Every Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario and Saskatchewan. This week’s column talks about your different parenting styles as a couple–what to do when one is more authoritarian and one more permissive.
You’ve heard of ‘helicopter parents’: the parents who hover over their children, protecting them from any possible harm or hurt feelings, well into their university days. Then there are the ‘snowplow parents’, the ones who run ahead of their kids and plow away any possible obstacles, whether it’s mean teachers or a hockey coach who wants to bench them or a neighbourhood child who won’t play with them. Then there’s the ‘tiger mom’, the super-disciplined, mean parent who pushes their child to succeed at everything. An A isn’t good enough; you need an A plus.
Magazine reporters love analyzing all these different parenting styles. What can be overlooked, though, is that one family can have both a tiger parent and a snowplow parent. In fact, often the snow plow parent creates the tiger parent, and vice versa. We’re compensating for something.
When two people have children, it is very unlikely that both individuals share the same parenting philosophy. After all, they grew up in different families with different styles. They have their own personalities and experiences. And so they value different things. In general, then, one parent will tend to value discipline, structure and responsibility, while the other parent will tend to value creativity, spontaneity, and affection. Let’s call one the authoritarian parenting style, and one the permissive parenting style. So let’s put this more permissive parent on one spectrum, and the more authoritarian parent on the other.
Do this thought experiment with me: what would happen if both parents started out as a ‘10’ on opposite scales of 1-100? He’s a 10 on authoritarian style parenting, and she’s a 10 on permissive parenting. Both are quite close to the centre; neither is extreme at all.
But she sees him enforcing boundaries and setting rules and being ‘harsh’, and she thinks, “oh, my goodness, my poor babies will be scarred for life!”, and she becomes even more permissive. And he sees her letting the kids get away with things, as long as everyone’s having fun, and he thinks, “oh, my goodness, my children are going to be drug dealers,” and he becomes even harsher.
Ten years later, instead of being 10s on their respective scales they’re now 50s. They’ve compensated so much that they’ve become far harsher, or far more permissive, than they ever wanted to be. It’s a vicious cycle.
In so doing they’ve pushed their spouse further away, likely to the point they each think the other’s crazy (and they may have a point). They did all of this unwittingly, but with very good intentions. They wanted to be good parents.
Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to assume the worst in our spouse or partner because it’s all too easy to assume the best in ourselves. We tend to think that our way of looking at the world is the only right one. We understand what these kids need; when others don’t get with the program, they’re obviously off their rocker.
Compromise, though, isn’t such a bad thing, because let’s face it: kids really do need both structure and love. Love without discipline will wreck a kid, but so will discipline without love. We’ve had times in our marriage where I was sure that Keith was wrecking our oldest daughter’s self-esteem, and we’ve had times when Keith thought I was letting our youngest get away with murder. We both had a point. But kids are amazingly resilient; I have made so many mistakes in parenting, but overall they know they’re loved, and they know they have security. They have both love and structure. Perhaps if we gave our spouse (or even our ex-spouse) more grace with parenting, we’d both end up closer to the middle. And that middle is usually better for everyone.
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For those of you who have been reading my columns on Fridays and enjoying them, I now have a book version of them available! I’ve collected 90 of my favourite ones spanning 2005-2012, and they’re available in paperback, in .pdf, or on Kindle. It’s called Another Reality Check, and it has your favourites on marriage, parenting, homemaking, social issues, holidays, and more! I sell them quite a bit when I speak at conferences, and people say what they like is that they’re quick reads, so you can pick the book up and put it down.
If you like my Friday column, you’ll love these, because I’ve chosen my personal favourites from over 8 years. It’s a wonderful collection! Don’t miss it.