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How To Find the Sweet Spot Between Too Strict and Too Permissive

"How do you hit the happy medium between Strict and Permissive parenting? I don't want to be mean, but I do want my kids to do what I say."
-Mike

Most parents seem to struggle with questions about whether they're being too strict or too permissive. We don't want to be mean, of course, and we want to take our child's desires into account. Not to mention, sometimes we're just so tired. So we compromise all the time on what we'd really like (less screen time, or daily music practice, or more help around the house.) But then we wonder, what if we had higher expectations? Would our child be more helpful, more self-disciplined? Where's that sweet spot between permissive and strict?

It's easier to find than you might think.

We've been confused because we're missing half the picture. Stay with me here; I promise this is worth taking a minute to understand. It completely sorts out the question about how strict to be.

If strictness and permissiveness are on a continuum, imagine them as a horizontal line (which, in the chart below, is called "Demandingness.") Now, add a vertical line. This one is the continuum of Responsiveness, meaning support, empathy and connection. So you end up with this:

What does it mean? It means that deciding how strict to be (how demanding) is only half the battle. You also have to decide how much support to give. Here's why this matters: How much support you give determines whether your child will be able to meet your expectations.

That's how you find the sweet spot. Start where you are, give as much support as necessary, and your child will make steady strides toward meeting your expectations. If he doesn't? Adjust the support. (Or re-evaluate the expectation.)

Diana Baumrind, who came up with this chart many years ago, labeled the parenting styles as follows:

High Demands/Low Responsiveness = Authoritarian.
Low Demands/High Responsiveness = Permissive.
Low Demands/Low Responsiveness = Uninvolved.
High Demands/High Responsiveness = Authoritative. I find this label gets confused with Authoritarian, so I call this Empathic Limits, meaning you set limits but you do it with empathy.

We've had decades to study these parenting styles, and here's what child development researchers have discovered about the results of each:

Authoritarian

These are parents who have high expectations of their kids, which is a good thing, research shows. Expectations are how kids see themselves as people who can get good grades, learn to manage themselves responsibly, and stay out of trouble. The problem is that these parents don’t offer their kids much support. It’s pull up your socks, straighten up and fly right, my way or the highway. The kids are left on their own to learn to regulate their emotions, so these households usually have anger-management issues. These parents were usually parented this way themselves, and think they came out fine, but psychologists would call them "defended." Research shows these kids often end up rebellious – and looking for love in all the wrong places by the teen years.

Permissive

These are parents who offer their kids lots of support, which is terrific. Their problem is that they don’t also have high expectations. Some of them believe that’s a good thing – they wouldn’t want to get in the way of their child’s natural development. Others just can’t bear to have their child face something difficult even for a moment, so they make a lot of excuses for their kid. Most of these parents are trying hard not to repeat their own parents’ tough-love parenting style, so they go overboard in the other direction. Don’t get me wrong – you can never offer your child too much respect and empathy. But if you let your child walk all over you or other people, what are you teaching him about relationships? We all need the experience of being loved through our disappointments and coming out stronger on the other side. Kids often need our support in structuring themselves to explore their passions--you don't learn to play piano if you don't practice--or they become discouraged and give up. These kids often don't develop self-discipline or the mutuality required in mature relationships.

Uninvolved

There have always been parents who can’t give their kids the love and attention they need, either because of alcoholism, narcissism, or just external pressures like needing to work two jobs to support the family. But these parents seem to me to be even more prevalent today, at least in some communities, where we rationalize thrusting kids into daycare at ever earlier ages for ever-longer hours, and then as they grow up we push them into the arms of their peer group, so that we have little or no influence with them by the time they’re teenagers. These parents sometimes vanish into drug addiction or abandon the family, but there are plenty of seemingly normal families where the parents are too focused on their own work or social lives to engage deeply with their kids. It’s not unusual to see these parents lavish money on their kids instead of attention. This is always a message to the child that he isn’t worth loving, and if both parents are uninvolved, you can pretty much count on the kid having substance abuse or other major issues.

Authoritative Parents

Notice this is NOT the same as Authoritarian! It's a different word. Because of this common confusion, I prefer to call this style "Empathic Limits," which describes what it actually IS. These parents offer their kids lots of empathy and support, like the permissive parents. But they also hold high expectations, like the authoritarian parents. The difference is that because they're seeing things from their child's point of view, they know what expectations are appropriate for that child. Because of this respectful understanding, they're not imposing goals based on their needs; they're supporting their child to live up to the family's values and the child's own goals. Finally, they're offering their child complete support to achieve expectations over time.

For example, they aren’t expecting a three year old to clean up her toys by herself. But they may well be working with this three year old to help her clean up, making it fun, over and over and over, so that by six she really can clean up her toys herself. These parents are involved. They expect family dinners, lots of discussion straight through high school, excitement about learning, responsible, considerate behavior.

Because these parents are comfortable with their emotions and able to regulate them, these kids learn early to regulate their own emotions and thus are more open to guidance.

Not surprisingly, these kids stay close to their parents, often describing a parent as the person they would most trust to talk to about a problem. These kids are usually motivated learners in school, and they’re also the ones that teachers describe as responsible and well-liked; simply nice, considerate kids who are a pleasure to have around. This parenting style, is, of course, the one that research shows raises the best-adjusted kids.

Are you having an Aha! Moment? Most parents think the best parenting course is the happy medium between strictness and demands. But they're missing half the picture. Kids only meet our demands when we give them the support they need to do so.

It's fine to set limits and have high expectations. Why would you compromise on the values that are really important to you, such as how people in your house speak to each other, or how much screen time they have, or whether they do their homework before they Facebook?

But -- and this is a big but -- kids only accept these high expectations because of the support they get. That means that along with limits, these kids get tremendous empathy, and step by step help in learning to manage themselves. They get help working through their emotions so they can actually stay calm rather than yelling at you. They also experience respect, which means their parents listen to what's important to them and find win-win solutions.

The difference between Authoritarian Parenting and Empathy with Limits is huge: the understanding and respect offered to the child. The difference between Permissive and Empathy with Limits is the expectations; parents are able to help kids live the values that are important to them. And the difference in parental involvement should be obvious – these parents are the most involved of any of the parenting styles. That means their relationship with their child is deeper and sweeter. Which is probably why they’re happier parents.

Happier parents, happier children. That's what I call win/win parenting.

Click here to watch Dr. Laura's video "The Sweet Spot Between Strict and Permissive Parenting."  


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