School of Family and Consumer Sciences at The University of Akron
Professor Susan D. Witt, Ph.D.
To accompany Chapter 5
What is effective parenting?  One of the unique situations with parenting, as compared with other jobs or tasks that we do, is that the results aren’t all in until the child becomes an adult.  Then we can look back at the problems and joys and make a decision on whether or not we feel we did a good job.  It’s not a bad idea before becoming parents for us to think of the type of person we’d like to raise and consider what kind of parenting is most likely to result in that person.
Sometimes it seems that there are as many theories on the best way to parent children as there are parents.  It can get very confusing for parents trying to do what is best for their children in terms of their physical, cognitive, social and emotional development.  Parents can’t be expected to be familiar with all the many child development and parenting theories that have been researched.   But the assumption is that most parents do care a great deal about their children and want them to experience optimal development and growth.  Within the vast array of parenting literature that is available to us, we can find some general guidelines for parenting that have been shown to be effective and appropriate.  The first individual we will consider in our lecture notes is Diana Baumrind, whose ideas about parenting styles have been shown to be valid and sensible.
Baumrind has conducted careful research on the effects of parents’ childrearing practices on children’s behavior.  Her findings suggest that parents who are accepting and who also provide structure and limits have the most competent children.  She identified three patterns of childrearing: 1) authoritative, 2) authoritarian, and 3) permissive. 
  • Authoritative parents exercise firm control of the child’s behavior but also emphasize independence and individuality in the child.  Although the parents have a clear notion of present and future standards of behavior for the child, they are rational, flexible and attentive to the needs and preferences of the child.  Authoritative parents balance high control with high independence-granting.  Their children are self-reliant and self-confident and explore their worlds with excitement and pleasure.  Their children generally get along well with peers, are not nervous or timid, and have high levels of curiosity and are generally pleasant to be around.
  • Authoritarian parents also have firm control over their children, but use it in an arbitrary, power-oriented way without regard for the child’s individuality.  They emphasize control, without nurturance or support to achieve it.  The authoritarian parent values obedience as a virtue and believes in restricting the child’s autonomy.  This parent values the preservation of order and traditional structure as an end in itself (“because I said so, that’s why”).  Authoritarian parents do not encourage verbal give and take, believing that the child should accept the parent’s word for what is right.  Children of authoritarian parents tend to be more unhappy, withdrawn, inhibited, nervous, and distrustful.
  • Permissive parents set few limits on the child They are very accepting of the child’s impulses, giving as much freedom as possible while still maintaining physical safety.  They appear cool and uninvolved.  Permissive parents sometimes allow behavior that angers them, but they do not feel sufficiently comfortable with their own anger to express it.  As a result, the anger builds up to unmanageable proportions.  They then may lash out and hurt the child more than they intended.  Their children are the least independent and self controlled and could best be classified as immature.  These children are sometimes impulsive and aggressive and are frequently out of control.  Very often these children have no idea of what is appropriate behavior in any given situation.
    What we can see from the parenting styles found by Baumrind and the types of behaviors these parenting styles seem to encourage, is that there are some effective ways to parent children and some ineffective ways to parent children.  Let’s take a look at some things parents sometimes do that are ineffective at guiding and nurturing children toward the responsible, caring, productive, confident people we would like them to be.
One of the areas of parenting that causes distress and confusion is disciplining children.  Go to your local bookstore or library and look at the parenting section.  There are literally hundreds of parenting books available.  Most of them seem to make some sense, and yet they often don’t agree with each other on the best way to deal with children.  As far as discipline is concerned, we will talk about specific discipline needs of different age children as the weeks go by, but there are some general things that parents sometimes do that are ineffective, don’t really teach the lessons that parents want children to learn, and are sometimes downright cruel and mean-spirited.
  • Embarrassing/Humiliating - Embarrassing another person is a cheap shot at them, whether they are adults or children.  It can be particularly detrimental to use embarrassment with children because they are more vulnerable than adults to the message being given.  Embarrassment may get quick results in that it stops behavior for the time being, but it has no lasting results because of the unwanted side effects.  Someone who has been embarrassed or humiliated usually responds by withdrawing (either physically or emotionally) or by retaliating.  At the very least, the embarrassment leads to a dislike of and a loss of respect for the one who embarrassed them. Some people respond to humiliation by turning it inward.  They dislike themselves, cry, become moody or sullen, develop self-doubt or hatred.  At best a child who is humiliated will reject the punisher and all that he/she stands for and values.  So when parents use humiliation and embarrassment, they run the risk of losing the respect and admiration of the person they are embarrassing.  If the goal is to help children learn to control themselves and to behave appropriately, embarrassing and humiliating will not help.
  • Ordering - when parents order children to do something, they create a conflict, a dislike, an urge to rebel, to test, or to challenge.  When parents say, “Come here this minute,” the very nature of the ordering invites the child to challenge, “I can’t come, I’m busy, I’ll be there in a little while,” anything to let the parent know that the child resents the parent’s power over him/her.  When parents order children around, they frequently get into power struggles with them.  No one really wins in a power struggle.  Each person is striving to save face and neither wants to back down.
  • Labeling - Children live up (or down) to their labels.  When parents tell children they are lazy, they get lazier.  When parents tell children they are slow, the get slower.  When parents tell children they are fat, they get fatter.  Children believe what they hear about themselves.  They have tremendous faith in adults and in the perceptions that adults have (after all, who is supposed to know you better than your mom or your dad, and if they tell you that you’re mean or stubborn or dumb, then of course it must be true).  Parents can use this belief that children have in them to their advantage by making sure children hear positive things about themselves.
  • Arguing - There is nothing that makes an adult sound more like a four-year-old than getting into a protracted argument with a four-year-old.  When parents argue with children, children realize they have the parents hooked.  They are getting the parents’ full attention, and arguments usually go nowhere.  Often times when parents go around and around in an argument they lose their perspective, their temper and their rationality.  Parents say many things that are foolish and inappropriate, immature, silly, sometimes damaging, and hurtful.  Getting into arguments with children usually is non-productive.  Discussion is healthy, but arguing is counterproductive.
  • Fussing and Nagging - When parents fuss and nag at children, they usually make them mad.  Rarely are children moved to change their behavior based on being nagged about it. 
  • Threatening - Many parents threaten all day long.  “You won’t get to go outside.  You won’t get dessert.  You won’t get to go on that trip.”  What happens very often is that parents issue threats and then there is no follow-through or consistency.  Many parental threats are ineffective because they are too overblown or exaggerated.  Telling a child, “If you don’t stop hitting your sister, I’m going to break your arm!” is meaningless because the child knows that is unlikely to happen.  There is nothing wrong, however, with telling the child, “As soon as you pick up the toys from the family room and put them away, we can go to the park.  If you don’t do your chore, we won’t go.”  Then if the child doesn’t do his/her job, the parent’s job is to follow through and not take the child to the park.  When parents make threats that don’t make sense – “If you don’t pick up your clothes from the floor, I’ll never buy you clothes again!” - they lose credibility with their children.
  • Pleading and Begging - Some parents act as if they need to get permission from their children to be parents.  “Please listen.  Please obey me.  Please do what you’re told.”  When parents plead and beg with children, they put themselves at the child’s mercy.  The children realize they have the upper hand and lose respect for their parents.  It is important for parents not to convey the message to children that the parents are weak and ineffectual.  Children need parents to be in control of themselves, to say what they mean and back it up with action.
  • Scaring - Many parents use fear to coerce children to behave.  (I know of a mother who, when her kids were small, actually held a knife to her own throat and said that if they didn’t behave, she would kill herself – think about how terrifying that would be to a child.  Another mother I know would threaten to leave the home and never come back - again a very frightening situation for a child).  Although sometimes scare tactics “work” in that children will immediately obey, the long-range effects can be disastrous.  A child might be so traumatized that his world view may be forever affected.  Children have enough fears naturally without being told that bogey men, snakes, monsters, the devil are going to suddenly appear from nowhere to “get them,” “eat them up,” or “snatch them away.”  In time, children lose respect for those who manipulated them with fear tactics when they were vulnerable.  Parents eventually lose their credibility when they try to control children with unfair and demeaning practices.
  • Inconsistency - Children behave much better when they know what to expect, that the same rules apply every day, and that they are treated consistently if they break those rules.  Parents who apply discipline based on their own mood or whims at the time and are inconsistent are contributing to children’s confusion about what is appropriate behavior and what is inappropriate.  Having a bedtime of 9:00 p.m., for example, and then letting the child stay up until 11:00 one night and 10:00 the next and then making him/her go to bed at 8:00 the next night because the parent is in a bad mood is ineffective parenting.  There is nothing wrong with bending a rule once in a while, but for young children, consistency from parents helps them understand and make better sense of the world.   
  • Giving a Child Everything He/She Wants - When parents give in to children's demands all the time, just to keep the peace, the child is being taught that his/her wishes and needs come first.  When parents give in to temper tantrums and overindulge their children, they fail to teach the child a much needed sense of responsibility.  The child is denied the joy that comes from learning to delay gratification and work for a goal.  The child is taught to be selfish and self-centered, to think the world is his/her playground, and that he/she deserves to have whatever he/she wants.  The child is being set up for a lifetime of frustration and disappointment.
  • Power Struggles - Parents shouldn't get into power struggles with children because they are "no win" situations.  Parents should be careful to have rules that are fair and sensible, to enforce them, and let children know that those rules are inflexible.  Certainly, parents need to let children think through issues, discuss them with parents and suggest alternatives, but the way to teach children to do this is very important.  On the one hand, parents invite children to be reflective, questioning, responsible, thoughtful, and inquisitive.  But on the other, parents don't want children to be argumentative, disrespectful, challenging, nasty and rude.  These distinctions are hard for children to learn.  Parents must be patient and consistent, and let a child know when they mean business, when they are open for suggestions, and when and how it is permissible for the child to raise objections.  The important issue is to not encourage or reinforce children when they behave inappropriately.  If parents refuse the bait when a child behaves in an inappropriate way, the child will quickly learn that that behavior will not be tolerated or allowed.  The idea is to teach the child acceptable ways to negotiate and speak up for what he/she believes is right.
  • Losing One's Cool or Going Ballistic - When adults resort to screaming, saying things they don't mean, falling apart, or "losing their cool," children react in many different ways.  Many are afraid.  Most are insecure.  Eventually they lose respect for the parent.  Children need someone older and wiser to be in charge.  When they feel that person is no longer in control, it is frightening.  Children imitate the behaviors of adults and when adults yell and go berserk, they usually do the same.  The tension escalates and nothing productive is accomplished.
  • Being Vague - Children need for parents to be clear, concise, and to the point.  When parents are vague, when they say, "be good," "straighten up," "be quiet," children really don't know what they mean.  When parents tell a child to clean his/her room, it may take the child five minutes or five hours.  The child's notion of cleaning the room is probably very different from the parent's expectations.  Parents need to let the child know exactly what the job entails.  Parents need to spell out specifically the behaviors that are expected.  Sometimes parents are vague because they are not sure themselves what they really want from the child.  In this case, it is best for the parent to wait until he/she is sure what they want the child to do, so they can be clear, concise and to the point.  Parents come across as weak when they don't have the energy or fortitude to back up what they are saying.  A child will take advantage of that weakness and look for loopholes.
  • Putting the Child on a Guilt Trip - Some adults who find it hard to state their own wants and needs, try to control children by making them feel guilty.  For example, if Jenny protests when she is asked to dry the dishes, her mom snatches the towel from her and dries them herself.  Mom stays huffy and refuses to answer Jenny later when she asks if she can have a cookie.  Or a child brings home a bad report card.  He leaves it on the table and his father comes home, looks at it and puts it back.  At dinner the father refuses to talk to the child.  He talks to everyone else but when the child asks him a question, dad pretends he doesn't hear.  He looks the other way and changes the subject.  Many parents learn to control with guilt and continue to do so after their children are grown.  The married couple who decides not to go "home" for Christmas one year and take a trip to Florida instead, gets a cold greeting from mom the next time they call home.  They know mom is upset that they didn't comply with mom's wishes at Christmas, although mom may not mention the subject again.  Children eventually move away (emotionally and/or physically) from those who put them on guilt trips - who act out their hurts and disappointments instead of speaking up (after all, we tend not to want to be around people who make us feel bad about ourselves, and will spend more time with people who make us feel good about ourselves).  An even more serious side effect, however, is that they will also lack the skill of identifying and verbalizing what is wrong for themselves.  Unless they learn to overcome this handicap, they may pass it on to their children.
As we have discussed before, there are some prerequisites for being good parents.  Obviously in life there are no guarantees, but people are more likely to be good parents if they take care of some personal business first - having financial stability, being in a secure, stable relationship, having a good education, having some life experiences that have contributed to their maturity.  People need to be emotionally healthy themselves before they can be responsible for the emotional, physical, cognitive and social development of a child.  Keeping this in mind, there are some conditions that foster healthy child development.
  • Providing love and acceptance rather than criticism and rejection - The importance of a parent's affection cannot be overstated.  It increases a child's self-reliance, it increases a child's independence, it increases a child's self-control, and it provides a sense of trust in the parents, which then graduates to trust in the near environment and the world outside the family.
  • Love and acceptance usually form part of a broader pattern of positive family
  • interaction and relationships.  Parents who show genuine acceptance of their kids also show interest in the child and what he or she is doing.  This means going to dance recitals (even when your child performs for 3 minutes during the second half of a three-hour show), listening to jokes, sitting through what seems like millions of little league games, reading bedtime stories (sometimes the same one for 15 nights running).  The payoff here is that the child learns that he/she is important to the parents and also sets the stage for the type of parent the child will eventually be because children learn by example.
  • Parents who are not accepting of their children, who reject their children (and this includes neglect, denial of affection, lack of interest in the child's activities, harsh or inconsistent punishment, lack of respect for the child's rights and feelings) very often end up with children who have low self-esteem, have feelings of insecurity, inadequacy, retarded intellectual development, increased aggression, loneliness, guilt, depression, and later difficulties in giving and receiving love.
  • Supplying Structure - A clearly structured environment is important to the child because children need to be able to count on consistency in their lives.  Young children need lots of guidance and teaching from the parent, and providing a home with structure helps the child learn what is appropriate and inappropriate in society and the world.  A clearly structured environment is one that is orderly and consistent (regular bedtimes, mealtimes, clear rules - but not too many!) and allows the child to know what is expected and acceptable.  A clearly structured environment also has clearly defined goals and objectives and contributes to healthy development of the child.
    • Parents need to have clearly defined standards and limits so that kids understand which goals, means and conduct are approved.  For example, if parents want to confine playing to certain areas of the house, they need to be clear about this and let children know what the consequences are when the rules are broken.  On the other hand, parents shouldn't attempt to have rules for every little behavior.  This tends to make children nervous and contributes to tension in the household.  Every family is different and will have different rules and standards of behavior, but every family needs to decide what are the most important things to them and develop enough rules to keep the family running smoothly but not to have so many rules that parents are constantly having to watch for infractions.
    • There should be adequately defined roles for both older and younger members of the family, so that children know what is expected both of themselves and of others.  Parents should also establish methods of discipline that encourage desired behavior, discourage misbehavior, and deal with infractions as they occur.  Parents should also remember that discipline means "to teach" and should develop discipline methods that work to that end.  It makes no sense to banish a child to his/her room without any dinner because the child didn't do his/her homework.  Discipline should fit the misbehavior and make sense as far as teaching the child not to do the same thing again.
  • Encouraging Competence and Self-confidence - This requires guidance.  Children not only need assistance with academic skills, such as reading and writing, but also with social and interpersonal skills.  Again, parents who are encouraging rather than discouraging ("thanks for helping me wash the car, you made the job go much faster" is likely to encourage feelings of competence and ability, rather than "thanks for helping me wash the car, but you know you missed quite a few places here on the passenger side, and you really need to wash those windows better").  Again, parents need to have some understanding of human development in order to do these things well and provide an optimal environment for the child's development.
  • Presenting Appropriate Role Models - Parents are always "guiding" their children, even when they don't think they are.  The parent who tells lies on the phone, fudges their tax return,  makes promises and then breaks them is teaching his/her child that those behaviors are acceptable.  The parent who has negative habits (i.e., using foul language, smoking, drinking) will have a difficult time encouraging a child not to do those same things.  Social learning theory tells us that children learn by observing behaviors and then imitating those behaviors.  Parents need to look to their own actions when they are raising children because children model their behavior to a great extent on their parents'.
  • Creating a Stimulating and Responsive Environment - Children need to be given opportunities for using their senses - touching, tasting, listening, looking.  To encourage a child's physical, cognitive, and emotional development, parents need to make sure that children have toys that encourage them to be creative and imaginative (these don't need to be expensive - a set of blocks, lincoln logs, legos, dolls cost much less than nintendo, gameboy, and toys that are connected to some movie, and are more likely to let a child use his/her imagination and creativity).  Parents also have the responsibility to take their child out to have new experiences - visiting a restaurant, going to the zoo, taking walks around the neighborhood, playing on the playground - this helps the child learn how to behave in different situations and encourages learning.  Limiting television is a good idea also.  There is nothing wrong with watching TV, but there is something wrong with turning children over to the television set for 30 hours a week (which is about how much time the average young child in the U.S. watches).  Time spent watching TV is time not spent reading or doing homework or doing something physical, and tends to be time just lying around and eating high calorie junk foods.  While it is easier to let kids sit and watch TV than to have to interact and do something with their children, parents owe it to their kids to make the time to spend with their kids and to encourage pursuits that encourage optimal development of the child.
  • Bottom line on parenting children - If children are reared in an atmosphere of respect and cooperation, they are likely to adopt respect and cooperation as values and use them in other relationships.  If children feel loved and accepted within their family, they are likely to go out into the world with confidence and be better able to make friends, get along in school, and eventually have a healthy intimate relationship with a love partner.
1) From birth on, children form beliefs about their self-worth.
2) Parents should treat a child with respect, and expect the child to treat the parent and others with respect.
3) Encouragement helps children develop self-esteem.
4) Encouragement lets children decide for themselves if they are pleased with what they do.  It doesn't demand perfection or make comparisons.
5) Encouragement boosts a child and lets the child accept and value him/herself.
6) Parents should be concerned that their children learn how to learn, not that they perform perfectly.
7) Parents shouldn't push children.  They should be encouraged by setting reasonable goals, having their efforts accepted, and getting appreciation for their improvements. 
8) Parents need to show children that they love them:
- Tell them so.
- Show appreciation.
- Touch them.
- Spend time with each child - time when the parent gives the child their
  whole attention.
9) Whoever looks after children needs to have a philosophy similar to the parent's about caring for them.
10) Parents need to encourage themselves as well as their children.  Everyone needs to value themselves and face challenges with courage.
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