As the debate about the best way to parent our children rumbles on, Rebecca Alexander asks whether we’re raising a ‘teacup’ generation
Rachel Johnson, the novelist and sister of London Mayor Boris Johnson, recently lamented today’s ‘wretchedly indulgent’ and ‘wet’ parenting, contrasting it with the ‘benign neglect’ shown by her own parents, which she believes was character building. It’s just the latest in the debate about what constitutes good parenting – hands-on or hands-off, pushy or permissive, relaxed or Tiger Mom. But what’s actually best for our children?
It’s not often we look to the 1960s for helpful advice on parenting, but one model stands the test of time – Diana Baumrind’s framework of four different parenting styles. The developmental psychologist believed parents were either authoritarian, authoritative, permissive or neglectful. Each has a different impact on child, some better than others.
Here’s a brief overview. Authoritarian parents set strict rules, and rarely offer reasons for them. Children are expected to fall in line, and their views are rarely sought. Children of authoritarian parents tend to be obedient, but can have lower levels of happiness and self-esteem.
In contrast, authoritative parents also set rules, but give reasons for them, and children’s views are welcomed. Essentially democratic, these parents are assertive but not restrictive. This is considered to be the best parenting style, where children are more likely to have the best outcomes – they’re generally the happiest, most emotionally stable, and able to think for themselves.
Permissive parents perhaps come closer to Johnson’s description of ‘wet’ parents. They are nurturing and communicative but enforce few rules, preferring to indulge their children and treat them as friends. Their children may have poor impulse control and can have trouble setting and working towards goals.
Finally, uninvolved, or dismissive, parents make few demands on their children, and can be unresponsive or even neglectful. Children in this environment tend to fare the least well of all, with reduced self-esteem and self-control.
Of course, there are caveats. For a start, few parents fall into just one category. ‘It is difficult to label parental styles, except when they are extreme,’ says Dr Terri Apter, author of The Confident Child. ‘We all know what it’s like to be inflexibly authoritarian one minute and later on in the day be permissive, depending on what is at stake, how tired or fed up or distracted we are.’
Too true. And then there’s the fact that each child will respond differently to different styles of parenting. ‘We all know families where one child can be very distressed when a parent gets angry or punitive, and for others it’s like water off a duck’s back,’ says Professor Judith Dunn, co-author of A Good Childhood. ‘So obviously what you recommend for a parent must depend on what they know about the child.’
“You think you’re helping them, but they can’t handle adversity later in life”
More recently we’ve seen the emergence of the helicopter parenting style, typified by hovering, protective parents whose desire for their offspring to succeed can lead them to intrude too far into their children’s lives – over-protecting them when they’re small and increasingly running their lives as they enter young adulthood.
Professor Holly Schiffrin from Virginia’s University of Mary Washington thinks this could be seen as the authoritative, or best, style of parenting gone awry. ‘The parenting strategy has been working, but parents then aren’t able to adjust that as the child gets older, by turning responsibility over to the child,’ she says.
Schiffrin’s recent research* reveals the discouraging downsides of pushy parenting, where teens with over-controlling parents are more likely to be depressed, dissatisfied with life and to feel they are less competent and less able to manage life’s stresses than their peers.
‘I’ve heard this generation of kids referred to as the teacup generation because they’re so fragile that they’ll shatter like a teacup. You think you’re helping them, but it’s leading to them not being able to handle any adversity later in life because they’ve been so protected,’ she says.
But are we prepared to step back, particularly when we see other parents pushing their own kids? And exactly how hands-off should we be? Is ‘benign neglect’ a desirable model?
There is no one answer. Instead it’s about finding the balance that works best for each child, and being prepared to review and change tack as life (and our changing child) demands.
Schiffrin, who admits even she sometimes struggles to stop herself from ‘hyper-parenting’ her own young daughter, agrees. ‘The message I want to get out to parents is that no involvement is bad, but too much involvement is bad, too,’ she says. ‘There has to be a happy medium where we’re giving our children the skills to become independent, and not micro-managing their life for the rest of their life.’ Now that truly could be character-building.
*Schiffrin HH et al (2013). Helping or hovering? The effects of helicopter parenting on college students’ well-being. Journal of Child and Family Studies; DOI 10.1007/s10826-013-9716-3