A little over a decade ago, I wrote Parenting the Millennial Generation. For a parenting book, it drew a decent amount of attention-getting mentioned six times in USA Today as well as in Newsweek and countless newspapers around the country.
When I wrote it, my kids were elementary school students; today they are young adults. Because of college choices and work, my four kids now live in four different cities. In the years between that book and this one (Southeast Psych’s Guide for Imperfect Parents), my life as a parent has taken surprising twists and turns.
A kid with a difficult early temperament proved to be an easy teenager; another kid with an easy temperament ended up being more of a challenge. Our family of four quickly became a family of six with the adoption of a brother and sister sibling group.
All our kids have their own unique needs. All of them at times required more than I felt like I had. Nothing, no book, no expert, no workshop could fully prepare me for what I experienced.
I was confronted with situations and decisions I’d never even contemplated. I was a so-called parenting expert who lacked the answers. At times I felt like a fraud; other times I felt like a fool
As I write, my young adult kids are all doing well. They’ve all found colleges or vocations that fit them well. This fact doesn’t make me smug or too pleased with myself. But it does make me grateful that my wife and I hung in there, even when we weren’t sure where this ship was sailing.
“A child’s outcome is not due solely to how he or she was parented.”
My experience in raising children into young adulthood has strengthened my view that parenting is vitally important but reinforced the idea that we shouldn’t think too highly of ourselves.
My kids are doing well because of a multitude of factors, not just because my wife and I made every right choice or had some expert wisdom. They are doing well because of their unique temperaments, the influence of educators, coaches, mentors, and friends, as well as a host of other variables too long to catalog.
We played a role, but we were not the only factors.
So, as I’m more than two decades deep into this complex undertaking called parenting, I have a renewed interest in helping other parents in their journeys. I am a fellow traveler who has had many of the same peaks and valleys, detours and dead ends, starts and stops, as others on this adventure.
I’m also a psychologist with a quarter-century of consulting with parents, soaking my head in the research, and observing what works and what doesn’t.
Over the past several decades, solid research has given us (myself and other parenting experts at Southeast Psych) tremendous insight into parenting. There’s a lot we know about what tends to be most helpful and what tends to be ineffective. Let’s begin with an overview of what we know.
The Four Different Parenting Styles: Purposeful, Rejecting, Buddy, and Drill Sergeants
Fifty years of solid parenting research gives us a strong base of understanding. We know, for example, the worst parenting style is one where the parents have no consistent rules and are emotionally distant. These Rejecting Parents usually alternate between being angry and completely uninvolved and unavailable.
We know the best parenting style is the opposite: reasonable rules and boundaries with a warm connection. We call these Purposeful Parents. In fifty years of research, Purposeful Parents, those warm yet firm parents, tend to see their children grow up to be the happiest and healthiest.
However, once you mix up the styles, the outcomes get more complicated.
Parents who are firm and have lots of rules but are emotionally cold tend to produce kids who are high-achieving and compliant but prone to emotional problems like anxiety and depression. The research calls these parents “Authoritarian,” but we just call them Drill Sergeant Parents.
By contrast, parents who have few rules and boundaries but are emotionally warm and engaged tend to have children who are emotionally healthy but more likely to have authority conflicts and be susceptible to substance abuse problems. These Buddy Parents are often well-intentioned but set their children up for unexpected trouble.
We also know there is no exact formula for child-rearing. Some Drill Sergeants have emotionally healthy, well-adjusted kids. That’s because these parents aren’t all bullies or cruel humans who lord power over their children. Many care deeply about their kids. They just aren’t emotionally warm and expressive.
The same is true on the other side of the parenting matrix when the parents, who act like their kids’ best friend, have normal, well-adjusted children. Plenty of these Buddy Parents end up raising kids who have no interest in drugs and get along perfectly well with teachers and employers.
And yes, some Purposeful Parents, the ones who are supposed to have the best outcomes, have children who struggle mightily with emotional control, behavioral outbursts, or learning problems.
“Parenting is vitally important, but we shouldn’t think too highly of ourselves.”
Some children have difficulties and challenges even with the best parents and the best approaches. Some of this is due to a concept called “goodness-of-fit” which means a child’s unique temperament fits better with a certain style.
Some kids might thrive under a Drill Sergeant. Others may reach their full potential with a Buddy. Such a fit is nearly impossible to predict. We aren’t at a point, nor will we ever be, where we have some perfect algorithm for parenting, some formula where every response is perfectly calibrated to each unique child
Another reason some children have struggled is that their difficulties have nothing to do with how they were parented. Even with the best parents, these kids are wired to have certain learning problems, are prone to anxiety, or have trouble controlling their impulses.
A child’s outcome is not due solely to how he or she was parented. Still, parenting well goes a long way toward the good.
What I’ve learned over the years is that a good parenting style or response does not guarantee a certain outcome, but it does increase the likelihood of it and makes for a healthier long-term relationship between the parent and the child.
If you’re looking for more practical parenting tips and tricks, check out our book Southeast Psych’s Guide for Imperfect Parents!