Parents have good intentions. But at least 75% of the time that parents bring their kids to me for therapy, I also end up working with the parents on their parenting. The long-term goal of parenting is to prepare their kids for life in the adult world. I try to get parents to treat their kids similar to how the adult world will treat them, giving their kids a glimpse into their future. Over time I’ve concluded that there are two extreme parenting styles: the helicopter style and the hands-off style.
Over-praising/rewarding sometimes creates little praise/reward junkies instead of children who learn about the long-term benefits or consequences of their actions (to others and to themselves). Dependency, egocentric behaviors, entitlement thinking, and impaired social skills can possibly result. Don’t confuse love with over-indulgence. Tough love is sometimes needed during child rearing; there’s no getting around that. (References are alfiekohn.org and “Overindulged Children: A Parent’s Guide to Mentoring” by James Fogarty.)
Positive and negative feedback is a great tool, just as performance evaluations are in the adult working world. But over-rewarding can lead to an inflated sense of superiority over others. Your child may throttle back their efforts if they believe they’re already over-performing and can get by with less. On the other hand, under-rewarding de-motivates good efforts made and also leads to lesser performance because children may adopt a “why bother?” attitude. So accuracy of feedback is important. It should be based on factual information – i.e., what you or others have observed. Behavioral feedback forces kids to think about what factors preceded their behaviors, how their behaviors appeared to others, and what the aftereffects of their behaviors are to them and others. When you can get children to think about their behaviors you’re on the right track, and written assignments or written apologies, when done well, can be excellent tools for behavioral self-reflection.
With helicopter parenting, too much insulation from life’s realities (disappointments, failures, and undesirable events) fails to prepare and train children to manage those realities on their own. Dependency breeds more dependency. Conversely, too much exposure to life’s harsher realities can create anxiety and even fear about their future. At some point, most parents have to set their kids free to go out into the adult world and co-exist. Give them the life fundamentals they’ll need. Among the useful, all-purpose fundamentals you can provide are coping skills. Adult life will disappoint and even fail them at times, and if you haven’t taught – and demonstrated – how to manage or adjust to those things, you’ve done them a disservice.
Too many contemporary parents try to be their child’s friend and then they lose the authority to say “no” when they really should. A parent often has great difficulty rising to the level of enforcing rules if their relationship with their child is one of friendship. To the child, it’s confusing when their parent abruptly flips from friend to enforcer, and then back again; they often won’t accept the enforcement and then that new problem ensues. They don’t trust the flip-flop because the parent-versus-friend positions are quite incompatible, in their view; and they don’t know which role the parent really has. Let them learn about friendships from their same-age friends; you can be actual friends with them when they become reach adulthood.
Certain ethnic groups use a very hands-off parenting style, which is passed down through generations. While some children can succeed in that format, some cannot. Because we are a nation of laws, societal norms, and social boundaries, ideally we should prepare our children for living within that structure, and the most common way is by having and enforcing behavioral rules for them during childhood.
With families, I sometimes visually depict house rules by drawing a square and writing “acceptable behaviors” within the square and “unacceptable behaviors” outside it. The parents’ job is to patrol the rule boundaries, perhaps remind kids when they are nearing the boundary, and consistently respond to them if they cross it. Family rules have been in play probably forever, but they’re only effective when they are consistently enforced. I’ve worked in client homes that had unclear or non-existent rules and the “atmosphere” (tension level) ranges from mildly problematic to outright chaos. I’ve also seen homes where one child’s behavior (as young as pre-schoolers) drives the tone of the entire household, because the behaviors are not responded to. If a child perceives that there are no boundaries on behavior in the home, they come to believe that there are none in the world, either. Once that “culture” cements in over time, it’s extremely difficult to rein in. Better to shape that behavior early on than to attempt it years later when there is greater resistance to changing it.
Search for that middle ground between hands-off parenting and helicoptering. You may not see immediate dividends, but over time you and your kids will.
Jim Catlin is a licensed clinical social worker who holds a master’s degree in guidance and counseling from UW-Stout. He invites readers to submit questions and offer ideas about what they would like to see in this column by emailing editor@ChippewaValleyFamily.org.