel. Most parents don’t like to see their children upset and children’s emotions automatically create strong emotions in parents because of their close attachment. Parents often begin to have thoughts of catastrophe when their children are upset and say things like, “you’re not my favorite parent anymore.” Worries emerge about the child not liking them again, not inviting them to their wedding and not ever seeing their grandchildren; these worries augment into a firestorm of painful sensations. Parent’s emotional reaction may preclude successful administration of consequences in a calm manner. The key is for parents to maintain focus on policy adherence and not emotional response. Sometimes parents need professional help with their own emotional regulation abilities before attempting to help their children regulate their behaviors. Most children who need consequences will also require a transition time to adjust to new policies during which they may express a lot of negative emotion. Some take longer than others and for some it’s like climbing Mount Everest. If the child truly can adjust to policy and doesn’t have some condition precluding behavior transformation, it will just take some time. A major problem develops if parents only help the child halfway up the mountain and then give up. The child then not only doesn’t develop adaptive resilience but is reinforced for maladaptive behavior strategies.
Hopefully these blogs on parent-child relationships have provided some insight to help in your daily relationship with your child. The blogs need to be read as a unit to fully understand the material. Parenting can bring such joy yet be so difficult. If you are struggling with behavior issues please allow one of our excellent pediatricians to discuss these issues with you further. We also have wonderful psychology associates with whom we collaborate.
John Bennett M.D. FAAP
Canyon View Pediatrics
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