Parenthood is a status that is anticipated with much excitement and trepidation. When it happens, a mix of instincts, childhood experiences and ideas acquired from fellow-parents, friends and other sources meld to form a distinctive style of parenting, unique to each parent and family.
As parents, we may respond to the actions of our children with affection and encouragement and offer sensitive guidance. Alternatively, we may use commands, negative comments and threats to ensure that our children meet our expectations. Important influences on expectations include culture, values, roles and practices specific to individual family units.
Parenting through cultures and ages
All societies and cultures expect parents to nurture and protect their children. They prescribe parenting practices appropriate to their contexts. In India, our scriptures and ancient thought leaders set forth parenting precepts and ways of inculcating codes of beliefs and conduct in children.
The nature of the family unit – the joint family or the more recent nuclear family – plays an important role in determining how parenting occurs. Although both types have similar parenting goals, the joint or extended family leans more towards co-operative relationships, as members depend a great deal on each other. The nuclear family favours a child-centered style with emphasis on individuality, character and uniqueness.
Importantly, the way we raise children changes and evolves over time and as they grow older.
Extensive research indicates that parenting styles across cultural contexts fall into four main categories – Authoritarian, Permissive, Neglectful and Authoritative.
Authoritarian Parenting – Controlled child
The authoritarian or ‘do as I say’ parent takes complete responsibility for the child, makes all the decisions, and expects the child to be unquestioningly obedient. There is order without freedom. With no scope for reasoning, discussion or negotiation, rules are made and enforced entirely by the parent.
- The child learns to lie to conceal mistakes and avoid punishment.
- Lack of training in making decisions leaves him helpless and vulnerable to peer pressure.
- The ability to appreciate different points of view is compromised. Consequently, the child becomes judgemental, leading to rejection by peers.
- He finds it hard to trust his own abilities, as harsh parental criticism lowers self-esteem.
- The frustrations resulting from all this are suppressed and he exhibits passive behaviour; alternatively, they are released through anger outbursts.
- He becomes excessively defiant of authority as a teenager.
- The development of critical thinking skills is impaired.
- Other likely fallouts: Lowered academic performance, poor handling of relationships and long-term personality problems.
Permissive parenting – Indulged child
The permissive parent is over-indulgent, gives in to the child’s demands and protects her from disappointments. She is allowed to bend or break rules without having to face consequences.
- Getting her own way all the time leads the child to expect the same treatment from peers, making her unpopular.
- She learns to disrespect and defy rules, and has difficulty in understanding the seriousness of such offences.
- Showered with indiscriminate praise, she develops an inflated sense of self.
- Since she is not expected to be responsible for herself, she learns to blame her parents and others for her lapses.
- She becomes powerful in manipulating her submissive parents, feels entitled to be waited on and excused for shortcomings.
- Deep down she feels fearful.
Neglectful Parenting – Abandoned child
The neglectful parent ignores responsibility, allowing the child to grow without guidance or care. No rules are established and no meaningful parent-child relationship exists. The members of the family lead disconnected lives.
- The child struggles to survive.
- He becomes dependent on anyone who shows him some care.
- He becomes vulnerable to anti-social influences or depression.
- He feels lost and uncared for, leading to feelings of sadness and despair.
- His weakened emotional health affects his concentration and attentiveness to academics.
Authoritative Parenting – Child-centred approach
The Authoritative Parent appreciates equality rather than hierarchy, and promotes mutual respect between parent and child. Rules are explained and opinions and agreement obtained through discussion, while the parent retains ultimate authority. There is freedom within limits. The parent uses everyday events as opportunities to teach the child to distinguish between good and bad choices. She is encouraged to become resilient by reflecting upon and learning from mistakes, and to keep trying. The authoritative parent guides and teaches children to survive in the world.
- The child learns to be courageous about handling what comes her way.
- She becomes self-motivated and strives to achieve through interest and effort.
- Her emotional stability is enhanced, enabling better focus on academics and achievement.
- She learns to be assertive, values friendships, and is cooperative, responsible and caring.
There are several sub-categories of parenting styles. Here’s a bird’s-eye view of a few:
Attachment Parenting: The parent is highly sensitive to the child’s needs. The style includes extended periods of breast-feeding, constant nurturing touches and letting the child share the parental bed. The concept of attachment has been validated by research studies. However, the practices this style entails remain controversial and have not yet been verified by scientific studies.
Unconditional Parenting: The child’s needs are met unconditionally. It revolves around ‘working with’ the child rather than ‘doing to’ the child. The focus is not on the child’s behaviour and mistakes, but on loving the child anyway.
Spiritual Parenting is all about connecting with the innocent spirit of the child and the belief that parents are only instruments by which a child arrives on earth. It is about the parent allowing the child to live his life through his intrinsic knowledge about how to be happy. The parent’s role is perceived as facilitating that process by understanding the child’s simplistic perspective of the world and explaining it to those involved in his growth.
Narcissistic parenting is when parents are obsessively close to the child, and feel envious and threatened by her growing independence.
Helicopter parenting is when the parent is constantly hovering over the child to control, monitor and protect him and his environment.
Toxic parenting is when a parent’s negative behaviour causes emotional damage and destroys the child’s sense of self.
Is any single style better than the other? While studies strongly favour Authoritative Parenting, those who follow it probably borrow from other styles too, depending upon circumstances, states of mind at given moments and the issue at hand.
On the whole, Positive Parenting is what is to be aimed for. It has its roots in Positive Psychology, pioneered by psychologist Dr Martin Seligman. It is about bringing out the best in children by helping them use their strengths to master tasks, solve problems and achieve goals. To practise Positive Parenting, parents must themselves find their strengths and use these to raise their children.
The wisest way forward is for us, parents, to evaluate our parenting styles in the light of our cultural contexts and choose the approach which best prepares our children for their future.
Arundhati Swamy is a counsellor and the Head of Parent Engagement Programs at ParentCircle.