Different Parenting Styles - Does It Matter?
It’s been one of those interminable days of constant negotiation with your children over the tiniest details, about treats, attention, manners, TV. Then in waltzes your partner, and throws it all to the wind. It’s indulgence time. And it’s worse when the grandparents arrive, bags stuffed to the brim with chocolates and softdrinks, melting at the sound of every infantile grunt, and responding to every whim.
It’s the source of resentment and countless arguments, and can range from minor squabbles to major breakdowns where relatives will suddenly find themselves out of the children’s lives. But this clash about the right way to parent is all about the “grown ups”. What about the children? How do differing styles, especially between partners and within the family group, affect children?
Arguments about parenting are relatively recent, as is the whole concept of childhood. In England, for instance, right into the nineteenth century children were seen, dressed and treated as, small adults. They were even sent to the gallows! Times have thankfully changed, but not always consistently or with consensus. Living in 21st century Australia, we are exposed to diverse histories across many cultures with different child-rearing practices. So what is best?
In the late 1960s psychologist Diana Baumrind set out to answer the question of the best parenting approach, and came up with 4 broad styles:
Authoritative parents: are tuned into their children’s feelings, but importantly set clear and consistent boundaries.
Permissive parents: are tuned into their children’s feelings and rarely or never set boundaries or discipline their children.
Authoritarian parents: are strict, don’t tolerate argument, and are often punitive. Rules can also be arbitrary, and reasons for discipline are rarely given.
Indifferent parents: are insensitive to their children’s needs and often inconsistent in their discipline.
Baumrind found Authoritative parenting to be the best. Indifferent and Authoritarian parenting produced the worst outcomes in children’s happiness and adjustment.
Authoritative parenting is now accepted as an ideal parenting approach, but psychologist Dr Marc de Rosnay from the University of Sydney, says the concept of Authoritative parenting and what makes it effective is often missed, as most people simply see it as a disciplinary approach. In fact it is a lot more nuanced than that.
The success of Authoritative parenting hinges on the combination of consistent and fair rules on one hand, and being sensitive to your child’s needs and feelings on the other. Both discipline and understanding emerge from being able to tune into your child’s point of view.
When we hand out rules, says de Rosnay, explanations that take account of your child’s point of view are extremely important. Discipline is not arbitrary or immoveable, but involves explanations and negotiation. This gives the child an ability to understand the bases of discipline, and adds to the child’s sense of autonomy and responsibility. More importantly, children are learning about how others feel and operate. They are developing their emotional and social competencies. “Children need to develop their own internal guidance system”, says de Rosnay.
So, what happens to this process when there’s inconsistency between parents? What happens if Mum is stricter than Dad, or vice versa, or if the grandparents operate in an entirely different way? Can this be confusing for the child?
“Children are extremely context sensitive”, says Dr de Rosnay. Children understand different people as different contexts; they understand that different people have different limits and rules and what is appropriate with mum may not be appropriate with dad, for instance.
“All of us have different boundaries,” says de Rosnay. What is important is that caregivers have appropriate respect and engagement with the child’s feelings and are consistent. Inconsistency between caregivers is in fact nowhere near as important as consistency within the caregiver, especially the main caregiver. “The danger occurs if the context is the same but the same caregiver is inconsistent”, de Rosnay emphasises, “this has a far more potent effect on the child”.
While de Rosnay warns that there can be a problem when parents feel undermined by each other, and it’s extremely important to avoid this, he also cautions about seeing all differences as undermining, pointing out that some of us are over-sensitive about people who do things differently with our children.
It’s unreasonable to expect, he says, that other caregivers won’t have their own ways of relating to your child. What is important in any child-adult relationship is respect and understanding, and if this is present and consistent, then you needn’t worry.
Marc de Rosnay reminds us that infant research has shown that interactions between mother and infant are amazingly rich. Mothers and infants communicate and learn from each other in a startling dialogue of gestures, sounds and touch; moreover this is natural. When we are naturally tuned into our children, we do best; yet we are all a little different. As the child grows and starts developing her sense of others and self, she is learning both how she is different and similar to others. De Rosnay suggests that this is best promoted in a home environment where everyone is heard and understood, and where a culture of listening and taking other’s points of view is encouraged. And central to that is tolerance of difference.
Editor's Note: our commenting system has changed since this article has been published. Comments just below this article are from the old system. To add a new comment, please scroll to the bottom and use the Disqus commenting system. Thank you.