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Why Parenting is More Difficult Today

There is no one precise way to parent. Every parent child relationship is unique. Almost without exception, parents want their children to thrive and blossom and believe they have an irreplaceable role in that process. But parents also come to realize that the desire alone is not enough. Children may become discouraged, rebellious, irresponsible, depressed, uncooperative, anxious, or fearful. Children are all born with a particular temperament. Also, most experts in child development agree that some traits are largely inherited. Just as clearly, environment (physical, emotional, social) has an enormous impact on children's development and happiness, and the environment, unlike genes can be influenced by the family. Debating whether any given behavior is the result of inheritance (nature) or experiences after birth (nurture) may be a legitimate task for our society, but determining the relative contributions of nature or nurture to an actual child's actual behavior is impossible.

There are, however, some universal parenting practices that foster confidence, responsibility and cooperation in children. And there are some practices that do the opposite. The good news is, that there are result-oriented ways to respond to problems in parenting that are independent of the concept of 'bad' kids (over focus on nature) or 'bad' parents (over focus on nurture).

Effective discipline is essential to successful parenting. Discipline not so much in the sense of a particular technique or practice but in the sense of an overall style of parenting. All families, but especially families with children, benefit from both warmth and structure. Parenting styles have been defined based on the relative balance of empathy and control attempted by parents. The styles below do not describe any actual parent--parenting styles are only general concepts useful in discussing parenting.

Parenting Styles

Authoritative This style reflects the optimal blend between structure and empathy in the parent child relationship. Parents provide age-appropriate choices, but also provide natural and logical consequences. Parents listen and try to understand the situation from the child's point of view but have clear consistent limits. Children have some say in family affairs but this is never exerted through 'brat-power.' The children's efforts and reasonable struggles are recognized and encouraged

Permissive-Involved This style emphasizes empathy and downplays structure. Though it has always existed, this parenting style has become much more common as family size has gotten smaller and material well-being higher. Parents are generally indulgent, both in spending a lot money on a child and also rescuing children both from the consequences of their behavior and typical childhood dilemmas. Parents generally spend tremendous amounts of energy trying to influence their children's behavior, by rewards, pleading, cajoling, and lecturing. Choices are usually offered but they may be bluffs, and parents are not consistent in allowing natural or logical consequences to work. This has been described as RRR parenting--rant, rave, rescue. When overdone, children will not learn cooperation or responsibility. Because they have not struggled, adolescents may not develop a strong sense of self, and may have trouble committing to school, a career, or a community. Despite conflict at home, children tend to do well in the community, especially when little effort or follow through is needed. Rebellion or dangerous behavior may occur as children seek the security of some limits.

Authoritarian In this style, structure, or attempts at it, predominates. Parents offer few choices, and give many commands, which may or may not be consistent from day to day. This style may seem to work well when children are younger, but children are not learning to make responsible decisions on their own. Power struggles usually develop, which parents cannot win. A vicious circle develops in which harsher punishments are responded to with greater or more determined defiance, which seems to call for stronger punishments. Freedom is usually not increased as children get older, which almost inevitably leads to rebellion, either open or sneaky. Children not uncommonly leave home in their mid-teens, and during adolescent years the home atmosphere is usually tense. Despite being labeled sources of trouble at home, children are usually well-behaved and adult oriented outside the home. Trouble may develop in the community if repressed rage gets vented. A family with an authoritarian parenting style is the likeliest to experience domestic violence.

Permissive-Laissez Faire This style usually arises when parents are too tired, discouraged, overworked, or distracted to be closely involved in their children's lives, and usually also too discouraged to follow-up with consequences consistently. Shared family time is rare and members are sometimes strangers to each other, although siblings may develop a strong bond. Children often learn to solve problems as best they can without help or guidance. Trouble tends to occur at school or in the community rather than at home where there are few rules or restrictions.

It's important to note the differences above between authoritarian and authoritative styles even though the words are very similar. "Strict" is a familiar word but confusing in this context since it may be used to refer to the consistency of an authoritative parent, the harshness of an authoritarian parent, or the verbal disapproval of a permissive-involved parent. Two types of mixed patterns frequently occur:

  1. Parents pursue a more or less permissive stance until behavior is too offensive or irresponsible to ignore--often at puberty--then they try to tighten up in a drastic way, often demanding behavior that they cannot enforce,
  2. A more involved parent pursues a permissive indulgent style but when they no longer are able to control behavior, they call in the less involved parent who again tries to put down an iron fist, but is restrained and interfered with by the more involved parent. Both patterns are of ineffective, send a double message, and tend to split parents.