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A is for Authoritative

Posted on August 25, 2010 by laurakastner | Leave a comment

A fine balance

When Henry got home from school, he went straight to his room to post a music review on his Facebook page, check ESPN for scores and watch some YouTube videos. 

Since the family rule is that there is to be no “play” or social time on the computer until homework is done, Mom’s blood started boiling the minute she heard Henry crooning along with his favorite hip hop artist. To cool herself off, she invoked her favorite mantra in meltdown moments: “You might be right, but are you effective?” She knew that to maintain her authoritative credibility, she needed to keep herself calm, firm and level-headed. Instead of barging into Henry’s room and yelling at him about the rule violation, she tried a different approach.

“Henry, what’s up with your breaking the homework rule?” Henry replied, “Mom, I’m downloading my history chapter, so chill out. God, you’re on me like a vulture.” Mom ignored the snarky reply and said, “Henry, I appreciate that you are downloading history text, but I expect you to turn off everything else anyway. You know the rule. I know that you can handle the independence of using your laptop in your room if you try hard enough. By the way, your voice is way better than that dude you’re listening to.” Then she made herself smile and exit. She heard him groan, exclaim and click off his fun stuff.

Henry’s mom is demonstrating authoritative parenting, which predicts adolescent achievement, emotional adjustment, competence and self-reliance in adolescents. If you did your own web search, you’d find that it’s the optimal parenting style for raising the kids that successfully launch to college at age 18. Authoritative parenting is composed of three critical dimensions (consider them the crown jewels of parenting):

• Warmth, acceptance, positive engagement and responsiveness; children feel that they can count on their parents and perceive their parents as loving and reasonable (more on this with the “Optimizing secure attachment” tool).

• Firm limits, supervision and reasonable discipline; parents have high but realistic expectations for behavior and when children make mistakes, their focus is on learning instead of punishment (more on this with “Competence building” tool).

• Effective communication and encouragement of independence; parents support individuality, listen to their children’s differing views, regulate their emotions while tolerating some give and take in negotiations, avoid intrusiveness and allow psychological autonomy (e.g. the parents focus on controlling their children’s behavior, not their feelings and thoughts).

The other parenting styles described by researchers who study childrearing types include: the authoritarian parent who uses a command/control approach to parenting and prioritizes obedience and subservience over caring about feelings, self esteem and empathy; the permissive/indulgent parent who may be warm but often caves to the child’s demands, does not require that the child behave well or self-regulate; and the neglectful parent who is disengaged, uninvolved and inattentive to the child’s needs. These parenting styles are associated with substance abuse, low self esteem, anxiety, dependency and emotional insecurity.

If Henry’s mom were authoritarian, she would have punished him for his breaking the homework rule, barked her orders and cared not a whit if Henry thought her a tyrant for rigid adherence to rules without considering his defense. Also, without a history of her commitment to warmth and relationship-building, he wouldn’t be motivated to cooperate.

If Henry’s mom were permissive, she might have tried to interact with Henry positively and may have reminded him of the rule, but she would have avoided putting her foot down when he resented her “vulture” like presence and been ineffectual in making sure he complied. Without the history of knowing his mom means business, he would have blown her off.

If Henry’s mom were neglectful, she would not have a rule about homework, nor monitor his computer use or the completion of his homework. Henry would be one of those kids who lives on-line and does pretty much whatever he wants.

Authoritative parenting is a lot harder than I have made it sound. It requires picking your battles, monitoring without hovering and being realistic about the fact that teenagers will never be perfectly compliant. Although flexibility is required so that life with a teen doesn’t become a war zone, consistency with policies and routines is paramount so that you’re prioritizing a constant march toward competence, responsibility and health maintenance.

The love and acceptance part is equally challenging. Even though we want our children to feel accepted while being the messy, immature beings that children inevitably are, every parent should be a “C.S.O”—Chief Socializing Officer. It’s endless—manners, good behavior, homework, chores, rule-enforcement, and monitoring their whereabouts. We also know we need to maintain a mostly positive and loving relationship. After all, why else would they listen to us and absorb our influence? Tyrants don’t inspire good behavior—they just alienate.

Permissive parents want their children’s love, happiness and delight so much that they can’t tolerate their children’s inevitable vitriol when rules are being enforced. These parents give into their kids’s protests, become inconsistent and fail in their attempts to hold the line. Neglectful parents are usually so overwhelmed with other parts of their lives they just plain don’t parent. A sub-group of these parents are very invested in their children, but their crazy-busy life styles make them “neglectful” of  the necessary discipline involved in responsible childrearing.

Those crown jewels of authoritative parenting—warmth and affection, firm limits and reasonable discipline, and effective communication allowing psychological autonomy—require enormous energy, focus and determination. Virtually all parents want their children to become competent, productive, and loving adults. But somehow, this “A” tool can often be lost in the shuffle.

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