May 2012 Print

Is Your Parenting Style Working?

by Michael J. Rayes

Traditionalist Catholic parents have a lot on their minds. As with all parents, they feel the duty to provide for their children, but Traditionalists know that child-rearing is so much more than that. As Pius XI wrote in Divini Illius Magistri, No. 36, “the obligation of the family to bring up children, includes not only religious and moral education, but physical and civic education as well, principally in so far as it touches upon religion and morality.”

In other words, parents are to provide for, protect, and educate their children to live in this world, but especially to prepare them for the next—Heaven.

There are many ways to do that. In fact, we could categorize most parents as falling into a certain parenting style. A Jewish psychologist, Diana Baumrind, first categorized these styles in the modern era. Regardless of the source, her four domains of parenting are a helpful tool when assessing one’s own parenting.

  • Authoritarian (the parent is cold, unapproachable, and always right);
  • Permissive (parents are responsive but undemanding);
  • Authoritative (parents are both responsive and demanding); and
  • Neglectful (the parent ignores the child or is simply not home enough).

We will add another category later in this article.

Authoritative parenting is balanced, charitable but firm, and is just right—it’s best for the child. Authoritarian parenting, on the other hand, is when cold parents only discipline a child because the parent becomes angry or irritated, not because the child needs correction to facilitate character growth.

Authoritative and Authoritarian parents might both punish an errant child, and the punishment may be the same, but the motivation is different. The child will feel the difference. (Usually the cold Authoritarian parent stalls and finally punishes the child later, but the punishment is harsher.)

Permissive parenting, on the other hand, is the lackadaisical parenting displayed by many, many parents today. This is also known as “indulgent” parenting, and it is when parents let their kids run around loose near adults, moving cars, and strangers, even when the parents are near them. There are no consistent, standard norms of good behavior. The parents otherwise take care of their kids and are very involved with them (they aren’t neglectful) except when it comes to discipline.

Warm authoritative parents—the balanced parents—discipline their children to help the kids grow into responsible adults. They have somewhat high expectations of their kids, but they also make time for them, give them praise, touch them, hug them, and remind them of their boundaries and their manners.

Authoritative parents, furthermore, never argue in front of their children. The parents never contradict each other’s decisions in front of the children, even if one spouse doesn’t agree. (No, you can’t go to Tyler’s house right now. Why are you asking me if Mommy already said no?) Later they can discuss a disagreement without the kids around.

Authoritative parents also wait to tell their children about planned events until the event is already confirmed. In other words, these balanced parents shield their children from unnecessary disappointment and an emotional roller-coaster. Kids will have to deal with enough disappointments in life; parents can be there to listen and coach them through it.

Balanced, authoritative parenting takes more time when the kids are little and when they are school-aged, but it takes less time when the kids become older teens and young adults. These grown children tend to be a consolation for parents instead of a hardship. As St. Thomas Aquinas once said, “Perfect married life means the complete dedication of the parents for the benefit of their children.” The other parenting styles impose a heavier and heavier investment of emotions and time on the parents as the children grow older.

Cold Authoritarian Parenting in Action

Many cold, authoritarian parents in practice vacillate between authoritarian and neglectful styles. Oftentimes they are neglectful; then they finally react to the problems created by their lack of parenting with authoritarianism. Parents get angry with the child and punish him or her when the parent is aroused, not because the child violated a moral or behavioral norm. For example, a child could hit a younger sibling with a stick several times and not get in trouble even when the parent is nearby. When the parent finally becomes angry because the howling interrupted him or her enough times, the miscreant finally is punished by the inflamed parent.

The “Nervous” Parenting Style

Let’s identify another parenting style that we’ll call “Nervous.” Nervous parents tend to fall in the permissive category, not because they are lazy parents, but they lack confidence to discipline their children. Many of these parents know when they should discipline a child, but self-doubt gets in the way. (Am I doing the right thing? How will this affect my child? What will others think of me?)

The blunt answer to these questions: Who cares? Just do it. Discipline your child for his or her sake, and ignore the imaginary critics.

The deeper answer is to offer your self-doubting to Mary and Joseph. This works best in front of the tabernacle, but any place will do. Then, after putting yourself in God’s hands through His Holy Family, you can search inside yourself. Where does this doubting and nervousness come from? When you are about to discipline your child (or do anything important) can you feel the weight of a critical voice in your head? This criticism does not come from God, and it is not your own. Perhaps it is a remnant of your own childhood attempts to please your elders. It could be simple shyness with the feeling that others are watching as you parent your children. Or perhaps the nervousness is a feeling that you are not making people happy—your spouse, your fussy child, your own parents.

Unfortunately, the problem with nervous parents is that one (or more) of your children is definitely not nervous. Your child has no fear. Some children will deliberately provoke and defy your authority on purpose, and they will continue to do so until you either stop them or they grow tired of the challenge. You can bet on this, especially if you have more than one child. The defiant child’s first word is “but.” (But Mommy…)

As toddlers, these children are the screamers. They will shriek in public when you first attempt to pick them up or drag them away from what they should not be playing with. I don’t mean a yelp and they are done. I mean they scream over and over again. This pushes the nervous parent’s buttons. (Now everyone is surely watching me and thinking what a bad parent I am.)

The nervous parent immediately tries to reason with the toddler. It would be far better to simply cover the child’s mouth to muffle the scream while you calmly and firmly walk away with the child. You may even look the child right in the face (with your hand still covering the child’s mouth) and say firmly, “You will not scream when I pick you up.”

Notice the language used in that admonition. Begin your commands with “You will…” instead of “I want you to…” This is a subtle reminder that the child must obey moral norms of behavior for their own sake, not only because they parent said so.

Someday, your child will have to behave all by himself without your presence. You could become a quadriplegic and still have the same effective parental skills once the child passes the age of six or so. Why? Because a solid foundation of “you will” and “you will not,” as well as the physical discipline of toddlerhood (picking up and moving the child; spankings on the bottom; covering the child’s mouth) forms a discipline in the child. Then he is already somewhat self-disciplined by the time he reaches school age.

Generally, you should not have to move knives, cash, cigarettes, and other instruments of temptation out of reach of 10-year-olds. Simply telling the child not to touch those things should suffice for the most part. Otherwise, how can we expect them to respect private property as adults? If you want them to learn that morality must be followed out of love for our Lord and love of neighbor, they need to learn as children that moral behavior must be followed even if the child can get away without being caught. What will the child do if no one is around to punish him? What internal motivation does the child have to do the right thing?

YOU as the parent are the answer. Your children are yours. They are a gift—a blessing—from God. Have the confidence you need as a parent to discipline them when you know they need it, and they will grow to do the right thing (Prov. 22:6).

Michael J. Rayes is a lifelong Catholic, a husband, and father of seven. He has been published by Rafka Press, Latin Mass Magazine, and others.