Parenting theories

There are probably as many parenting theories as there are types of child. Since I’m an avid reader and researcher, once I had children of my own II found several books by varying authors – mainly from the USA – who described ways of raising happy, confident families. I recommend some of the ones I found most helpful on my parenting books page.

As my children grew up I realised that, although many of the books contained helpful ideas or suggestions, none of them was perfect. Each author had written from the perspective of his or her own childhood and theories. They combined modern parenting ideas, with what they observed with their own children. Some also included experience gained in counselling other families (many of them very unhappy or dysfunctional). But they were all offering different ‘solutions’, each claiming that theirs was the one that would work best.

More recently, on email lists and in real life, I’ve talked to other parents about their own ideas and theories. I’ve read more books, and many web sites. What strikes me is that there are three broad types of parent. Firstly, there are those who have never really thought much about parenting at all. Secondly, those who are sure that one theory is supreme and that everyone should use it. Thirdly, there are those who find the topic confusing and struggle to find anything that helps. Amongst all these, there are some children who are in good relationships with their parents, and some who are not.

People who believe in authoritarian parenting expect that children raised in a more laissez-faire environment will be wild and uncontrollable, but this is not always the case. Parents who do not believe in enforcing discipline or boundaries assume that children from stricter households will rebel as teenagers: but this too does not always happen. Clearly there is no simple answer to the question of how parents should behave with their children. Much depends on the personality of the child, and other circumstances which may be beyond our control. For some thoughts on parenting teenagers, see Are all teenagers horrible?

Parenting theories including loving guidance and firm boundaries

James Dobson is one of the best-known authors of parenting books in Christian circles. His theory is that children need loving guidance and firm boundaries, with age-appropriate discussion about them. He recommends corporal punishment when they are willfully disobedient, or restriction of privileges when they are older.

In addition, he writes of star-charts and motivation techniques to help children see the advantages of co-operating with adults. He cites many incidents of children who completely controlled their households, causing enormous grief to parents. Then, with some of his techniques in place, they developed into mature, responsible young men and women.

James Dobson, like many authors from the 1970s and ’80s, believes that there are three broad strands of parent style. He defines the first as authoritarian. Children’s wishes are not consulted and parents expect them to do as they’re told without discussion. Second is the authoritative style. There is discussion; parents and children listen to each other, and the parents offer guidelines and boundaries, but with flexibility. Thirdly is the permissive style. Children do as they like and the parents don’t take much notice. He proposes that the middle (authoritative) ground is the most healthy. He quotes research which shows that the most unhappy teens and adults come from extremely permissive homes.

However Dobson stresses that parents must give unconditional love. He states that this is probably the most important factor in children’s lives. Children from permissive or authoritarian homes who knew that they were loved, and that their parents would never stop loving them, were much less likely to be unhappy than those who felt unloved. With that in mind he stresses that parents must tell children (repeatedly) how important they are to them. They must never compare them negatively with others, nor call them rude or offensive names.

Parenting theories using natural and logical consequences

Kevin Leman, another American writer, is also a firm believer in loving guidance. He stresses the use of natural and logical consequences. He claims that parents should not protect children from the consequences of their actions unless they are dangerous.  So, for instance, he suggests that a child who refuses to eat at mealtimes should experience hunger before the next meal.

He further suggests that a child who refuses to get up in the morning should arrive late at school and take whatever comes from the teacher. The parents, he stresses, should be clearly on the same side as the child. They should not nag or shout or hassle. Instead they should issue reminders when appropriate, and then allow nature to take its course. Leman believes that this kind of ‘reality discipline’ is a vital preparation for taking responsibility later on as an adult.

Kevin Leman suggests family meetings and chore rotas, with children giving up part of their pocket money if they don’t do a chore, to ‘pay’ another family member to do so. He suggests that if a child is asked to set the table for a meal, and doesn’t do so, then the parent should not shout or nag, but sit and read the paper, not serving the meal until the child has played his part. The stress is always on ‘discipline’ rather than punishment. Kevin Leman has five adult or teenage children who have thanked him for the way he brought them up, going on to use similar methods with their own children.

Parenting theories involving the filling of emotional tanks

Ross Campbell, my favourite parenting author, does not really focus on discipline in his writings. He believes that most problems occur because of a child’s repressed anger. He is convinced that parents aren’t succeeding in expressing their love for their children in ways that the children understand. His theory of ’emotional tanks’ was the one I found most helpful when my children were small. When a child starts becoming aggressive or uncooperative, Ross Campbell suggests that the child’s ‘tank’ is probably low, and needs to be filled before anything can be done about practical problems.

So he describes ways that parents can ensure that their children’s ‘tanks’ do not become low. He recommends spending time together, listening to each other, and age-appropriate hugs or pats on the back. He also focuses on ways that parents can ensure that children learn to express emotion, including anger, in constructive ways. Like most authors, quotes many examples of teenagers sunk in depression or antagonistic towards their parents. With his techniques, they become confident and hopeful again.

Parenting using mutual respect and listening

Many years ago, I read books by Robin Skynner and John Cleese. They  look at healthy families, and the characteristics shown in families where there are good relationships. They describe friendly and confident teenagers, with no depression or aggression. The books are written in conversational style but contain deep truths that I had to re-read often before they really sank in. I found these books helpful because they did not propose any single method of parenting. They looked at various styles and then tried to find what ingredients went together to make some families ‘healthy’.

As I read, I realised that the observations they made did not contradict any of the authors above. What they found as key parenting methods were the things which authors as diverse as Ross Campbell and James Dobson both believed. They said that in healthy families, there was mutual respect – parents and children listened to each other. There was discussion about all issues.

Each member of the family was considered important, and none was to be compared negatively with others. None should be treated as a scapegoat or allocated blame unfairly, and parents needed to express unconditional love, working with their children rather than against them. They should give clear boundaries to young children, and enforce them in whatever way was appropriate, but gradually extend these and give increasing responsibility until, by the age of 11 or 12, the child was given an almost adult freedom.

But how boundaries should be enforced seemed to be irrelevant. Whether parents chose to use some form of corporal punishment, or restricted privileges, or used logical consequences, or merely removed the child from a problem scenario made little difference. So long as the attitude of the parents to the children was basically positive and clearly loving, so long as the children knew the boundaries and the reasons for them, so long as there was lots of discussion about all issues, Skynner suggested that they would be among the healthiest. Occasional lapses due to tiredness or irritation would be forgotten as parent or child would apologise and then continue in the good relationship they had before.

Parenting by taking children seriously

A few years ago, I came across a theory called TCS (‘Taking Children Seriously’) which is fairly recent, and particularly prevalent amongst home educating families. At heart, TCS is based on two premises: (1) for any problem that occurs within a family, there is a solution which is mutually beneficial, so long as everyone is creative enough to find it (2) coercion (by which they mean any form of restricting a child’s activities or putting parental theories above children’s wishes) is damaging to the child’s self-esteem and should never be used.

TCS adherents believe in some of the things that Robin Skynner discovered: that families need mutual respect, that children should never be ignored or belittled, that each person’s wishes are important. However TCS goes further, in suggesting that there should be no boundaries at all – that parents should offer full and loving advice, but should not actually stop their children from making decisions or doing what they want.

Because this theory is still relatively new, there is a lot of controversy about it. TCS is not any of the three broad parenting types described by James Dobson (and, on the whole, agreed with by the other authors I have mentioned). Authoritarian parents don’t listen to their children’s wishes, but give guidance and have lots of boundaries. Permissive parents don’t listen, and don’t give guidance or boundaries. The middle-ground authoritative parents listen, then give guidance and boundaries.

TCS parents listen, and give guidance, but don’t give boundaries. This is where it is different from previous theories, in that it takes some parts of middle-ground parenting, and some parts of permissive parenting, and combine them to make what they suggest is the best theory possible.

TCS is well explained in Jan Fortune-Wood’s writings, and also (less convincingly) on the TCS web site. However, although I can see many benefits to this style of parenting (such as serious attempts to find solutions to problems that suit everyone in a family), the lack of boundaries and insistence on non-coercion would, according to traditional theories – including all those I mentioned above – lead to children unsure about how to relate to the world, perhaps with inflated views of their own abilities, likely to be discontented as teenagers, feeling that if their parents loved them they would make and enforce boundaries, albeit flexible ones.

For parents from abusive or neglectful backgrounds, TCS may offer such a radical change that they adopt this style in treating their children. For some it can work – if the parents offer good theories about moral issues, and themselves have positive attitudes to other people, much of this is likely to rub off on their children. If the children’s personalities, moreover, are suited to wanting peace and harmony, and they don’t have strong anti-social or destructive tendencies, TCS may seem like the ideal in a family.

For other families who have reached the stage of having few or no boundaries anyway, with teenage or pre-teen children, it may seem as if the family is more-or-less using TCS principles anyway. But whether or not the theory of non-coercion is always good, no matter what the age or personality of the child is probably something that will not be known for many years to come.

The theory of ‘training’ children with sticks

As an addendum, I have recently been horrified to read of books popular in the USA which advocate ‘training’ children, as a circus animal might have been trained in Victorian days, before animals were considered to have rights or feelings. I am particularly appalled that these books are sometimes commended by Christians, since what I’ve heard of them shows almost nothing of God’s grace, and a great deal of control and anger.

Parents who follow this concept are supposed to create artificial situations where quite small children are almost certain to disobey (for instance, giving them something enjoyable to play with, then calling them over in a stern voice) – and then beating them with implements for their apparent disobedience. They advocate humiliating and painful punishments for almost any violation of extremely strict standards.

In no way could I commend this method at all, which seems to build on a single command in the Bible to children (‘obey your parents’) while ignoring the command given to parents in the same passage (‘don’t provoke your children to anger’).

To see reviews of some recommended books written by the authors mentioned, see the parenting books page.

Further reading:

Discipline – to spank or not?
Understanding temperament
Personality types in children
ADD or highly spirited?
When your child tells white lies
Jealous of the new baby?
Are all teenagers horrible?