Sure research can define the best parenting. But what good does that do for parents who have already been raising kids for years -- even if they recognize that they should be doing things differently? To put it another way, can parents change their stripes?
It's a question I put to University of New Hampshire researcher Rick Trinkner, who published a study last week finding that delinquency was less common among kids with "authoritative" parents than it was among kids with domineering "authoritarian" parents. (Delinquency wasn't more common among kids with pushover "permissive" parents, but his research raised concerns with that parenting style as well.)
A change of parenting style probably won't help when it comes to certain aspects of kids' lives, such as the clothes they wear, he said. But when it comes to preventing delinquent actions (drinking, vandalism) a switch to an authoritative approach could be meaningful. Authoritative parenting involves setting boundaries, but not with a "my way or the highway attitude." It requires parents to explain the reasons behind their rules and to hear out their kids' concerns. More from Trinkner:
"If parents wants to change their behavior, they should take some time to think about what domains their children will be more likely to respond positively to, in terms of exerting more authoritative authority. This would make it easier for the parents. To put it more simply, pick your battles. Some battles it will matter if you use an authoritative style, while other battles it probably won’t really matter what style you use because the child doesn’t believe you have a legitimate role as an authority regardless of what you say/do."
The viral web sensation last week was the dad who gunned down his daughter's laptop because his daughter complained on Facebook about chores.
Trinkner said this is a losing battle, because kids don't recognize their parents as authorities over their general social media usage. The exception is in cases of cyberbullying when parents do play a role in protecting their children from harm. But that wasn't the situation with this dad, who should have redirected his frustration, Trinkner concluded:
"In this case, the father is probably picking a losing battle because his daughter most likely doesn’t believe he has any authority to determine what she can and can not say on her own Facebook page. Rather than focusing on what his daughter says on Facebook, the father should instead have focused on being an authoritative parent in terms of her housework/chores."
That means, spending time telling his daughter to do chores and explaining why they are important. Becoming this kind of parent isn't easy, Trinkner said:
"In many cases, a parent may need to question or be introspective about some of their core assumptions about the parent-child relationship. Authoritative parents recognize that their children are becoming autonomous and try to interact with their children within this understanding; authoritarian parents either do not realize or refuse to recognize this and instead try to exert their control through “brute” force. Before a parent can even begin to try to change their actual behavior in terms of moving toward an authoritative style, they first need to examine their beliefs concerning how they should be interacting with their children."
In the end, most parents use all three styles Trinkner evaluated in his research. Authoritative parents, for example, may be much more forceful about issues of illicit drug use. Trinkner challenged parents to observe situations when they used different parenting styles, and to evaluate which ones were successful. Listening is a key.
"Authoritative parents ... not only dictate their needs, wants, desires, anxieties to their children, but they also give their children the opportunity to express their own needs, wants, desires, anxieties. This way, the children feel that they are getting a voice -- they are getting a chance to explain their side of the story. People (not just children) get irritated when they feel they don’t have a way to express their side of the story. ... The big thing to remember is that just because authoritative parents give their children a voice ... this doesn’t mean that the parents have to agree with their children, nor does this mean that the parents have to not enforce the rules. If parents did that, they would probably be falling into a permissive style which isn’t very beneficial either."