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Our Parents, Ourselves: How To Decode The Parenting Style of Your Nearest and Dearest

We looked at some of the best parenting books to help you figure out which parenting style might work for you and what your own parents might have employed.
by Fionnuala Kavanagh | May 3 2019

My friend’s 4-year-old, Sophie, shouts ‘Don’t tell me what to do!’ at her mom and stomps off across the park. She’s not the first kid to shout this at a parent in frustration, and she certainly won’t be the last. I’ve certainly used it in my time. Are Sophie and I just bratty, or are we onto something?

Professor of developmental psychology, Alison Gopnik, believes that parents shouldn’t over-instruct their children. In her bestselling parenting book, The Gardener and the Carpenter, Gopnik tells us that children thrive when given freedom and ‘parents should be like gardeners. The aim is to provide a protected space in which children can become themselves.’ Gardeners build an ecosystem where novelty can flourish, and kids are given the tools to cope with the unexpected.

Carpenters on the other hand try to mould their children into their own definition of success. They treat parenting like a goal-oriented task rather than a caregiving relationship. Helicopter parents — parents who constantly hover near their children trying to do everything for them — and driven, tough-love “Tiger Moms” are examples of carpenters.

While these parenting styles work for some, Julie Lythcott-Haims, Stanford’s former dean of freshman advising, argues against them in How to Raise an Adult.

Different Parenting Styles

In the early 1950s, psychologist Diana Baumrind conducted a study on over 100 preschool-aged children and identified three main parenting styles: permissive, authoritative, and authoritarian. Since then ‘neglectful parenting’ and ‘attachment parenting’ have been added and the parenting styles expanded into a full playset of different caricatures: gardeners, carpenters, helicopters, tigers and even raven mothers in Germany.

It can all get very confusing. Knowing the different parenting styles won’t give you the answer to being the perfect parent, because that doesn’t exist. But it can help you reflect on how you were raised, and give you a framework to figure out how you want to bring up your own children.

Permissive Parenting

Alison Gopnik’s laissez-faire attitude would put her and her gardeners very much in the Permissive Parenting camp. Few rules and lots of freedom doesn’t create indulged, lazy kids, but self-sufficient and innovative individuals.

She argues that parents who ‘try to shape their three-year-olds into Harvard freshmen’ and over-instruct actually end up limiting the potential that they are trying to foster. Gopnik sites 2011 Bonawitz and Schulz to show that children come up with intelligent solutions when they are not given instructions. When the experimenter presented a multi-functional toy to a child and said ‘this is my toy and I will show you how it works’ the child only repeated the single action of the experimenter. Whereas children who were not told what to do, explored all of the toy’s functions and found a range of different intelligent solutions.

The Happy Kid Handbook by Katie Hurley is another popular permissive parenting book. Instead of aiming for ‘perfect,’ parents are told to listen to their child’s individual needs and encourage their unique character. It’s also packed with practical tips on how to accommodate extroverted and introverted kids. Just like Gopnik, Hurley emphasises the huge benefits of play for child development and self-expression.

French Parenting: A Sophisticated and Authoritative Parenting Approach

France is famous for producing wonderful wine, cheese, pastries, and now, apparently, children. American journalist and mother of three Pamela Druckerman lives in Paris and brought the wonders of French child-rearing and authoritative parenting to the rest of the world with her book Bringing Up Bébé. Adopting the Cry It Out sleep method, learning to play alone, and using a firm ‘NO’ all help to strengthen children’s boundaries and train their patience.

French and US parenting methods are wildly different according to Druckerman. To start, there are no separate kids’ menus in France. Children eat the same large range of food as their parents and stick to set meal times. So, if a child wants a cookie, they have to wait to eat it in the designated snack time. As well as not indulging their child’s every whim, French parents don’t abandon their own needs: sex is not seen as an occasional treat but as a basic necessity, and it’s totally acceptable to have child-free vacations.

Why do some people favor authoritative parenting methods over more lenient ones? Of course, having an obedient child means that parents will have an easier time but it’s about more than that. Many people believe that teaching children self-control helps them to grow into well-adjusted adults.

Attachment Parenting

British psychoanalyst and father of attachment theory, John Bowlby, (1907-1990) defined attachment as ‘lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.’ Bowlby studied orphans in the mid-20th century. From his research he developed the theory that the attachment bond between a mother and child greatly influences the child’s psychological development and relationships they form in later life.

In the 1970s, Jean Liedloff took attachment parenting a step further with her studies of children in the South American jungle. These kids were carried more, and cried less than western children. Liedloff hypothesized that ‘American parents had become divorced from their natural instincts’ and so she developed The Continuum Concept in 1975 to try and get us back on track.

Heralded as ‘the man who remade motherhood,’ Dr. Bill Sears has re-popularized attachment parenting, building his mass following on the basic principle that ‘babies that are cuddled feel secure.’ Sears champions co-sleeping, breastfeeding, and baby-wearing. He also encourages parents to toss out strollers, bottles, and cribs which he believes ‘put infants behind bars’. According to Hoffmann, Cooper, and Powell in Raising A Secure Child, our ability to be functional adults relies on our early experience of attachment: ‘From birth through old age, our ability to act with a sense of autonomy is directly related to our capacity for connectedness.’

Treat parenting like a relationship, not a job

Having a committed, loving caregiver has a huge influence on how a child will develop. But for all the fuss about parenting styles, there is no empirical evidence to suggest that parenting techniques make any real difference to a child’s development.

Alison Gopnik assures that there’s no need to fret over forward- or backward-facing strollers, or whether you choose formula or breastfeeding, because finding the ‘best’ way isn’t what being a parent is about. It’s about helping kids grow by letting them find out for themselves who they are. So, if Sophie and I qualified our protest cries to: ‘don’t always tell me exactly what to do!’, we’d probably be right.

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