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How We “Parent”

November, 2012
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Our parenting style is a reflection of our parents. We either try to do it the same way they did or we try to do it differently. We either believe our parents did a good job or we believe they made mistakes…and we turned out okay in spite of them!

img_1235-copyHow we “parent” is a demonstration of a philosophy of who we think we are, who we think our children are, and who we think they will become. We try our hardest but sometimes find that it is best to give ourselves “time out” so that we can regain our composure. Children, our beloved, long-awaited children, can drive us crazy! All they want is our love…and that toy in the store! And we are more tired, and even crankier, than they are.

Dr. Nancy McCormick Rambusch first identified the three styles of parenting. Dr. Rambusch was the woman who brought Montessori education to America after Montessori’s death. As a young mother herself, Nancy recognized that while she might know something about education, she knew very little about successful parenting. Montessori made the study of children and their education her life’s work. Nancy did that, too, but she also studied how adults parent their children.

There is a distinction between punishment and discipline. Both are ways that parents use to control children’s behavior. They are attempts to change children’s behavior to make it more acceptable…to us, or to grandma and grandpa, or to society. That is part of our job as parents: to raise children who will get along with others and be “good.”

Using punishment, you can often stop or change the child’s behavior, but only temporarily. Discipline, on the other hand, stops the child’s behavior and teaches the child a better way, a safer way, a more successful way. When you move into punishment, you are angry. When you choose discipline, the chance is much greater that you will be calm. You realize that the person you are dealing with is only 1 meter tall or maybe a little taller, a beginner at everything, a small child who makes mistakes. Your job is to help and to teach.

Here is where you must be careful; you must be careful about what you teach.

The most frequently used style of parenting is often labeled “Authoritarian.” Like an authoritarian form of government, the parenting style is similar. The parent says, “ Do what I tell you, or else!” The threat left unspoken is that if you don’t do what I tell you to do, I will hurt you. I will spank you, I will hit you…or when your father comes home, he will spank you. It is the oldest form of parenting and has been used by parents everywhere for thousands of years.

Later, when the children are too big to hit, adults use shaming, or belittling or making children feel guilty as ways to change children’s behavior.

If we were to draw a circle, the Authoritarian style is characterized by being hard on the inside around your heart and hard on the sides about what you expect and when!

Children who grow up with this style of parenting are often fearful of adults. They are children who have been told by their parents that they are not good enough. Nothing that they ever do for their parents is “good enough.” Often these children are labeled “bad” and the children grow to believe that they are. These children often become parents who later threaten and hurt their own children.

Sometimes the cycle is broken and the other extreme shows up as a parenting style.

This style is called the “Permissive” style of parenting. These children are the children of today, in America and in China. These children are usually born to “older” parents who have been busy with their own lives and so delayed having their first child. Most of the time, there will be only this one child.

Everything is done for this one child. Dad and Mom are giving all of their love and what time they can to this child, and so are their parents and the ayi. With seven adults servicing this one child, everything the child wants is given to them and the child takes that for granted and expects that.

With the circle to illustrate, the Permissive parent is characterized by being soft on the inside around the heart and soft on the edges…whatever the child wants is okay, and whenever he wants it is fine!

The problem is that the child of permissive parents grows up to feel that nothing matters, that he or she is entitled to everything and anything without working for it, that life really doesn’t mean much. It is hard to get these children motivated and engaged in anything meaningful.

The third style is called “Authoritative.” This means that parents are informed, that they know something about parenting, that a parent is an authority on parenting. We were all children once ourselves and have an idea about what it was like.

With the circle, the Authoritative parent is soft on the inside around the heart, but firm on the edges about behavior and expectations.

An example of the Authoritative parent conversation would be:

Mom says: It is time to leave the store.

Child: I want that toy.

Mom: I know you would like it but you cannot have it today.

Child: But I really want it!!

Mom: Let’s go.

(Child starts to scream.)

Mom: (Picking up child). It’s okay to scream but we are leaving now. 

(Mom hugs child and they leave).

What is the message the child gets? The child is learning: “Mom (or Dad) is the one who makes and keeps the rules. Mom and Dad are in control, not me…and that is really good, because I am so little and have no idea about how to live my life. I am counting on them to know.”

There is no arguing, no reasoning with a screaming child. There is just you, not angry, knowing how hard it is to be little. You are the only one in the store who loves your child, even when your child is screaming.  You know that you will both make it through this day and your child will be fine. And so will you.


By Judy Townsend 

Head of School, Montessori School of Shanghai 



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