Are our parental instincts innate, or are they learned? And, if they’re instinctual, why the need for all those ‘how to be a better parent’ books? It’s possible your answer will depend on your age. A 2009 Australian Institute of Family Studies’ analysis of 5,000 respondents found that the younger you are, the more likely you will be to think that child-rearing comes naturally. Around 58 per cent of mothers aged under 25 think they’ll take to the task naturally – compared to just 27 per cent of mums between 45 and 54, who felt they needed to work at it.
So, should you enrol in some of the nation’s often very valuable parenting classes? The first step might be to understand some of the different parenting styles. While no one person fits neatly into any category (and of course, no absolute rights and wrongs), there are a few recognisable parenting approaches, so we asked a professional psychologist, Michael Burge OAM, of the Australian College of Trauma Treatment, for his professional assessment on the following parenting models.
PROS: Black-and-white rules can make everything simpler.
CONS: Anxious or cowed children may not blossom or develop as well, and resentful children can tend to rebel too far in the other direction.
THE EXPERT SAYS: ‘When kids are anxious about doing anything too rebellious or disobedient, they can actually be too compliant,’ says Burge. ‘Some will see that as a good thing – discipline creates self-discipline – but there has to be balance. Black and white solutions usually aren’t always helpful in the long run. While it’s good to have rules, you cannot always be a tyrant. In the administration of authority, there needs to be times when you mitigate that authority and set it aside due to circumstances.’
2. HELICOPTER PARENT
PROS: A comforting sense of absolute control over your children’s welfare, education and future.
CONS: When you’re constantly fretting about where your child is, what they’re doing, how they’re learning, who they’re mixing with etc, it can be mentally exhausting and stressful – for them and you.
THE EXPERT SAYS: ‘Parents need to be minimally involved in some part of their children’s lives, or if not minimally involved then appropriately involved,’ advises Burge. ‘Even though they’re trying to ensure their child’s safety, success and wellbeing, helicopter parenting can be counter-productive and can lead to over-dependence in adult life. It creates a lack of confidence in that the child and the teenager need to make mistakes – appropriate mistakes, of course – and learn from them.’
3. THE COOL PARENTS
PROS: Punishing your kids isn’t fun and makes you feel bad about yourself, so you tend to ignore bad behaviour.
CONS: Over the long run, your children may not end up respecting you.
THE EXPERT SAYS: ‘These types of parents are almost adolescents themselves – they’re a bit of a Peter Pan character, in a non-gendered way,’ says Burge. ‘They want to be 20 their entire life and seen as a young person by their child. But of course, they are never seen that way. In fact, generally speaking, they risk winding up not being respected by their own children. This is an unhealthy dynamic. One of the most damaging things I see in these cases is that the child, in the absence of a reasonably strong authority figure, feels like they have to step into the breach and become the parent. It’s actually a type of neglect.’
PROS: Some people believe that rejecting mainstream practices and social mores can lead to their child becoming more of an individual as well as imbuing them with critical thought.
CONS: Even with the best intentions of loving parents, sometimes blurring the boundaries isn’t healthy. Likewise, parents should not always believe what they read on the internet and should always defer to professional medical opinion.
THE EXPERT SAYS: ‘There’s a huge controversy over some elements of this, such as co-sleeping and breastfeeding past toddlerhood – some parents have their kids sleeping with them until age 10 and beyond,’ says Burge. ‘But I think that’s very counter-productive. It can create a problem with boundaries between parent and child, and lead to overdependence. Weaning is both physical and emotional at stages along the way between three and 15. A bit of rough’n’ tumble, and working out that there needs to be that natural loss along the way is very helpful.’
PROS: Generally accepted as the ‘gold standard’ in parenting.
CONS: As the parent, you’re forced to ‘grow up’ and accept your own adulthood. This is easier said than done for some people, especially when parenting can sometimes feel like constant work and requires you to tightly manage your own emotions.
THE EXPERT SAYS: ‘This is when the parent has high expectations for their child, but tempered with understanding and support,’ says Burge. ‘Unlike the Authoritarian model, this parent has established a working ‘firm-but-fair’ model, which will help their child develop a healthy ego, to take responsibility for their mistakes and tried to remedy them, and to engage in appropriate and cooperative behaviour with their fellows. It requires healthy communication, expectations of reasonable behaviour that the child understands, and consequences for breaking the rules.’