By Owen Anderson
A lot of what our children need to learn to be successful as adults, they learn simply from being in a well-functioning family. As young children they may not be able to feed themselves, but they teach themselves with surprising speed, breadth, and depth. The influences on a child's life are countless; however at the core of influence in a young child’s life resides parents. Parents don't just feed, protect, and provide; they also create in the child's mind a lasting image of what a man and a woman, a father and a mother, should be. The images parents create for children initially evolve around our expectations of what a child should be like and how they should behave. This image is enforced by our direct presence, reminding children of what is expected and showing them how to comply. We reward children for behaving in acceptable ways and discipline them for misconduct. Parents hope that eventually children will assume responsibility for monitoring their own behavior rather than relying on others to regulate it for them. When children treat certain rules as additions to their own beliefs and values, they internalized those rules. An important consideration, however, is that children also internalized the strategies we as parents use to shape their behavior.
The parenting approaches that are used to guide children’s behavior have long been the subject of research. The components of effective parenting that surface again and again consist of controlling techniques, demands for maturity (i.e., how do I expect a four year-old to act), communication, and nurturance or warmth toward children. Differences among parenting methods reflect varied combinations of these four factors. In one style of parenting, sometimes called “the dictator” approach, parents adopt high amounts of harsh verbally and/or physical controlling techniques and inappropriately high demands for maturity (i.e., my four year-old should behave like an adult). Additionally, these parents under utilize communication and warmth or nurturance with their children. In all, the coercive tactics, such as physical force, shame, and harsh punishment cause children to be compliant, but also angry. They act out of fear or blind obedience, not out of empathy or concern for others. Over time, this harsh and unfriendly nature has a demeaning effect on a child’s sense of self-worth. On average, children who are exposed to this style of parenting tend to be more aggressive, hostile, withdrawn, and less happy than other children. Clearly, less forceful behavior tactics and more age appropriate maturity demands, coupled with warm and friendly communication methods, would help children develop a sense of dignity and self-respect that would produce well-functioning individuals.
Sometimes in utilizing the opposite approach to guide behavior, parents hope to be buddies with their children. They think to themselves, this “generation gap” or age difference will not get in the way of my parent-child relationship. This technique is sometimes called “the doormat” approach, with parents employing high amounts of communication and desiring warm nurturing interactions with their children, which does not sound all that bad. Unfortunately, these parents under utilize behavior control methods, generally ignoring children’s transgressions, and have very low maturity demands for their children. If this method has one fatal flaw, it is that parents give up their responsibility to parent to be a friend with their child. Sadly, children reared from this parenting style tend to have low self-reliance and self-control. In addition, children tend to be rebellious, impulsive, and immature. Taken together, with low maturity demands and little controlling influences from adults, these children struggle to find their own sense of worth and value, and tend to be unhappy teenagers and young adults. The corrective approach to this style would be; first, keep the communication and warm nurturing style; and second, elevate the maturity demands and behavior controlling techniques to appropriate levels.
Finally, there is an approach to shaping a child’s behavior that combines the positive traits of the two previous styles, sometimes called the “milk and cookies” parents. Although quick to respond to children’s misbehavior, these parents use explanation and reasoning as their communication strategy rather than harsh coercive tactics. They see discipline as an opportunity for teaching and discussion, which means children have a voice. The demand for maturity that these parents have for children is geared to match a child’s changing need and abilities. The maturity standard is held up to, or just exceeds the age of the child, with parents expecting children to assume “age appropriate” responsibility for their behavior. These parents consistently respond to children‘s needs with warmth and nurturance, while maintaining high standards and establishing clear, but not harsh behavioral controls. Children from this approach know that parental love will never be used as a bargaining chip to manipulate their behavior. Parents, time after time, consciously separate the child, whom they love, from the behavior, which they would like to see changed. These children are the most likely to be cooperative, friendly, and happy individuals. Because they have been treated with dignity and respect, these children begin to treat others, including their own parents, with dignity and respect. Because they have not been forced or compelled to conform, these children willingly behave in an appropriate manner. In fact, some researchers believe that children who are reared from this parenting style begin to internalize and morally regulate their own behavior at about the age of eight. On average, children from this parenting style are the most likely to internalize their parents values and beliefs and develop the ability to regulate their own behavior, thus becoming a well-functioning adult.
It was once thought that some adults were instinctively good parents. We now know that practice and training are needed by all. Any parent can learn to be more kind, patient, and loving, while still maintain high standards of behavior from their children. The key is, parents must pay more attention to how they establish and maintain warm, caring relationships with their children and how they make children aware of the expectations they have for their children. A lot of what our children need to learn to be successful as adults, they learn simply from being in a well-functioning family.
Owen Anderson is a member of the faculty in the Department of Home and Family at Brigham Young University - Idaho