Ages & Stages

Parenting styles – unhelpful labels, or tools for learning?

Holly Pigache  |   1 Dec 2021


Are you a helicopter parent?  Do you follow the “positive parenting” tribe?  Or are you more into “chicken-blood” parenting? 

The likelihood is that at some point, you’ll parent in all the above ways – and more!  But trying to box up your parenting style and stick a big label on it isn’t always helpful and may cause you more stress than ignoring the parenting template in the first place.

But before I tear apart different parenting styles, let’s understand what some of them mean.

What are some common types of parents or styles of parenting?

  • Authoritarian parents: you focus on obedience and punishment rather than discipline – your child is taught to follow the rules without exception.
  • Authoritative parenting: you seek to create a positive relationship with your child, you explain why boundaries are in place and whilst you discipline when necessary, you consider your child’s emotions.
  • Chicken-blood parents: your child is signed up for all the after-school clubs and weekend lessons in a bid to help them stand out in the future (think: university applications for five-year-olds).
  • Free-range parenting: your children are given greater independence within the confines of your rules and boundaries.
  • Gentle parents: centred around mutual respect, you and your child collaborate and contribute to the family.  Your child knows they have a voice, they use it to share views and know they’re listened to.
  • Helicopter parenting: you hover around your children, helping them to such an extent that when they struggle, you solve their problems.
  • Koala parents: you keep close physical contact with your child – including sharing a bed.  When your baby cries you respond to that cry.
  • Permissive (or “indulgent”) parenting: you set rules but don’t enforce them and rarely deal out consequences.  Your attitude is “kids will be kids”; you’re lenient and tend to only interfere when there’s a serious issue.
  • Positive parents: you guide, lead, teach, care, empower, nurture (in fact, all the positive verbs you could think of) your child through life – you provide emotional warmth and unconditional love rooted in positivity.  Boundaries are set and you regularly and openly communicate with your child.
  • Slow parenting (aka simplicity parenting): you don’t organise many activities for your kids; they explore the world at their own pace.
  • Tiger parents: you’re controlling (over-controlling?) and your child is kept on a tight leash (metaphorically, that is).
  • Uninvolved parenting: you don’t spend much time with your child, you don’t ask them about school, their homework or their friends, you’re not sure where your child is or with whom.  Your negligence isn’t always intentional.
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Let me say I’m not anti-label; categories can be terribly helpful.  Are you planning a cesarean or natural birth?  Are you a meat-eater, veggie or vegan?  Do you want to read a fiction or non-fiction book today?  Categories are ways of organising the world and having these mental shortcuts (heuristics) allows us to make sense of our surroundings and respond appropriately.

However, there’s a distinction between a “category” and a “label”.  Firstly, “labels” often have negative connotations or are steeped in shame that we learn from a young age: “You’re in Set 4 Maths, that must mean you’re stupid.”  Yet a teacher knowing a student is in Set 4 as opposed to Set 1 allows teaching differentiation and improved learning, so perhaps the distinction lies in how we perceive grouping people or objects? 

Let’s assume it’s the perception of labels that matters – for the parent, having a label for why your child is struggling at school can be helpful; correct provision and support can be put in place so your child makes academic progress. 

But what about when the other kids in the class find out Mikey has dyslexia?  Does that put him in the firing line for teasing?  And what if labelling Mikey’s special educational need (SEN) results in his self-esteem being hurt?

Away from the classroom and back to parenting styles

If you’ve decided to adhere to a particular form of parenting, how are you probably going to feel when you don’t parent accordingly?  Rubbish, that’s how. 

Your personality isn’t fixed, your child’s certainly isn’t and some situations you find yourself in with your child will be far more stressful than others (your child chooses to have a tantrum as you’re getting on the aeroplane or cries throughout your friend’s wedding). 

It’s much easier to be cool, calm and collected when faced with a tantrum after you’ve had a good sleep, a stress-free day at work and the house is clean and tidy.

But hang on a minute, Holly, parenting styles give structure.  Running a company, going through a divorce, dealing with an unwell parent and raising three kids isn’t easy, you know.

Yes, parenting styles can help you work out ways you’d prefer to rear your children but don’t stick to them verbatim – what works with one child might not work for the other – plus, you’re human and fallible (and so are your little ones)! 

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What can we learn from parenting styles?

What is particularly helpful is having an awareness of how you parent.  Knowing the ways you deal with success, how to discipline poor behaviour, the way you encourage kindness/ambition/competition (delete as appropriate) etc in your children allows you to identify what’s working and where there’s room for improvement. 

Developing a positive relationship with your child is always a good thing and they will undoubtedly be a better adult because of it.  But losing your temper every so often isn’t the end of the world.

I can’t claim to know the “best way” to parent.  (And “best” is rather subjective, although some forms of parenting are more effective in raising prosocial and productive young adults.) 

But in my former career as a primary teacher, I saw hundreds of parents walk through the school gates and plenty at the classroom door and during Parents’ Evenings.  The parents who seemed to have nailed it were the ones who:

  • Constantly endeavoured to build a positive relationship with their child.
  • Didn’t try to be perfect and didn’t expect perfection from their kids.
  • Openly communicate with their child, particularly the reasons for rules and boundaries.
  • Followed through with consequences and acknowledged their children’s emotions.

Remember that parenting is a marathon, not a sprint.  Don’t sweat all the small stuff just try and nurture a loving relationship with your child.

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