by Don Berg, Founder
The way parenting styles are typically presented would have you believe that parenting is a behavioral challenge that contradicts
Parenting Fact #5: Parenting is a moral, not behavioral challenge.
The researchers claim that if you behave the right way as a parent then everything will be O.K. for your child.
This is wrong (except for the obvious deleterious effects of abuse, which is not considered in parenting styles research.)
Parenting is a highly volatile topic that must be handled with extreme care.
The passion of people’s reactions to questioning parenting styles are just below the nukes of religion and politics in explosive potential.
So, I hope you will forgive my taking you through a three point detour before addressing the topic of parenting styles fully.
Detour #1: Human Bias
First, let’s talk about you.
You, I am assuming, are a human being.
That means that you and I have a lot in common.
There are lots of things that are very different, but in a large number of important ways we are practically the same.
We both have remarkably similar brains that have been structured to remember certain kinds of things better than others.
Your brain, like mine, is thoroughly biased.
As a society we have tried very hard to modify those biases to be more fair to everyone, but we all have bias none the less.
In particular we are biased to remember personal relationships and interpersonal dynamics better than impersonal relationships or group dynamics.
This is a bias that makes it very difficult (probably impossible) for each of us to individually account for many of the causal influences that shape our lives.
We are incapable of perceiving the influence of genetics, social norms, or group-to-group interactions on our personal lives.
Detour #2: Human Nature: Nice and Demanding
Second I am going to make some assertions about human nature and how we, humans, react to other humans based on how demanding and how nice the other person is.
Put them together and consider the extremes:
I expect that you will not have any problem with these generalizations, except maybe that they are generalizations.
The truth is that most people are in the middle of the array with varying degrees of demandingness and niceness from day-to-day.
This is entirely based on the expectations of normalcy, without accounting for extremes of abuse nor insanity.
Detour #3: Anti-Intuitive Science
Third, the inherent bias of our minds is the key reason that we had to develop science as a method of getting a more reliable handle on how the real world actually works.
By creating a systematic method for making valid observations and having an on-going cultural conversation to analyze how those observations are best woven together into theories that explain cause and effect we have given ourselves powerful tools for understanding the world.
What is interesting is that science appears to be a consistently anti-intuitive influence.
By anti-intuitive I mean that science has repeatedly exposed our intuitive thinking about the world to be largely inaccurate, even if it was close enough to get by in ages past.
Given the bias I mentioned in the first point of this detour, we do not normally think using scientific ideas, like genetics, unless we have a lot of training or other powerful experiences to change our thinking.
The point of this final diversion is that just because science is anti-intuitive, that does not mean we should simply reject intuitive ideas.
Science has to not only refute an intuitive idea it has to provide both a logical basis for rejecting it and also provide another more logical way of thinking about the phenomena in question to replace the old intuition (even though it will be very difficult to get people to think that way.).
Consider this budding scientist's story:
One day I noticed that every time I woke up in the morning with my shoes on I also had a splitting headache.
So I decided to investigate further and asked my friends and neighbors if they experienced the same thing.
Amazingly, they all said that the same thing happened to them, too.
(Although a few of the people I talked with did not have the experience of waking up with their shoes on.)
So I decided to do a controlled study of this interesting phenomena.
I designed a longitudinal study with thousands of people across the country.
When the data came back my analysis showed the not only was there a very strong correlation between waking up with your shoes on and having a headache, but also a significant correlation with staying up late, too.
When I released the study some reporters interviewed me and wrote terrific stories about the hazards of wearing shoes to bed after staying up late at night.
The Times reported that removing your shoes before bed might be a good way to prevent headaches.
In a follow-up to the study I also showed that there was a genetic link to both staying up late and going to bed with your shoes on.
Further analysis of the data showed a strong genetic influence.
Do you see any problems with this study, the conclusions that were drawn or the reporting of the results? Can you think of a better explanation?
Consider an alternative that might be a better causal explanation for the key correlations; the shoes, the headache, and the genetic link.
Did it occur to you that consuming alcohol is most often done after normal work hours or at night on the weekends, that excessive alcohol consumption is likely to lead to late nights and that drunk people are more liable to not take their shoes off when they finally get to bed?
Also, that the susceptibility to both excessive drinking and hangover headaches probably have strong genetic components?
The problem with this fantasy study is that it did not properly account for more than one explanation.
One of the keys to good science is the generation of many possible causal explanations and then the systematic elimination of or accounting for different possibilities.
The point is that noticing the correlation between two phenomena is not enough to establish that one causes the other.
In order to truly establish a simple causal relationship the scientist must eliminate the following three possibilities that;
Now let’s consider parenting styles.
Remember the bias I mentioned?
We are biased to remember the personal more than the impersonal.
For most people the members of their family are the most prevalent long term relationships in childhood.
Naturally, most people will have more memories of their family than anything else.
This mass of memories will naturally lead them to attribute causal significance to their family.
Naturally, it is easy to speculate that if you were treated differently in childhood, with a different parenting style, then your outcomes in life might have been different.
This is also why the influence of parents is a hot topic; if you have developed a comfortable explanation for how your family affected you then it’s offensive when an outsider tries to meddle with the story of who you are and why.
The research into parenting styles has found a mountain of correlation between parenting behavior and certain long term outcomes for children.
But, they have not accounted for the role of genetic causation, they have not effectively tested the possibility that the children’s peer group might be a significant causal influence, and they have only recently begun to acknowledge (but not actually account for the possibility) that the children might be causing the parents behavior.
These are the charges against the parenting styles research leveled by Judith Rich Harris in her book The Nurture Assumption.
A quick aside on the book The Nurture Assumption: Reporters and reviewers tend to focus on the controversy-provoking idea that “Parents don’t matter.”
That is not what the book is really about, it is just an emotional hook.
As the author takes great pains to point out over and over in the book, parents do matter, but not in the ways they intuitively think they do.
Finally, the book is written in an engaging style but is not really for parents, it’s primary audience is supposed to be parenting researchers.
If you are interested in the details of research, then it’s a good read, but if you are looking for straightforward parenting information, don’t bother.
For an easier read that takes a careful look at parenting with these research results in mind I recommend Where Did THAT Child Come From? by psychologist Dr. David B. Cohen.
The parenting styles research shows a strong correlation between the “parenting” behavior of parents and functional outcomes for kids.
But is the correlation they found the effects of parenting or the effects of childing?
What is more likely is that the “functional outcomes” are a reflection of how our society has rewarded children with those particular characteristics.
Below is a diagram I made while attempting to understand the parenting styles research findings (before I read the Nurture Assumption and Where Did THAT Child Come From?):
The diagram shows the basic findings of the parenting styles research modeled on Diana Baumrind’s model.
The two dimensions that determine a style are the parent’s level of behavioral expectations and the level of responsiveness of the parents to their child.
I tilted the array to visually reflect the relative “effectiveness” of the different styles from least effective at the bottom to the most effective at the top.
This seemed like a really good way to think about parenting styles.
In fact, I think it still is a good way, but not to understand causal effects.
To say that the parenting behaviors reflected in this research causes particular outcomes for children is not accurate.
When I change the labels of the two dimensions to reflect children’s impulsiveness (which generates an obvious need for an authority who can help protect them from themselves) and their level of affection (which would reflect a tendency to be sociable or nice), then the diagram seems to me to be an equally true explanation of parenting behaviors:
The above diagram reinterpreting the parenting styles research is another way of illustrating the assertions about human nature I made in the second point of my detour at the beginning.
From over 20 years of experience of dealing with kids this second diagram of the results of the research is really proving the common sense notions that we respond to characteristic behaviors in predictable ways.
When I was a camp counselor, my first encounter with being responsible for kids, I actually taught the kids about how to read my expressions to tell whether they would be able to “get away” with stuff.
If I looked distressed then they should expect me to be more authoritarian but if I look relaxed then they could expect me to be more permissive.
I taught them that I was consistent, but not that I would treat them the same way every time.
I would treat them according to my best judgment, which changed according to the situation.
When there was danger, conflict, or some kind of problem I would look stressed and assert more control as a means of protecting them (they were typically 7-12 years old).
When there was no danger I would be relaxed and allow them more freedom.
Impulsive and Affectionate Child
The kids who had the combination of impulsiveness and personal warmth would be the most successful at influencing circumstance to meet their needs.
They were willing to stick their necks out and had a warm relationship that made it easier for me to trust them.
Impulsive and Not Affectionate Child
The kids who were comparatively demanding without the trust were just a pain in the ass and they tended to get a lot of my authoritarian attention.
Not Impulsive and Affectionate Child
The kids who had warm relationships but were not demanding were the easiest because you could trust that they were not going to create any danger for themselves or anyone else so you could let them do anything they wanted (remembering that they never want to do anything dangerous).
Not Impulsive and Not Affectionate Child
The kids who lacked impulsiveness and lacked a warm relationship were nearly invisible and consequently very easy to overlook given the demands of all the others.
Given the context of the camp environment it would have been extremely unlikely for this to be the case very often.
Despite being in a sizeable group we had lots of time to get to know our kids and ensured that they all had some level of support and positive interaction.
The parenting styles research does provide ample proof of the fact that a diversity of parenting styles (different constellations of parenting behavior) exist and that there is a disparity in outcomes for children, but the research does not prove what causes the differences in outcomes.
There is not even clear evidence which behavior; the parent’s, the child’s or both, is responsible for the styles.
It is also unclear whether the behaviors cause the outcomes or some other factors in the psychological, cultural, and social contexts in which both children and their parents are embedded might be more significant as causes than styles of behavior.
Nor does the research provide any evidence that those behavioral patterns can be effectively changed to benefit the children.
The robust findings of parenting styles research can be reinterpreted as evidence for the third and fourth parenting facts to mean that they have proven that demanding people get more than merely nice people and people who are both nice and demanding get the most.
First, the facts are simple even if the implications are complex.
The simple facts are that parenting is complicated, the biggest factor in a child’s destiny is his/her genes, boldness and compassion are both advantages, and parenting is a moral challenge, not a behavioral one.
The first four are fully supported by the parenting styles research, even if they don’t realize it.
Using the label “parenting styles” is no longer necessary.
They are simply behavioral styles. And our behavioral style, regardless of the role we play, is a factor that we need to be aware of as we evaluate the quality of our relationships.
But, our behavioral styles will change across different situations, so it is of limited value as a reference point.
The real question of ensuring better outcomes for ourselves and our children boils down to three things; how we structure the control of our own and other people’s behavior for the common good, what and how we exchange with each other in order to meet everyone’s legitimate needs, and the patterns of consciousness that result from being embedded in those structures and processes.
For shorthand we can talk about power, exchange and consciousness.
(This is based on the work of Sharif Abdullah and Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne with Sarvodaya the Sri Lankan NGO.)
Are there ways of organizing our interactions such that everyone is inherently able to be more assertive and compassionate at the same time?
The answer is, Yes!
But that is a long conversation for another page or perhaps a whole book.
There are three key causal variables in the generation of outcomes for people:
To re-frame parenting styles from this perspective means that their style is not merely a pattern of behaviors but
In this way of thinking about parenting styles the challenge is to align the elements of power and exchange to positively effect consciousness.
This is what I would consider spiritual parenting, a practice of positively integrating everyone into a family system on a mission to support everyone to be the best person they can be.
Although the Preventive Ounce temperament assessment tool is made for birth to four year olds I recommend it for any age as a great method for reflecting on your child's behavior, no matter how old. If you have a child over 4 just select the oldest category and ignore their predictions in the results.
Beyond Parenting Styles #2: I also recommend Lyndal Schick's book Understanding Temperament as a good introduction to how your behavioral style will interact with your child's behavioral style, for better or worse.
She also includes tips on how to reconcile the conflicts between styles.
Here is some expert parenting advice with a focus on doing the work necessary to have well behaved kids and getting the other things you want in your life, too.
Having the goal of that your children will be well-behaved is not that different from any other goal, so the question is whether are willing to do what's necessary to achieve it.