Parenting Styles (And the Behaviors They Invite)

Lisa Larsen, LPC
Understanding the foundations of why children behave in the way they do is the first step for parents who are facing misbehavior or child discipline problems. Understanding why controlling methods, which worked so well when we were children ("Because I said so!"), are not effective with children today can be helpful when addressing behaviors.

Access to information via technology, exposure to vast experiences and resources, along with much higher academic expectations in a global world have created an environment in which basic life skills including conflict management, negotiation via play, and practicing those essential skills working side by side with parents does not happen as organically as it once did. Healthy self perception and invaluable SEL skills must be developed at home and at school. Responsibility, motivation, and most importantly, cooperation based on mutual respect and shared responsibility is much more effective than authoritarian control.

According to Dr. Jane Nelson, author of Positive Discipline, there are three main parenting approaches or styles:

Strictness: "These are the rules by which you must abide, and this is the punishment you will receive for violation of the rules." 
  • Children are not involved in the decision making process
  • Order without freedom; no choices; responsibility stays on the parents, children not involved in decision making; works only when parent or authority figure is present; stresses perfection and reliance on judgment of others
Permissiveness: "There are no rules, because I'd rather not have you be mad at me. I am sure we will love each other and be happy, and you will be able to choose your own rules later."
  • Parents prefer to be "friends" with their children
  • Freedom without order; unlimited choices; parent is slave to child; robs self respect of child by parent doing everything for child; makes things as easy as possible for child
  • Kids do not learn social competencies - kids expect to be taken care of
  • Children often struggle with holding jobs and maintaining adult relationships; "I am not loved if I am not being taken care of"
  • Children learn “I cannot handle this on my own” if parents continually rescue or step in to solve all concerns.
Positive Discipline (SEL): "Together we will decide rules for our mutual benefit. We will also decide together, solutions that will be helpful to all concerned when we have problems. When I use my judgments without your input, I will use firmness with dignity and respect."
  • Freedom with order; limited choices; "you can choose within limits," which shows respect for all
  • Teaches decision-making; holds child responsible and accountable
  • Develops consistent discipline; teaches values; enhances self-worth; 
  • Lets reality be the teacher; mistakes are opportunities to learn; "I am capable"; "I contribute in a meaningful way"

The outcome with "strictness" is that when misbehavior occurs and is met with punishment, the behavior may be stopped in the moment, but no meaningful skills are being taught and it will inevitably show up again. Research has shown us that the long term effects of punishment include resentment, revenge, rebellion, and retreat or negative self perceptions ("I am a bad person"). 

On the other hand, “permissive” environments create children who do not have a sense of boundaries both for themselves and for others and may develop behavior that is very manipulative in order to get what they want. 

Remember, it is natural for all children to look for ways to establish power and control. Children feel safest and most secure when they know what to expect and that they play a role in creating those secure boundaries. Even teenagers who push every rule and expectation still need solid boundaries to feel secure in their own exploration of themselves and the world. When parents use firmness with dignity and respect, children learn that their misbehavior does not get the results they expect or want and thus they are motivated to change their behavior with their self-esteem intact. When parents allow their children to be responsible for mistakes and experience the natural consequences of making poor choices, it builds resilience, independence, and a sense of “I can handle anything.” 

Information from Dr. Jane Nelsen's Positive Discipline (2006).

Lisa Hellmer, LPC
St Gabriel’s Counselor
St. Gabriel's Catholic School is an Independent Catholic school in Austin TX, educating children in preschool, kindergarten, elementary, and middle school.