(without losing your heart)

Parenting Styles, Love, and Power: Laying Out Some Ideas

I was in the beginning of exploring how power and solidarity play out in face to face interactions when I became a parent, and this influenced my parenting enormously. And of course parenting has influenced my questions about power in relationships. The basic question about how authority and power affects psychological development is at the core of my intellectual quests, and it certainly has played a central role in my personal struggles, yet too much remains purely speculative and undone. Current political events have inspired me anew to consider the parallels between the microcosm of nuclear families and the macrocosm of political movements, but I’ll leave that mess for another day and stick with the relatively easy mess of parenting.

There are many opinions on parenting, and Diana Baumrind’s famous work on parenting styles is an excellent place to begin, in part because every child psychology book discusses it and partly because of its simplicity. There is an enormous body of research addressing Baumrind’s work, applying it to other areas such as teaching styles. A nice review of the work by Wentzel and Russel is available here: http://www.education.com/reference/article/parenting-styles1/. The basic idea is that there are two major dimensions in parenting: demandingness and responsiveness.

As parents, we almost all acknowledge the need to set rules and expectations for our children: This is demandingness. We demand the use of the toilet, the use of forks and spoons, no hitting, trying in school, and the completion of chores. These demands are our efforts to socialize our children and prepare them for the world.

Responsiveness is simply about how we respond to our children. Do we listen to what they say and care about they’re preferences and difficulties? Do we encourage them to speak up and participate in decision making? Do we look to them to decide how to respond? Or by contrast have we decided ahead of time how things will be without concern for our child’s preferences or unique abilities?

These two dimensions are a way of framing how we love our children, but not how much. I believe that the how and the how much are both very important, but I am reluctant to consider ways of measuring or qualifying the “how much.” We could consider selflessness or passion or even awe, but I see dangers in any effort to show that some parents love their children more than others, despite being certain it is true. The examination of how allows us to consider particular behaviors and their effects on children’s development. What can demandingness and responsiveness do for us in our quest to be the best parents we can be?

To begin, we might consider how they relate to different topics within parenting. How are topics like affection or spanking relevant? Affection is one way of being responsive, but if affection is given without attention to whether or not the child wants to be hugged, then it is the opposite of responsiveness, and clearly a parent can be responsive without being physically affectionate. Spanking (though I advise against it) could be used in both responsive and non-responsive ways, possibly explaining some of the mixed research results in regards to corporal punishment. So these dimensions do not suggest clearly which parenting behaviors are best but shifts the focus to how they are used. In short, it’s complicated (a statement that needs to be repeated often.

I have found the goal of being both demanding and responsive as a parent to be a great strategy for deciding on actions. I, however, am certain the concepts are limited as analytical categories because of the frequent differences between intentions and actions, actions and perceptions, and the importance of context. Our great parenting philosophies frequently don’t become realities for lots or reasons, despite our best efforts, and research frequently examines parenting styles by asking parents how they would behave, not how they do, or observing behaviors in when parents are never going to show the worst in front of an observer. Furthermore the ways our children perceive our actions are influenced unfortunately by far more than our actions. In the end, context is everything, and in future posts, I’ll discuss some contexts to elaborate on how these concepts can help think about them. (Suggest some also!)

For a general approach, the attempt to make demands that are responsive to the needs and individuality of our children works, but there is no magical way to divine their needs. Listening and watching and when appropriate asking is the only way forward, and it takes time and effort. A demand to do well in school should be different depending on a child’s experience of school. The demands to help around the house must depend on the child’s capacity to help. There is nothing particularly earth shattering about these ideas, but practice and thinking it through will lead to better relationships and happier children.

In the beginning, I wrote that I had been thinking about power and solidarity, which comes from work by Hodge and Kress, and to some degree these map onto demandingness and responsiveness, but they bring out different aspects of these dimensions. It is only from a position of power that demands can be made, and solidarity can be communicated by being responsive, but there is not a perfect correlation. The intersection of the two sets of concepts, therefore, provides a more nuanced understanding.

The connection of demands and power are the most important to explore, I think, because often parents make mistakes when they need to feel powerful. This is rarely malicious or uncaring because, at its root, we all need to feel effective, and when we feel like our parenting strategies are failing, we can get desperate and put our own needs ahead of our children’s needs. We then NEED compliance, but demanding this compliance only because we are the powerful ones can be psychologically damaging to children and damages our relationships. If a conflict becomes about power, then it has ceased to be about parenting. I believe it is a good lesson for children to see a parent say, I’m too upset to talk with you right now, but when I am calmer, we will talk (and then you need to have the talk). I recommend stepping back during moments of crisis and asking yourself, Do I believe this demand or punishment will help my child? If your actions are simply about affirming your authority, then you are abusing your authority. Your behavior is in effect weakening your authority. I’ll expand on this in future posts but want to finish sketching out the basics first.

Solidarity is a less immediately intuitive term than power, I think, but the idea is simple: When we communicate, we send messages about whether or not we are on the side of those we are talking with—whether or not we are in solidarity with them. The old idiom of “This will hurt me more than it hurts you” or “This is for your own good” are (lame) attempts at showing we’re really punishing you because we care about you and want what’s best for you rather than just being mean or authoritarian. Saying it in a convincing way is essential because our children need to know we’re on their side—fighting for them, not against them. Making it responsive to the child and to the situation is also going to be more convincing.

I want to try weaving these ideas—with the need for attachment always in the background—into the practicality of parenting because it really works. That will be the subject of many blog posts to come.

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