Friday, March 9, 2012

Useless Advice on Parenting

Various news outlets are trumpeting some new research that seems to show problems with authoritarian parenting:
Using data on nearly 600 kids from an ongoing study of middle school and high school students in New Hampshire, researchers from the University of New Hampshire were able to link "my way or the highway" parenting with more delinquency in kids -- measured in behaviors like shop-lifting, substance abuse and attacking someone else with the intention of hurting or killing.

Firm but loving parenting, on the other hand, led to fewer transgressions. Permissive parenting, surprisingly, didn't seem to make much of a difference either way.
"Firm but loving." What, exactly, does that mean? Are there any parents, no matter how strict, who don't think their parenting is loving? "I think I'll try some cruel, indifferent parenting and see if that works." Please. This is like the joke dating advice a friend of mine likes to recite, which goes something like, "Be confident, but not aggressive, and talk freely but be a good listener, and don't put yourself down but don't be arrogant either, and above all be yourself."

By the time kids reach middle school, parents and children have had 12 years to adapt to each other. Did these "researchers" not wonder why some parents were very strict? Did it maybe have to do, for some of them, with the discovery that their wayward-tending children did not respond to gentle admonitions?
To explain the link between parenting style and behavior in kids, the researchers suggest that what matters most is how "legitimate" kids think their parents' authority is. This sense of legitimacy comes when kids trust that their parents are making the best decisions for them and believe that they need to do what their parents say even if they don’t always like how their parents are treating them.

When kids respect the authority of their parents, the researchers reported in the Journal of Adolescence, their behavior is better. Previous research has also linked firm but caring parenting with kids who have more self-control and self-reliance.

"When children consider their parents to be legitimate authority figures, they trust the parent and feel they have an obligation to do what their parents tell them to do," said lead researcher Rick Trinkner.

"This is an important attribute for any authority figure to possess, as the parent does not have to rely on a system of rewards and punishments to control behavior, and the child is more likely to follow the rules when the parent is not physically present."
Well, now isn't that great. But maybe the reason some kids respect their parents' authority is that they don't really want to do things their parents consider wicked. Maybe some kids respond well to gentle pressure to excel in school because they want to do well in school. And maybe some kids find their parents' authority illegitimate because they want to skip school and get high and don't understand why this is a problem.

I have the sense that my children feel loved by their parents, and generally regard our authority as legitimate. We are certainly not authoritarian, but I don't really think we are "permissive" either. We try to be firm but loving. The result is that our kids all do exactly what they want to do. And if there is some "firm but loving" formula for getting your kids to, say, take school seriously, or think about the future, I really wish somebody would share it.

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