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‘Old-fashioned parenting’: What does that really mean?

This week a dear friend of mine attended one of my parent sessions. Jo has heard me speak many times over the past 18 years but her reaction to this talk was very different than it had been in the past. She and her husband are currently raising their 15-year-old grandson (having had him since he was a baby) and although they’ve been through the adolescent years before with their children (many years ago), they’re now going through it all again – this time feeling far more pressure than before. When I finished my presentation she turned to others in the audience, took a great big sigh and said “I’m so pleased I came tonight, I am constantly being told that I am being ‘old-fashioned’ when it comes to my parenting – I now feel like I actually may be doing the right thing!” 

We had a chat about what she thought ‘old-fashioned parenting’ actually meant and in what context the term was being used. Jo’s response reflected what I hear across the country from parents. Not surprisingly, teens are likely to use the phrase, particularly when their parents are restricting them in some way (I’m sure we can all remember a time that we threw a line at our parents like “You don’t know what it’s like nowadays … “). But when the term is used by adults to criticize or judge someone else’s parenting choices, often around alcohol and partying, that’s when I find it quite offensive. As some Mums and Dads say, try to enforce some boundaries or rules around parties and alcohol and, heaven forbid, roll out some consequences if those rules aren’t actually followed and you can find yourself being criticized by all and sundry. “Loosen up a little” or “Do you really want to be the same as your parents?” are just some of the statements people have thrown at them when they’e tried to put their preferred parenting strategies into place.

It’s important to make it clear at this point that there’s a big difference between the ‘family’ and ‘parenting’. Our understanding of what makes up a family today is very different to what it was even 20 years ago. Where once the ‘average family’ was portrayed as Mum, Dad, two kids (usually white and middle class) and a dog, wrapped up nicely in a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence, it is now accepted that families come in many forms. Regardless of whether a child is brought up in what was regarded as the ‘traditional family’, or a blended family with step-parents and siblings, a single Mum, a single Dad, two Mums or two Dads, or a mixture of all of the above, what we know about parenting and what is most likely to work remains the same.

Four types of parenting styles have been identified, each defined along two axes – strictness (‘parental control’) and warmth (‘parental support’):

  • authoritarian (strictness but not warmth)
  • authoritative (strictness and warmth)
  • indulgent (warmth but not strictness)
  • neglectful (neither warmth nor strictness)

Parental control reflects how children’s behaviours are managed, e.g., how family rules are developed and enforced, parental knowledge and monitoring of their child’s activities. Parental support refers to affectionate qualities and is associated with characteristics like warmth, acceptance, and involvement. I’ve talked a lot recently about indulgent parents and those that come under the neglectful banner are in essence almost abusive, so let’s put those to one side for the purposes of this piece. I’d like to tease out the first two and try to establish the key difference between them because that’s where I think some parents of today are getting confused.

Authoritarian parenting is often referred to as ‘top-down’ parenting. These parents make rules and expect that their children will follow them without exception. Children aren’t usually given reasons for the rules and there’s typically little room for negotiation. Most importantly, authoritarian parents are far more likely to use punishments instead of consequences. To clarify, consequences are the result or direct effect of an action. The goal for giving consequences is to teach a lesson that leads to positive choices. On the other hand, punishments are about causing pain and suffering and usually aren’t logical or natural (i.e., they don’t ‘fit the crime’).

Authoritative parents also have rules that children are expected to follow, and the consequences of breaking those rules are made clear, however, all rules and consequences are bound in unconditional love. Rules and boundaries are set because you love them and want to protect them. This is sometimes referred to as ‘tough love’ parenting. These parents are more likely to explain the reasons for the rules being set and involve them in the rule-making process to some extent. Changes to rules are made over time, usually as a reward for good behaviour and an acknowledgement that they’re growing up and becoming more self-sufficient.  Authoritative parents tend to use consequences instead of punishments and use positive consequences to reinforce good behaviours.

Research has shown that the most protective parenting style, particularly in terms of future drinking behaviour, is authoritative parenting, i.e., rules and consequences bound in unconditional love. Unfortunately, as soon as rules and boundaries are mentioned people confuse this style with the more ‘top-down’ approach, i.e., authoritarian parenting. One of the most important keys to good parenting is unconditional love. Put the rules in place, make sure fair and age-appropriate consequences are applied but ensure this is all wrapped up in a great big package of love. No matter how you handle the issue of alcohol and partying, your teen will continue to do things to test and push you to your very limits (that’s their job) and you’ll need to hold fast and try to maintain your boundaries and adjust them when needed (that’s your job). But remember when they do something terrible and let you down and you’re tempted to explode and say something you may later regret, always remember that it’s their behaviour at that time that you don’t like but you’ll always love them – no matter what they do.

When I told Jo I was going to use her comment as a subject for a blog entry, she told me about a recent discussion she’d had with her daughter where she’d voiced her concerns about once again taking on the parenting role of a teen so much later in life. In response her daughter had told her mother that she wanted her “to raise him (her son, Jo’s grandson) just like you raised us.” As Jo said, “I couldn’t have got it all so terribly wrong, I must have done something right!” I told Jo to wear the term ‘old-fashioned parent’ as a badge of honour – she and her husband obviously love their grandson very much. They may not get a lot of appreciation for their efforts now but the future will see them hopefully reap the rewards.

Published: November 2017

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