Question: If you had to choose between a very authoritarian style of parenting versus one that is permissive and lax, which would you prefer? Which is healthier for kids?
Answer: Both extremes leave their characteristic scars on children, and I would be hard-pressed to say which is more damaging.
At the oppressive end of the continuum, a child suffers the humiliation of total domination.
The atmosphere is icy and rigid, and he lives in constant fear.
He is unable to make his own decisions, and his personality is squelched beneath the hobnailed boot of parental authority.
Lasting characteristics of dependency, deep abiding anger and serious adolescent rebellion often result from this domination.
But the opposite extreme is also damaging to kids. In the absence of adult leadership the child is her own master from her earliest babyhood. She thinks the world revolves around her heady empire, and she often has utter contempt and disrespect for those closest to her. Anarchy and chaos reign in her home.
Her mother is often the most frazzled and frustrated woman on her block. It would be worth the hardship and embarrassment she endures if her passivity produced healthy, secure children. It typically does not.
The healthiest approach to child rearing is found in the safety of the middle ground between disciplinary extremes.
I attempted to illustrate that reasonable parenting style on the cover of my first book, Dare to Discipline, which included a little diagram much like a child’s seesaw, with “love” on one end and “control” on the other and the fulcrum balancing the two.
Children tend to thrive best in an environment where these two ingredients, love and control, are present in balanced proportions. When the scale tips in either direction, problems usually begin to develop at home.
Unfortunately, parenting styles in a culture tend to sweep back and forth like a pendulum from one extreme to the other.
Question: My husband’s parents are wonderful people, and we love them very much. They have always refrained from interfering in our family; that is, until our daughter was born. Now they’re arguing with us about how we’re raising her and undermining the things we’re trying to teach.
We want to base Amy’s upbringing on biblical principles, but not being Christians, my in-laws don’t really understand this. How can we deal with this situation without offending them?
Answer: It is time to have a loving but candid conversation with your in-laws about how your child will be raised.
I would suggest that you take them to dinner some evening, during which this topic will be addressed.
When the moment is right, tell them of your concerns.
Make it clear that you love them and want them to enjoy their granddaughter.
But the responsibility for how she is being managed must rest entirely with you and your husband. Remind them that they had their day — when the decisions about child rearing were theirs alone.
If so, try to remain calm and stand your ground. If the worst occurs and the conversation ends in an emotional walkout, I suggest that you give your in-laws some space while they’re cooling off.
When you do come back together, let love and respect continue to be your guides — but don’t back off on the issue at hand. You have the right to do what you’re doing. Your in-laws are the ones who are out of line. But remember that Amy needs her grandparents, and your goal should be to harmonize your relationship. In most cases, that will occur in time.
James is founder and Chairman Emeritus of the nonprofit organization Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, Colo. 80995 (www.focusonthefamily.org).