By Aoife Magee, PhD, and Jean Bishop, MA
Over time, parenting and teaching styles influence a child’s development, including their self-esteem, self-control and self-reliance. Therefore, we need to consciously guide children in ways that will strengthen their social and emotional skills.
A parenting and teaching style is defined as the means by which an adult socializes a child and is usually in response – or reaction – to earlier experiences in the adult’s life. We may replicate the methods of discipline used by our caregivers or sometimes actively try to do things differently, especially if childhood was painful or confusing. Either way, without understanding the influence of our story on our parenting practices, we may fail to see the long-term consequences of the approach we settle into.
Reflecting on our stories, parents may want to ask:
What did we receive?
As adults, what do we want now in relation to our child?
“Helicopter” parents hover over their children in an attempt to protect and direct their experiences.
“Free-range” or “marshmallow” parents use a more permissive approach, allowing child-directed exploration without setting appropriate limits on behavior.
“Brick” parents, hard and controlling, use authoritarian practices such as punishments and rewards to control the child’s behavior.
Research has demonstrated positive outcomes for children when an authoritative guidance style – sometimes referred to as the flexible and sturdy “tree” or “backbone” approach – is used. This style balances setting appropriate expectations while offering unconditional regard.
The ideas of authoritative guidance are based on the child development ideas of theorists Alfred Adler, Carl Rogers and Jean Piaget. They taught that young children do not want the world explained to them, but rather seek to actively understand it through direct experience.
Specifically, Piaget’s theory states that children do not become good human beings by learning to be obedient, but because they “construct ideas” through many experiences, and make many of their own choices about what it means to act in ways that are fair, good and honest. This gradual understanding on the part of the child leads to moral autonomy, which is the ability to independently make good choices in complex social situations, without fear of punishment or expectation of reward.
Authoritative guidance is not a middle ground between permissive and strict; it doesn’t even exist on the same continuum. It does not negotiate for or demand obedience, but instead seeks to guide the child toward moral autonomy.
Teachers and parents who use this approach are actively supporting and teaching the child. Rather than try to mold a child’s behavior with punishment or rewards, we work at understanding the “why” of the misbehavior and then help children make better choices, primarily by guiding them to learn to communicate, to understand their own and others’ feelings, and to problem solve.
Cultivating citizens with moral autonomy is a worthy goal for society and starts with authoritative guidance, a style that emphasizes childhood as the best time to begin learning to make responsible choices.
Aoife Magee, PhD is a parenting educator and professional development specialist in early childhood education through Magee Consulting, LLC. Jean Bishop, MA, is an instructor at LCC in the Child and Family Education department.