Whether or not you have kids, you probably have an opinion on parenting. Should mums and dads enforce rules strictly, whether their kids like it or not? Or is it more important to let kids enjoy themselves, even if that means bending the rules sometimes?
We've got two approaches here, representing two different parenting styles:
- The "Because I said so" approach roughly matches a style known as authoritarian parenting. As Psychology Today explains, authoritarians believe that children are naturally willful, and parents have to force children to do the right thing whether they like it or not.
- "Let kids be kids" is more of a permissive parenting style. Permissive parents set fewer rules, and don't believe that control is an essential goal of parenting. They may not assign many tasks or chores.
When I wrote about how to limit your child's gorging on candy without ruining Halloween, some of you argued that limiting candy was unnecessary helicoptering. That's an argument in favour of permissiveness. Others, on the authoritarian side, said that the right answer is to take the candy away when you feel ready, because you're the parent and you set the rules.
Parents can, of course, use a mix of the two styles, so these are extremes on a continuum. But in a given situation, which approach should you lean towards?
Permissive Parenting Is More Flexible In Tough Situations
Giving kids a firm "no," when you know they'd rather hear "yes," is a hard thing to do. Fans of authoritarian parenting may say: tough cookies. But sometimes it's difficult or impossible to stand firm.
Take the classic grocery store tantrum for example. Your kid wants to buy candy, but you don't. If you want to enforce a firm "no," you may need to carry the kid out, kicking and screaming.
Parents of only children are nodding along here: yeah, you have to do that sometimes. But what do you do when you're shopping with three kids? You would have to find a way to get the middle child off the floor and out of the store while also carrying a fussy baby, and barking orders at the older kid to do damage control (like picking up your keys when a little one throws them on the floor.)
I've been in this situation, and let me tell you: the only way to get home with your groceries and all your children may be to back off from your "no." This may involve negotiations: Kids young enough to throw tantrums are also sometimes dumb enough to accept a lollipop or a promise of a treat at home in place of that giant bag of candy.
Kids Need Rules
This doesn't mean that setting rules and saying no are lost causes. For example, my toddler doesn't like to wear her seatbelt, but I buckle it anyway and she's too small to unbuckle herself. If you want to train your kids to respect a firm "no," you'll have to restrict its use to times when you can actually enforce it.
Besides safety related rules like that one, rules that set up structure and routine are important. If bedtime happens in a different way and at a different time every day, then the child never knows when to expect it. You can't blame her for not being on board with a sudden surprise obligation. If your boss could show up anytime and demand you start working, you wouldn't like that very much either.
I used to work a flexible schedule. So if I told my kid that it was time to go to day care, and he didn't want to go, sometimes I would give in and rearrange my schedule so he could stay home that day. He would cry about day care every day, though, and it broke my heart even though I knew he loved the place. He was always beaming when I picked him up.
On a teacher's suggestion, I decided to set a schedule: Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays would be our "day care days." It only took a few days into the schedule for the outbursts to stop. "Mum, is it a day care day?" he would ask. If the answer was yes, he'd say "Aw, man!" but go along with the routine.
As adults we may not always like rules and routines, but we have control over how we spend our time. Kids don't. So if they have some structure, at least they know what's going to happen. And they don't waste their effort (or their tantrums) on things that are always off limits.
Neither Approach Is Great If You Use It All the Time
There's a huge body of research that tries to connect parenting styles with different outcomes in kids. For example, whose teenagers are more likely to binge drink? A 2014 study from the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs says teen binge drinkers are more likely to have permissive than authoritarian parents, but that a middle-of-the-road style, dubbed authoritative, was better than either extreme.
Permissive parenting has also been linked with children's aggressiveness, excessive television watching, and a greater likelihood of being overweight. But before you start rewriting your household rules, there's something you should know: permissive parenting, as defined in these studies, means more than just occasionally giving in.
The studies that link permissive parenting to bad outcomes include parents who agree with statements like "I ignore my child's bad behaviour." That's obviously not a great approach to parenting.
The other extreme, authoritarian parenting, is also not great for kids in the long run. Super strict parents tend to have kids who are good at obeying rules, but have less self-esteem, social aptitude, and resourcefulness.
The Verdict: Pick Your Battles
The healthiest outlook on life seems to come from the middle ground in parenting. Authoritative parents (the one that's not authoritarian, and I'm sorry those words sound so similar) are nurturing and allow family discussions rather than operating on a "because I said so" basis. But they also don't let their kids get away with bad behaviour. Fortunately, this style is one of the most common for parents to use. In other words, if you have kids, it's likely what you're doing already.
Personally, I'm in this category with a lean toward more the more permissive end. My kids get unfettered access to their Halloween candy, and they play far more hours of Minecraft per day than I'm willing to publicly admit. But I'm strict in a few places that are important to me: for example, the older kids absolutely may not leave the door to the stairs open, because that endangers their baby sister. They aren't allowed to hurt each other or be excessively rude to their parents. And I don't know how much longer I'll be able to get away with this, but I've convinced them that soda is a totally-off-limits "grownup drink."
This middle of the road approach allows both extremes to be used sometimes — you can stand firm on the candy, and be permissive about video games, or whatever works for you. As long as you don't expect blind obedience and you don't overlook serious misbehavior, your kids will probably turn out alright.