What Type of Parent Are You?

Teenagers are people who act like babies if they’re not treated like adults.
— MAD Magazine

If there were a rule book for parents that dictated exactly how to proceed during every phase of a child’s development, raising emotionally healthy, well-adjusted and responsible kids would be a snap. There is no rule book, of course. Most of us (although we may be loath to admit it) are winging it when it comes to bringing up our children. Even the most conscientious parent struggles with how to best monitor, correct or guide a child’s behavior.

During adolescence, a parent’s personal struggles are arguably at their peak. Is it better to give your teen total freedom or to scrutinize her every move? Should you let him make his own decisions or tell him what to do? Is it wise to be an intractable authority figure or act like a buddy? You might be tempted to apply the same parenting method your own parents used on you when you were growing up, but that may be better suited to a simpler time than to twenty-first-century kids. The fact is there isn’t just one “best way” to raise kids. Effective parenting varies as much as individual children – what worked for Kid No. 1 might blow right over Kid No. 2.

Research indicates, however, that parenting styles fall into three categories:

Permissive parents place few limits on their children’s freedom. These parents are often afraid of losing their children’s love if restrictions are imposed, so they fail to provide even basic guidelines. Permissive parents say they don’t want to stifle their children’s creativity, so rather than correcting inappropriate behavior these parents ignore it. They feel a “do your own thing” approach encourages children to discover for themselves the consequences of their actions.

The problem with permissive parenting is that children fail to learn about boundaries or limits. They lack respect for the rights of others and usually have difficulty adjusting when anyone outside the family (at school or work, for example) imposes rules on their behavior. And although permissive parents feel it’s in their children’s best interest to learn to grow and develop on their own, children raised in this style often think their parents are simply indifferent. Without clear limits, children get confused, feel insecure and can make poor choices.

Authoritarian parents place a high value on obedience. Their rules for their children are clear and unbending. Authoritarian parents expect children to obey without question, and misbehavior is punished. But although children raised by authoritarian parents may appear well behaved, they often become rebellious, usually as teenagers. Interestingly, because this parenting style has been followed by so many parents for so many generations, “teenage rebellion” is considered normal. Teenagers, however, do not have to rebel to become independent. Rebellion often results from strictly enforced rules and punishments.

Other problems can result from authoritarian parenting: Children may lack self-discipline because they have only learned to obey orders, not creatively solve their own problems. Unfortunately, these children may feel their parents’ love is conditional upon their obeying the rules. They lack a sense of security and self-confidence. And children raised to follow the directions of an “authority” may also easily follow undesirable peers.

Democratic/mentoring parents establish basic guidelines and give reasons for the limits they impose, while communicating unconditional love and affection for their children. They allow children to make choices while helping them see the consequences of those choices. Democratic/mentoring parents are leaders who set standards for their children’s behavior, rather than dictators who demand obedience. They gently but firmly enforce limits and allow children to gradually accept more and more responsibility. If you had to choose one style of parenting, the democratic/mentoring style is generally accepted as the method that best helps children develop security, responsibility and self-confidence.

But parenting is not a solitary activity; it’s interactive. A large part of your effectiveness as a parent depends on how well you communicate with your child, especially during the teenage years, and your ability to be flexible while still sending a consistent message. For example, being flexible yet consistent might mean you’re willing to extend a curfew for a special occasion, but the rule that your teen will not accept a ride with anyone who’s been drinking has not changed.

Teens wouldn’t be teens if they didn’t push their limits, regardless of your parenting style. Just remember that the most effective parents have certain qualities in common: They provide a balance of love and limits, they stay consistent, their love for their children is constant and unconditional, and they listen – really listen — to their kids. And that type of parenting never goes out of style.