A recent article by self–described “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua ignited a parenting conversation that appears to have been long overdue. In both the article and her book, Chua says she did not accept any grade less than an “A” from her two daughters, and did not allow T.V., video games, playdates or sleep–overs. Chua believes typical Western style parenting is too lax and focuses on self–esteem over performance. The ongoing debate her article caused has led many parents to wonder if they’re too passive—or too controlling.
Your child needs you to think for yourself and express your thoughts, beliefs and values. This helps him do the same for himself later.
Whether you have the tendency to be a control freak or a doormat, your intentions are most likely good ones. You love and care about your child, and want him to be successful and happy. But when some parents get anxious about their kids—and their daunting parental responsibility—they manage their anxiety by controlling their kids. Other parents give their children free rein and try to be their kids’ friend rather than their parent. Unfortunately, neither style will help your child launch into an independent adult who can stand on his own two feet. The key to being an effective parent is finding a reasonable, loving balance between the two extremes.
Are You a Control Freak Parent?
If your morning routine sounds like this, you are probably a control freak parent: “Get down for breakfast this minute. You need to brush your teeth now. Go back to your room and put on the red sweater instead—it looks better with that outfit. You should ask your teacher for help as soon as you get to school today.” Controlling parents typically use lots of “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts.”
A parent who micromanages their child’s life will answer “yes” to one or more of these questions:
- Must it be your way and only your way? Are you always right?
- Do you threaten, lecture, warn, or order your kids around in a barking kind of tone?
- Do you often do things your child can do for himself because you think you can do it better or “the right way?”
- Do you tend to make decisions for your child? Do you often use bribes to get him to do what you want him to do?
- Do you give him little freedom to think for himself?
Or…Are You a Pushover Parent
You may be the type of parent who goes to the opposite extreme. If you are more of a pushover parent, you’ll find yourself frequently saying things like, “Okay, well maybe just this one time,” or “You never listen to me anyway, so go ahead and do what you want."
Here are some questions you can ask yourself to determine if you’re a passive parent:
- Do you want to make sure your child never struggles, fails or feels pain or disappointment?
- Do you feel bad saying “no” to him?
- Do you find yourself nagging your child and rewarding everything he does?
- Do you try to be your child’s friend more than his parent?
- Do you do for him what he can do for himself? Do you generally over–function for him and at times feel resentful?
- Do you make your focus your child instead of yourself and your adult relationships?
- Are you kind of afraid of your child?
Control Freaks vs. Pushovers: Why Neither Parenting Style Works
The problem with being overly controlling as a parent is that when you try to control your child (or anyone for that matter) you will most likely cause them to assume a position of chronic defensiveness. Your child will fight for his autonomy—which is actually a healthy, normal developmental response on his part. If you parent this way, as soon as you need something from your child—cooperation, respect, love, good behavior, good manners—you put yourself in a vulnerable position. You think you are in control, but actually you have handed your child the control. If you need a certain behavior from your child, all he has to do is refuse to give it to you. Now you are at a loss, feeling anxious and out of control.
The struggle for control begins and never ends. The issue, whether it’s turning off the computer or taking the garbage out, becomes secondary to the bigger issue of who is going to win that struggle. Your child becomes so caught up in keeping control over his life that his energy goes into defending himself rather than thinking about good choices for himself. So you’ll have conversations like the following:
You: “Please read your book.”
Your child: “I already did.”
You: “I didn’t see you read it today.”
Your child: “Well I did.”
You: “No you didn’t.”
Your child: “Yes I did.”
You: “No you didn’t.”
This argument, as you can see, is never ending. On the other hand, when you’re a pushover parent, you’re bending over backwards to make sure your child feels good at all costs. You probably find yourself saying things like the following:
“If you’re too tired to shovel the snow, don’t worry about it.” Or “That science project looks really difficult. I’ll help you with it”—and then you find yourself doing the whole thing. The pushover parent will also simply do things that the child is supposed to do, often feeling resentful about it, or give in easily to whining and pleading.
When parents are too passive, kids get lost because there are no adults home; children flounder in this atmosphere because they have no leader to properly guide them and hold them accountable.
To put it simply, your child needs parents who have a solid sense of self. Your child doesn’t need parents who become what he wants them to become; your child needs you to think for yourself and express your thoughts, beliefs and values. This helps him do the same for himself later. Keep in mind that when your kids give you a hard time, they are testing you. On a deeper level, they really don’t want you to give in to them. They want to know that their parents are sturdy and not wishy–washy.
And when you know who you are as a parent, you won’t become “fused” with your kids; you won’t need to be liked or validated by them in some way. The result is that your children won’t be burdened with taking emotional care of you; they will be free to grow up.
How to Find the Right Balance
So what does it look like to be a parent who can combine the “rule side” of parenting—James Lehman’s Limit Setting role—with the “loving side” of being a parent? The solution is to enforce reasonable rules while doing it in a loving and empathetic way.
Basically, you want to give your child choices to help him to develop his own guidelines as he matures. Offer and look for opportunities for your child to make his own decisions and mistakes, and allow him to be disappointed—and even to fail—when he makes bad choices.
I also firmly believe that you need to hold your child accountable for his actions—don’t step in and rescue him, but on the other hand, don’t manage everything so he never has to make those tough choices. I also tell parents “Let reality rather than reactivity be your child’s guide.” For example, let’s say your 13–year–old daughter sits down to breakfast and says, “Yuck, I don’t like eggs. I’m not going to eat them.” The control freak parent would say “Yes, you are going to eat the eggs and you won’t leave the table until you do.” In contrast, the pushover parent might say, “I’m sorry you don’t like the eggs I made. What would you like instead; I’ll make it for you.” Now, the effective parent would say, “I’m sorry you don’t like what’s for breakfast. You are welcome to make something else that you find more appealing. But I would like you to sit at the table and eat with us.” Now you have included the Limit Setting role of parenting: You expect your child to take responsibility for her breakfast if she doesn’t like what is offered. You do not cross your own boundary of interrupting your own breakfast or doing for her what she can do for herself. And you hold her to the rule of eating together as a family.
But here’s the key—you have also made sure to include the loving side of parenting. You’re not angry if she makes a choice that’s different from yours; you don’t take it personally. You let her decide what she would like to eat and you’re empathetic to her disappointment about the breakfast. You’ve held true to your beliefs without trying to control your child’s feelings or behavior.
Can I change my parenting style?
If you see yourself in either of these two extremes, give yourself a break and understand that it’s very normal for parents to manage anxiety by becoming either too controlling or too passive. If you want to change your parenting style, the first step is recognizing that what you’ve been doing up until now is ineffective. As soon as you’ve done that, you’re already on your way. Committing to doing something different will help change a destructive relationship into a lasting, influential one.
The key is to have a plan and then prepare, predict and act. This means that for each situation that arises, pause and think before reacting. So consider the “rules side” of a situation and ask yourself what limits you want to set. Think through your expectations and identify your bottom line. Predict some ways your child might react and try to come up with a suitable response. Decide what structure and guidance you want to provide—in other words, the rules that need to be followed and the consequences that will be given. At the same time, think about the loving side of parenting. Ask yourself, “How can I set the rules and include empathy, respect and care?”
Here’s an example of an effective conversation you might have with your child using these guidelines:
You: “You’re supposed to make your bed, what happened?
Your child: “I forgot.”
You: “I keep asking you to do your chores and you keep forgetting. Asking over and over doesn’t seem to help. Any suggestions?”
Your child: “I’ll remember next time.”
You: “But you’ve said that before.”
Your child: “No, but this time I promise I will.”
You: “Okay, good. And if you don’t, you will have to stay in on Saturday and do some chores that your dad and I need done around the house.”
You’ve given your child the chance to make the right choice by imposing a structure, but you’ve imposed limits if he makes a poor choice. Another rule of thumb for parents is to ask, “Will this help my child grow into a self–sufficient, caring, independent–thinking adult, or am I doing this to calm my anxiety and distress right now?” Our knee jerk reaction with parenting is usually operating from a place of asking your child to be a certain way so you can feel calm. Instead, think of ways to calm yourself down and help your child to grow up.
About Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC
For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM™ program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.