In this and the next three Blogs, we venture into the two most important factors that predict outcomes for children: the quality of parenting in each home (Parenting Skills 1 and 2 in this Blog #7) and (Parenting Skills 3, 4 and 5 in Blog #8), this being the No. 2 factor predicting outcomes for children, and the co-parenting relationship (Blogs #9 and 10), this being the No. 1 factor predicting outcomes for children.
Many parents consider his and her parenting as good, sometimes even judging the other parent as being a poor parent, but without much information from science about what defines good or poor parenting. Many parents get their idea from the parenting styles of their parents or that are popular at any given time or from the thousands of parenting books on the library shelves.
Here’s the good news: the social science research simplifies the issue by defining good outcomes for children based on five Parenting Skills, the following of which are in order of most important to least important:
- Authoritative parenting, as opposed to authoritarian and permissive parenting
- Nurturing and emotional support
- Clear and high expectations
- Intellectual, social and skill building stimulation
- Participation in and support for the child’s life
None of these Parenting Skills are independent; they all work together, but with different points of emphasis. Let’s unpack the first two of these Skills in this Blog.
Authoritative Parenting. Babies and toddlers are the original psychopaths. They are completely selfish without any concern for others. They will literally bite the hand that feeds them. If they wake in the night with a stomach pain, they never consider whether or not their parents are tired and need the sleep. One of the jobs of parents is to socialize children so that the children can be successful as adults. The principle way parents accomplish this is with Authoritative Parenting.
To distinguish authoritative parenting from authoritarian and permissive parenting, let’s define the latter two. Authoritarian parenting is the use of personal power – a loud voice, yelling, physical power, physical punishment – to control the child. Permissive parenting is letting the child be in charge, including breaking rules, treating others poorly, engaging in risky behavior and overriding parental attempts to control with bad behavior. Both of these forms of authority provide little guidance in part because they are inconsistent – the child never knows what will happen when they exhibit problematic behavior, such as lying and/or manipulating. A child might behave a certain way in one situation and be spanked and yelled at, but do the same thing in another situation and have nothing happen. With a permissive parent, the child might get away with a lot of misbehavior, even though the parent is telling the child to stop, until the permissive parent “blows up” at the child.
Authoritative parenting is consistent parenting, by establishing rules and consequences that are consistently enforced and predictable to the child. In a sense, the parent does not control the child; the parent controls the environment in which the child lives. The parent also never needs to get angry with the child. The parent can sympathize with the child when the child breaks a rule because the child is going to have an aversive consequence. If the rule is that the child does not interrupt someone on the telephone and must wait until after the call, and the consequence is that the child loses all screen time for 24 hours if they do interrupt, the child quickly learns not to interrupt people on the telephone or when talking to other people.
Key to authoritative parenting is that the rules are set to teach and socialize the child, not meet some selfish need of the parents. In other words, the structure of the family is benevolent: the power of authority comes from the child knowing that the parent is teaching the child to be successful. To gain the power of authoritative parenting, the parent must be able to explain to the child why it is important to comply with the rules, or in a particular situation, the rule. The benevolence is essential.
Nurturing and emotional support. Nurturing is a little more obvious than the proper use of authority. In a phrase, it is the provision of empathic compassion for the child, with warmth and affection, and with physical protection. However, there is a danger when nurturing a child. Too much focus on the child’s emotional well-being can lead to excessive concern for the child, which in turn can lead to destructive permissive parenting styles. It is not only important to provide nurturing, warmth and protection, but also important to teach the child. In some situations, the former trumps the latter and vice versa. For example, if a child is hurt doing a chore, nurturance is needed, but if the child says they are tired and don’t want to do a chore, authoritative parenting is needed. It is the harmony and balance of nurturing and authoritative parenting that does the trick: think firm but kind.
In the next Blog, we will define the remaining three Parenting Skills, which are essential in providing quality parenting in the home. Until then, examine the degree to which you run an authoritative home, and perhaps how you can improve these parenting skills, including being clear with yourself and clear with your child about your benevolent purpose. Then examine how you show nurturing behaviors to your child, and here again, how you might increase this nurturing with your children. Children need both.