I popped off at Laptop Dad, like he popped off at his daughter, like his daughter popped off at him. Interesting, huh? See how that works? Chain of fools.
I regret the tone but stand behind the content of my last post. So here’s a voice of reason to say it all better. Today’s guest post is by my friend Dr. Lara Mayeux, a developmental psychologist who studies kids’ peer relations at the University of Oklahoma, and mother of two young daughters (read about her wishes for them here).
If you want to read original research into parenting styles and child outcomes, Lara suggests looking for Nina Mounts (parenting and peer relationships); Joan Grusec (parenting and social and emotional development); Robert Larzelere (discipline and research methodology); Laurence Steinberg (adolescent development). Diana Baumrind is one of the pioneers in the study of parenting styles; a lot of subsequent research has been based on her work.
By Lara Mayeux
I have to get this off my chest: I’m really, really tired of seeing parents celebrated for their bad parenting choices.
Parenting is hard. I get that — I have two kids under the age of five. And none of us is perfect, and we shouldn’t expect each other to be. But there’s a big difference between allowing parents some room to screw up, and actually cheering them on when they’ve made a mistake. And I’m telling you, this laptop-shooting dad—he made a mistake.
Let me tell you why. And while I’m at it, I’m also (incidentally) telling you why parents who do any number of creepy things that have gained some traction in the media recently are also making mistakes. Parents who (for example) stand on street corners with signs denigrating their children, or parents who seem to refuse to allow their teens the slightest bit of autonomy (paging the Tiger Mother).
The science of parenting, even to an expert who knows how to interpret these things, can be confusing, contradictory, and even counterintuitive. Certain parenting choices, like spanking and other forms of corporal punishment, can have anywhere from neutral to very negative effects on children’s adjustment, depending on a variety of parental and child factors. Finding a clear, straight answer to a question like “How should I discipline my child?” isn’t easy, because it depends largely on the temperament of the child, among other things.
Parenting researchers often highlight the importance of parental control, and they typically study two types: behavioral control (things like setting rules, restrictions, and types of discipline) and psychological control.
Behavioral control seems to work best at moderate levels. For example, children who are well-adjusted tend to have parents who provide them with appropriate levels of structure (not too lax, not too rigid), and discipline them consistently and without getting physical. Psychological control, on the other hand, includes things like guilt trips, love withdrawal, and verbal hostility—things that typically don’t bode well for child outcomes, particularly in the context of other risk factors, like living in a high-conflict home.
So-called “tough love” — which our culture seems to find very appealing in response to children acting like, well, children – often includes elements of psychological control. It certainly seems to be cathartic for parents, especially parents of teenagers. And I’ve no doubt that most parents who take extreme measures, like hostility or severe restriction of their child’s freedom, absolutely mean well and think their choices will help their children in the long run. (Well, I don’t know about Laptop Dad. His reaction just seemed petty and vindictive to me.)
But the reality is that these kinds of reactions to children’s misbehavior don’t actually serve their intended purpose. As parents, our primary goal is to socialize our children into independent adults who can form healthy relationships with others and make good choices on their own. But when our parenting behaviors undermine our relationships with our children (as guilt trips, love withdrawal, and hostility do) or model unhealthy or destructive behaviors (like violence), we’re not making good choices as parents.
Again, no parent is perfect. Sometimes I’ll hear a guilt trip sneak into my own discipline with my girls, and cringe. There’s such a fine line between inducing empathy and inducing guilt. But all I can do is try to do better the next time. I’m lucky to have supportive friends and family to remind me that I’m not going to ruin them by laying on the guilt every once in a while. But to encourage and even celebrate bad parenting choices, to the extent that those choices are held up as heroic? Now that’s a different story.
Me again, with a list of some of Lara’s favorite parenting books, in case you want to read more about it without getting into the original research:
Playful Parenting by Lawrence J. Cohen
Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers by Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate M.D.
The Discipline Book: How to Have a Better-Behaved Child From Birth to Age Ten by Martha and William Sears (She cautions me that this one might be controversial.)
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish
Photo by André Mouraux via Flickr (Creative Commons).