Miriam Harris breaks into a grin as she ventures back four decades, describing a time when no-nonsense moms and dads meant what they said, when rules were strictly enforced, and parenting wasn’t a popularity contest.
It was the 1940s, and her oldest son, Terry, was usually in Mom’s or Dad’s doghouse. The reasons, of course, varied.
“He was weeks washing dishes, and he hated that,” says Harris, a spry, 89-year-old widow. “We didn’t have a dishwasher back then, so he was forever washing dishes. Once he got older and had a car, if he did anything wrong, his father stuck out his hand for the keys.”
Despite a more authoritarian, “Father Knows Best” approach, this Middleburg, Fla., resident doesn’t consider her generation’s brand of old-school discipline strict. Kids understood who was in charge, she says.
“We talked with both of our kids quite a bit, and were always involved in their school activities – skating parties, sock hops,” she says. “It wasn’t a dictatorship. It can’t be. You have to learn to give and take, to a certain extent. We never gave in; we just stuck to it. If one of us said something, we stuck with it. If anything came up, we’d talk about it with each other first. If I thought my husband punished the kids wrong, I’d talk to him later. We never talked about it in front of them. We never gave them an opportunity to go from one to the other – to play one off the other.”
Too Much “Kid” fluence?
How much is “kid” fluence too much? When it comes to democracy versus dictatorship, experts say finding a healthy middle is best.
“We discourage parents from being at either extreme,” says Kirk Bloir, extension associate with Ohio State University’s College of Human Ecology, department of human development and family sciences. “Being overly controlling is not healthy for youth development. You end up having kids who are resentful of authority – mistrusting of authority figures – because so many rules were imposed on them, or the rules were so harsh that they frequently weren’t able to live up to them.”
Throughout history, parenting styles have followed a predictable ebb and flow, morphing from dictatorship to democracy to anything-goes-permissiveness as times and attitudes change.
“You can trace these [patterns] over time,” Bloir says. “In the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, the authoritarian style is the one that worked very well for the culture we had at the time. We went to work and responded, ‘Yes, sir,’ ‘No, sir’ and ‘What can I do for you, sir?’ In the ’60s, a civil rights movement brought voice to people who didn’t have a voice and rights to people who didn’t have rights. That spilled over into child-rearing and more permissive parenting. In the ’80s the pendulum swung back to the strict side. Now, we’re going less strict. Ideally, there needs to be a middle ground. You can’t be overly controlling or overly permissive.”
The Voices of Experience
Carol Anglin, 60, parented two children and three stepchildren and considered her influence a dictatorship with room for negotiation. A subtle mix, as experts recommend.
“Providing limits and fair rules for the children gave them a sense of security,” says Anglin, a Livingston, Mont., resident. “It also gave them a chance to rebel and try out their independence in a fairly safe surrounding. As the children grew and demonstrated the ability to handle more responsibility and freedom, they were given more of both.”
Kathy Orahood, 50, also strives for a healthy middle, saying she’s raised her children, ages 29, 26, and 18, with equal doses of dictatorship and democracy.
“We set rules and [communicate] how we expect our children to behave and act, but we also listen to their opinions,” the Enon, Ohio, resident explains. “I take into consideration their feelings and thoughts, and I take the time to think about what they have expressed. Sometimes, we make adjustments because, as parents, we don’t always have all the right answers.”
Anglin says that issues with overly permissive approaches are the drive-through families they create – households with few rules, connections, or dinner table discussions.
“Since I see ours as more of a benign dictatorship style, I would say this about democracy: It puts kids and parents on the same level,” she says. “I think this is OK in some circumstances, but I feel strongly that children need to have parents who will lay down and enforce firm boundaries. Without over-generalizing, I’ve seen Boomers be somewhat self-absorbed, to the detriment of providing strong parental leadership.”
Orahood is equally skeptical of strong dictatorships – for equally valid reasons.
“I feel it may produce children who never learn to make decisions on their own,” she says. “They’ve always been told what to do, as if they have no opinions or choices. When they get older and have to think for themselves, they may not know how to handle certain situations and may follow the wrong crowds or make wrong decisions.”
Today’s Parenting Styles
Rita Osborne, 58, a Springfield, Ohio, mother of two, believes today’s parents aren’t raising their children any differently than generations before, despite their best intentions.
“I really think they’re still just trying to make their children’s lives better, just like their parents did for them,” she says. “It just depends on each family. The ones who are instilling values and spirituality into their children’s lives are doing better than the ones who have taught their children to believe in ‘whatever makes them feel good.’ One thing that I remember hearing when I raised my kids was, ‘Never underestimate your children, and never overreact to what they say or do.’ That kind of sums it up.”
Just more evidence, Bloir insists that successful parenting is best-served medium-well. The focus should be on teaching and guiding, not power and scolding.
“In American society, we value democratic decision-making,” he says. “In the family, we want to encourage parents to help their kids develop self-direction and self-control, and understand the responsibility that goes along with that. One way is to make sure your kids have established limits – that they know the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. As they grow older, it’s important for them to participate with parents, coming up with rules and consequences of breaking or violating those boundaries. In doing so, parents are engaging their kids in critical thinking, negotiation and compromise – all skills important to living in American society.”
Healthy limits, Bloir emphasizes, protect children from physical or psychological harm and typically stem from essential family values.
“When you discipline, are you in love with your power or showing the power of love?” he asks. “One of the biggest mistakes is overuse of negative words in parenting: ‘Don’t play in the street!’ ‘You can’t stay out until midnight!’ Instead, tell them what they CAN do: ‘You can play in the backyard.’ ‘You can play inside a fenced yard.’
Kids who grow up with a lifetime of don’ts and can’t become overly cynical and pessimistic. As adults, they see the glass as proverbially half-empty. Some lack a strong sense of self, become excessively compliant, and transform into “the proverbial doormats everyone walks on.” Others become dictators themselves.
Meanwhile, those raised in radically permissive households often fail to learn that decisions and behaviors have consequences, developing a false sense of entitlement.
“Limits need to be focused, clear and positive,” Bloir says. “An example is ‘Clean up this mess.’ In parents’ minds, their standard of ‘clean’ means toys must be neatly organized and books stacked in a certain way. But by using only those four words, parents aren’t communicating what those standards or expectations really are. It’s better to say, ‘These toys are tripping hazards. These clothes could get ripped. We’ve devoted lots of money to these clothes and toys, and it’s important to take care of them. So how about putting all your toys back in the closet? And your clothes back in their drawers?'”
Raising Positive Kids
With a bit of parental homework, kids can avoid growing up in negative or fearful households.
“Instead of having a house full of ‘don’ts,’ I try to focus on making our house safe so our child can explore,” says Bloir, who has a 16-month-old son. “Our outlets have covers on them, for example, so there are fewer opportunities to have to say, ‘no!’ As a result, when I do say, ‘no!’ it carries much more weight, and it’s said in one of my louder daddy voices that gets his attention.”
The key to healthy discipline, experts believe, is to understand the difference between guidance and punishment. Healthy parenting, after all, is just quality teaching.
“Punishing behavior is having those vague rules and expectations – punishing a child for not knowing or meeting your standards when you haven’t clearly or fairly communicated them,” Bloir says. “Shaming our children isn’t the best. Up until their teen years, children are already devastated enough whenever they don’t meet our expectations. Kids aren’t miniature adults. They honestly forget the rules or what they’re not supposed to be doing. They’re naturally interested in their surroundings and curious about how the world works, and they get into things they shouldn’t. Having just a few simple, really important limits is always best.”
Healthy Rules for Setting Limits
- Limit your limits to essential matters.
- Focus on the positive and state expectations in a clear, direct manner.
- Consistently reinforce the consequences.
- Set limits that are realistic and attainable for a child’s age.
- Gradually increase your child’s participation in rule-setting as they grow older.
- Focus on the value behind the rule rather than the power you have as a rule-maker.
- Allow children opportunities to exercise their privileges and see how well they do.