While playing at the park, a group of toddlers engage in an altercation. One parent issues a stern warning and begins a slow count to three. Another parent kneels down in front of her child and offers reassuring words of comfort while engaging her child in reflective conversation about the event that just occurred. Meanwhile, one of the offending toddlers is picked up by his caregiver and set down firmly alone on an isolated bench, while a loud pronouncement is made that the child will stay in time out for five minutes. A fourth parent stands off to the side engaged in conversation with a friend, seemingly unaware that a problem has occurred between the children.
Many parents have their own distinct parenting style. When young children and families interact with one another, observations can be made about parenting preferences and we often make judgments about which styles are better or worse. As we notice other parenting styles, some of us may begin to question our own approaches to parenting or perhaps pat ourselves on the back for implementing superior methods of child rearing.
When we take a moment to reflect and think about different approaches to disciplining and teaching children, we may wonder which parenting style is the best or most effective. Researchers, Robert Larzelere and Sada Knowles at Oklahoma State University recently pondered this very question and designed a study to figure out the answer. Which parenting style yields the best behavioral results over both the short and long terms?
While recognizing that a wide variety of approaches to child rearing are currently implemented throughout our culture, the decision was made to group parenting styles into two main categories: positive parenting and behavioral parenting.
The researchers define positive parenting as intentionally taking preventative actions to teach children behavioral expectations as well as strategies to for safety and optimal interactions with others. Parents who employ positive parenting techniques use conversations with their children to explain, empathize and maintain open dialogue concerning wants, needs and behavioral expectations. They are opposed to negative consequences and thus avoid time outs, privilege removal, physical punishments and clashes of wills. Instead, they use mild power asserting tactics and strive to find compromises and take preventative actions in order to avoid confrontations. The goal of positive parenting is for the child to develop autonomy.
Behavioral parenting, on the other hand, includes behavioral power assertion or the use of a superior source of power to control a child’s behavior. Parents who follow behavioral parenting principles use consistent, firm discipline methods including forceful commands, physical restraint, withdrawal of privileges and spankings. The goal of behavioral parenting is for children to develop character.
Authors and parent educators from both these opposing approaches firmly believe that their way is the best and that the other approach may be potentially harmful to children. However, how many parents fall squarely into one camp or the other? Larzelere and Knowles sought to answer two main questions: is one approach superior to the other and do parents consistently and exclusively practice one of these styles of parenting?
In order to investigate their questions, the researchers gathered 102 volunteer pairs of mothers and toddlers and carefully analyzed their interactions over a period of a few months.
The investigators identified the following types of noncompliance in toddlers ranging from mild, parent oriented episodes to oppositional externalizing behaviors.
- simple refusals
- passive noncompliance
- total behavior problems.
Disciplinary tactics were also identified on a spectrum ranging from positive parenting practices to behavioral parenting methods.
- offering alternatives or compromises
- giving affection and praise
- modeling appropriate behavior
- intermediate use of warnings and punishment
- verbal power assertion
- broad power assertion
After much observation and analysis, the researchers found that most mothers varied their tactics and responses to their toddlers depending on the type of noncompliance exhibited instead of simply following one style of parenting. Overall, it was apparent that parenting in real life does not necessarily look like the books parents read and the philosophies they adhere to.
In this particular study, researchers found that offering alternatives was the most effect tactic overall, in particular for behaviors such as negotiating, whining and simple refusals. However, for discipline categories such as tantrums, hitting, and noncompliance, broad power assertion was the most effective parental response.
The researchers discovered that the quality of interactions between parents and their toddlers played a significant role in the effectiveness of offering alternatives and reasoning, whereas the quantity of parent child interactions had a negative effect. The quality of interactions signifies responsiveness between parents and their children while quantity may be interpreted as nagging behavior without the benefit of sensitivity to the child’s needs.
The research study, entitled Toddlers Need Both Positive Parenting and Consistent Consequences From Mothers shows that the most effective approach to parenting and discipline is a consistent, balanced, responsive interaction between parents and their young children. Parents need not choose between one approach and the other, but ideally, they should tailor their responses to their children’s behavior in a manner that is interactive and dependable. Children can and should be reasoned with and need clear explanations for behavioral expectations. Offering alternatives to children helps gives them the opportunity to develop autonomy and to take responsibility for their own behavioral choices. Children watch and learn from the adults around them and thus modeling desired behaviors is a good way to teach children about behavioral guidelines. Young children are prone to push limits and challenge boundaries and when they do, it is in their best interest to establish firm and consistent boundaries and clear consequences for noncompliance, tantrums and bad behavior.
According to the authors of the study, “Parents need the full range of nonabusive disciplinary responses, but should match them to the type of noncompliance exhibited by toddlers.” In other words, know yourself, know your child, consistently and responsively interact with your child and do not limit yourself to one particular parenting trend.