Why? Because parenting is contextual. This means that the parenting style used in any given situation (e.g., permissive, democratic, authoritarian, , “helicopter”, etc.) depends on the characteristics of the situation itself ~ including: a) how much patience mom and/or dad has at that particular parenting moment; and b) the temperament of the child at that particular parenting moment.
In other words, as much as “democratic parenting” might be the recommended approach du jour [1-2], real-world parenting isn’t standardized like a “how-to” book. This article on parenting styles takes issue with the presentation of different parenting techniques as identities to adopt, as philosophies to prescribe to, as definitive structures for family life.
Because when you get right down to it, the common classifications for various “parenting styles” (e.g., democratic, authoritarian, permissive, etc.) are really just descriptions for different styles of situational communication. In my opinion, books or articles on parenting styles that treat these different approaches as parenting frameworks miss this basic point; that communication is situationally-dictated.
In other words, even though some people might lean towards one style more often than another, we all use many different styles of interaction in the goings-on of day-to-day life. My argument in this article on parenting styles is that different situations and dynamics call for different modes of interaction or “styles of parenting.”
Effective, real-world parenting is not about needing to adopt one overarching “style” of parenting. Rather, effective, real-world parenting is about being consistent in message. The process of how those various messages get taught and learned will almost always take place using a variety of techniques, depending on variations in mood, situation, and circumstances.
Here is an example to illustrate the point I want to make in this article on parenting styles:
Let’s say I am trying to teach my child “good breakfast habits”. Let’s also say that the basic message I want my child to absorb is as follows:
- that breakfast is an important meal for getting the body fired up and energized for the day. Therefore, it is important to have a healthful and decently-sized breakfast every day;
- that the breakfast meal should be sure to include important nutrients like fibre (e.g., fruit; whole grains) and protein (e.g., peanut butter, eggs, even cheese). It should also be substantial enough to “fill you up.”
Now then, here is the non-textbook, real-world version of the day-to-day parenting style for “teaching good breakfast habits” might unfold: itâ€™s contextual, it’s variable, and the emphasis is on consistency of message more than consistency of parenting style. In other words, it involves a combination of different styles:
- “Diplomatic days” — some mornings breakfast will unfold in a relatively “diplomatic” fashion.
Household mood and situation on such days: my child’s mood is reasonably good, we are not pressed for time, there’s a decent variety of breakfast food in the house, and I am feeling patient, calm, well-rested.
Typical scenario on such days: “No honey, having only a rice cake for breakfast is just not enough to get you going for the day. Remember, you need some good energy food in the morning to get your brain fired up and to give your body the fuel it needs. Why don’t you pick some things to have with the rice cake, like peanut butter or cheese or cream cheese, and a fruit of some kind. We have strawberries, bananas and apples.”
NB. On “diplomatic” days, I have the “stick-to-it-ness” to keep this dialogue going until my child makes a choice that fits within the parameters I have laid out (i.e., my definition of “good breakfast habits”)
- “Authoritarian days” — some mornings, breakfast will be characterized by a more “authoritarian” style of parent-child interaction.
Household mood and situation on such days: my patience is thin; also, we might be pressed for time and/or my child’s mood might be more challenging.
Typical scenario on such days: “This discussion is getting nowhere. You have to eat breakfast and you have to eat more than just a rice cake! Therefore, you will eat the breakfast I’ve made for you. It’s healthy, it’s got some fibre and some protein, and it’s what you need to get going for the day. There will be no more complaining about this!”
- “Permissive days” — of course, no breakfast scenario is complete without some mornings like this.
Household mood and situation on such days:: I’m feeling worn out, drained, tired; also, we might be pressed for time, and/or my child is really pushing back, and/or it might be a day where, for whatever reason, having a “good breakfast” just isn’t a priority.
Typical scenario on such days: “Fine, have just the rice cake if that’s all you want for breakfast. I’m too tired today to argue about it. But know that this is not what I consider a healthy or complete breakfast. You’ve got no fibre here, no protein, and hardly enough calories to properly fill you up.”
For better or worse, this is what the real world of parenting is like. Any article on parenting styles that assumes parents can make everyday like scenario #1 is unrealistic. It’s also off-mark to think that every day ought to be like scenario #1.
This article on parenting styles argues that the different styles we read and hear about in books and from professionals need to be understood as theoretical constructs, “ideal types,” useful only in so much as they enhance our understanding of different ways of interacting.
Sources for this article on parenting styles:
1. Coloroso, Barbara. 2003 kids Are worth it!: Giving Your Child the Gift of Inner Discipline. Penguin Canada.
2. Calgary Health Region. 2005. Growing Miracles: The First Six Years with Your Child. Calgary, AB: Author.