Love and Rules: Children Need Both to Thrive
Parenting style matters. We all want to keep our children safe and for them to be emotionally healthy. And we hope to guide them towards an adulthood in which they will become their very best selves. Decades of research and life experience tell us that young people do best when parents both express their caring and take active steps to assure safe and moral behaviors in their children.
Achieving this balance needs ongoing attention. But we all come to parenting with unique strengths. We invite you to build on your existing strengths while moving towards the approach that leads to the best academic, emotional and behavioral outcomes for young people.
Start From Strengths
Let’s consider your strengths. Your:
- Commitment to monitoring your child
- Desire for a close relationship with your teen
- Understanding that young people need to learn how to pick themselves up and figure things out
- Expert knowledge of your cultural values, surrounding neighborhood, and the resources available to your family
Starting from that strength, you can learn new skills and approaches that will help you to achieve that balance of love, rules and responsiveness (i.e. flexibility to meet the needs of your child) known to lead to the best possible outcomes for your adolescent — including the closest parent-teen relationships. In the long-term, parenting is about building young people with the strong foundations of character that will lead them to be more productive and engaged citizens, contributing to their individual success and our shared social and economic prosperity.
Four Approaches to Parenting
Which of the following statements, associated with different parenting styles, best describes what you might say to your child or the thoughts that drive your approach to parenting?
- You’ll do what I say. Why? Because I said so!
- I really enjoy you. If you think of me as a friend, you’ll feel comfortable coming to me. I’ll spend high quality time with you and I trust you to make your own decisions.
- Kids will be kids. If they get into serious trouble I will step in and get involved.
- I love you. I’m not your friend, I’m your parent, and that’s even better. I’ll let you make your share of mistakes, but for the things that might affect your safety or morality, you’ll do as I say.
Now that you have placed yourself into one of these parenting styles, ask yourself what style your parents had. Don’t be surprised if you are very much like your parents — or the complete opposite. It is human nature to imitate what felt good to us and to go in the absolute opposite direction when things didn’t feel so good to us.
Finally, think about your partner or spouse and think about what parenting style describes him or her. Don’t be surprised if this little exercise makes you see these differences in parenting style may be at the root of some “discussions” you have around the topic of parenting. The good news is that there are very few villains in parenting. (And none of them search the internet to learn how to be a better parent!!) This means there is no reason to argue about parenting, only to learn what works best and to apply those findings to your own children. In fact, people who use each style come to parenting with some real strengths. Our challenge is to build on those strengths as we move towards the approach that research teaches us will lead to the best academic, emotional, and behavioral outcomes for our children.
The Different Parenting Styles
Remember that when you are thinking this through with other adults who care about your children (spouse, former spouses, grandparents etc.) always approach them knowing that they also want the best for the adolescent, that their style has some strengths to it, and that your goal is to move towards the style that will be best for your teen. By doing so, you’ll be most likely to come to effective compromises when necessary. Everyone has different strengths, but we also know what approaches lead to the best results. We can still get to that point together working from the strengths we start with. Learn about the benefits of each parenting style approach as well as the results that research suggests it will lead to.
This type of parenting may be more easily understood as balanced parenting. Think of these kinds of parents in the same way we think of lighthouses. They act as a stable force on the shoreline, guiding their children to safety, but helping them learn to navigate rougher waters. This style is warm, loving, and responsive to a developing person’s needs. It also is protective in that it includes just enough rules and monitoring to keep a child safe. Each family can find the right balance for their children and neighborhood. All young people benefit from knowing they are loved. But let’s be honest, some kids need more rules by virtue of their nature or need to be monitored more closely because their peer group or neighborhood is more challenging.
Balanced parenting leads to children with greater success in many areas. These include, better grades, better mental health, less drug use, later and safer initiation of sex, less violence, less bullying and safer driving behaviors. This kind of parenting also leads to the closest and most communicative relationships between parents and children. It is the style of parenting we know works best overall.
This style is high in rules, but not so high in warmth. The strength of this style is that young people know that their parents care enough to pay attention to them. They know that they will be watched. Teens raised with this style tend to be very well behaved … until they stop behaving well. They delay lots of worrisome activities but then, in an act of rebellion, will often participate in some of those behaviors we wish they wouldn’t. Most concerning is that they tend not to go to their parents to seek advice or gain permission. They feel as though the answer will be “NO” so they see no reason to ask.
This style is very high in warmth and expressed love but does not set very many rules. The strength of this style is that parents and children really do care about one another and tend to get along well. But the problem with this style is that adolescents raised in this way can be quite anxious because of how much they worry about letting their parents down. In addition, the teens do participate in quite a few risky behaviors, believing that they have permission to do so. Most concerning is that despite parents using this style precisely to foster open communication, repeated studies reveal that young people do not turn to their parents for advice or to be monitored on the most serious subjects. We think this is because they make the assumption that their parents would approve no matter what. Why? Because they’re used to their parents being permissive.
The strength of this style is that it does allow youth a degree of independence. Yet the problem is that children and adolescents will often be driven to misbehave because they have learned that the best way to get their parent’s attention is to do something really challenging. Young people raised with this style of parenting tend not to seek guidance or advice from their parents.
Pass it On!
This is a judgement free zone. We know you are here to learn how to be the best parent. Share this with the other adults who have a stake in parenting responsibilities with you. Think of this piece as a conversation starter. Along with other adults, work towards accompanying young people on their journey towards adulthood in a way that both makes them know how deeply they are cared about and keeps them safe. Remember this: Love counts most when young people know without question that they are cared for and about. And, monitoring is most effective when adolescents know the rules exist not to control them, but to keep them safe.