Behaviour & Emotions Core Concepts

Parenting styles and the one you want to aim for

Parenting Styles

There are certainly many different approaches to parenting – from strict and disciplined to free-range and even French, apparently.

Parenting style is a huge topic with an array of theories, experiences and opinions all thrown in the mix. How we parent is influenced by our values, personality, culture and the way we ourselves were parented. Interestingly, one thing that’s noticeable from even just a few minutes peering into the lives of others on a parenting reality TV show (or even at the playground!), most approaches to parenting offer strengths and weakness.

At Parenting Place, we’ve looked at parenting from lots of different angles and keep coming back to one style that’s a clear winner. Not that real-life parenting is a competition, of course. But metaphorically, it’s the Parent Coach that reigns supreme, producing secure, confident and capable children.

Let’s look at why, and also make some comparisons while still within the appropriateness of our non-judgemental metaphor!

We’ve looked at parenting from lots of different angles and keep coming back to one style that’s a clear winner. Not that real-life parenting is a competition, of course.

Yes Sir!

Sometimes we can get ourselves into a mode of parenting that features lots of rules, not many reasons for the rules, and very little emotional connection. If this type of parent was a robot, they’d have their Rules and Structure setting turned up to max, and their Love and Connection setting turned right down. If we were to give this parent’s style a label, it would be Sergeant Major.

You can probably picture it – a household and family organised and managed with military precision. The kids might appear compliant and will likely be very good at making their beds and stacking firewood, but they don’t often feel like their parents listen to them or take time to empathise with their feelings.

All over the place

Flip the switch and you get a parent who is big on love and connection, but completely averse to structure and unable to set boundaries. If they do ever manage to make any rules, they’re unable to enforce them. Boundaries and consequences just seem to make life too uncomfortable.

They’re 100% committed to doing whatever it takes to keep their kids happy and have them love them back. Sounds sweet, but if this parent were a sea creature, we’d call them a jellyfish. They’re all over the place, have no backbone and kind of float through the tougher moments of life. Sweet and rather pretty, but not that helpful at providing kids with the consistency and predictability they need to thrive.

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Missing in action

Then there is the parenting style that disregards both dials and offers very little in the way of either love and connection or rules and structure. The Absent parent is preoccupied with their own stuff and likely to hand their kids some sort of digital babysitter and point them in the direction of the fridge, allowing them time and space to get through whatever it is they need to get through uninterrupted. This sounds a bit harsh, and we can probably all relate even just a little bit. Raising kids is a big responsibility and requires huge amounts of energy. Moments of MIA might seem par for the course. This is why self-care is so important to fill our cups and resource us to stay present.

So, with Sergeant Major, Jellyfish and good old Absent shining a spotlight on typical parenting weaknesses, it’s our friend Parent Coach who inspires us to play to our strengths. With a few tweaks to the dials, we can find the right balance between connection and correction. And here we find the Parent Coach, who treats their kids with love and respect, while also expecting them to take some responsibility for their actions.

Technically speaking, this is authoritative parenting

The Parent Coach style has evidence-based theory behind it, as well as a technical name – authoritative parenting. Simply put, authoritative parenting values connection but doesn’t shy away from boundaries and authority. In this parenting style, caregivers are nurturing, supportive and responsive, yet willing and able to consistently set firm limits for their kids.

There are two key ingredients in parenting: responsiveness (parental warmth, acceptance, involvement, care, awareness, support) and demandingness (parental control, supervision, maturity demands, structure). While other parenting styles (like those mentioned earlier) can get these ingredients out of balance, or leave them out of the mix altogether, authoritative parenting gets the levels just right for both responsiveness and demandingness. And the proof is in the pudding – studies have shown that children raised by authoritative parents have better outcomes in life, in particular in the areas of self-esteem, emotional well-being, relationships, positive behaviour and academic success.

The not-so-little issue of control

It’s also important, however, to consider the value of autonomy supportive parenting. If we just look at responsiveness and demandingness, we might miss another key element of great parenting – and that is supporting our kids’ autonomy. Autonomy supportive parents provide their kids with a sense of control over their own choices. (This will be age and stage appropriate of course.) Autonomy supportive parents will still state their expectations, but they’ll also involve their child in discussions around boundary-setting and problem-solving. Parents and kids work together to ensure that boundaries, limits or expectations are well understood by all parties, and that everyone can work within them or towards them. This validates a child’s feelings about limits and boundaries, which in turn leads to greater buy-in from the child.

If a parent holds all the control, setting the rules and dictating how things will go, they may be scoring high on demandingness but there’s very little responsiveness and no autonomy support. They end up being authoritarian, like our friend the Sergeant Major.

When we parent in an authoritative and autonomy supportive way, we’re also likely to move away from punishments and rewards. Those commonly used ‘tools’ become unnecessary because our kids will develop self-determined motivation as their core needs (relatedness, competency and autonomy) are met in responsive relationship with their parents. To paraphrase author Alfie Kohn, autonomy supportive parenting is what we do with our kids, rather than to our kids.

And it looks something like this:

• Providing limits, but with clear reasons for any requests

• Responsively recognising your child’s feelings and perspectives

• Offering choices, encouraging initiative and involving your child in problem-solving

• Minimising demands and controlling techniques (the category rewards and punishments fall into)

A move away from parental control towards greater child-involvement and autonomy may sound a bit like the easy option, perhaps even a bit Jellyfish, but it’s far from it. This parenting style requires a strong relationship and deep connection with our kids. It also requires openness to hear our kids’ perspectives, as well as humility on our part to admit that we don’t always get it right. So yes, a lot of intentionality and effort! But studies show that parenting authoritatively, while still supporting our kids’ autonomy, yields wonderful results. When we let go of control and instead support our kids to make good choices for themselves, they do better at school, they chose better friends, they’re less likely to experiment with drugs, alcohol and other high-risk behaviours, and they grow up to be great decision-makers.

Thinking about the attributes of a good sports coach can help inspire us in our parenting.

Thanks Coach

Thinking about the attributes of a good sports coach can help inspire us in our parenting. What does a good coach do if a player lacks a skill? How do they handle a player who has made a mistake? How does a coach encourage the whole team and build a positive team atmosphere?

A Parent Coach (harnessing the skills and strengths championed by authoritative and autonomy-supportive parenting) draws out the best in their kids by providing them with clear rules and expectations while maintaining a consistent atmosphere where logical consequences are followed through on. Unlike the Sergeant Major style, however, a Parent Coach does all this while prioritising love and connection so kids feel valued, appreciated, understood and cared for. Parent Coaches are great cheerleaders, calling out the gold in their kids and relentlessly encouraging them to do their best.

Sounds ideal, right! Almost too ideal, but the good news is no coach needs to be perfect, and neither does a parent. In fact, there is no such thing as a perfect parent. Good enough is good enough!

This overview of parenting styles is helpful in that it encourages us in what to aim for. None of us will get it right all the time, but it’s nice to know that with some simple tweaking of the dials, we’ve got the power to change the atmosphere, re-evaluate our priorities and coach our kids to thrive. Plus hand out half-time oranges and wash endless loads of sports socks. Oh yes, a coach’s work is never done.

Baumrind, D. (1966). Effects of authoritative parental control on child behaviour. Child Development, 37, 887-907.

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Parenting Place

For over 25 years, Parenting Place has been here offering support and advice to New Zealand parents. We think that with the right support, parenting any age and stage can be a relatively stress-free and fun experience. You're doing great!

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