Are You a Nice Parent or a Mean Parent?

Glinda:  “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?”

Dorothy: “I’m not a witch at all!”

Like Glinda, we might ask, “Are you a nice parent or a mean parent?”  Like Dorothy, a good parent will reject the question: Parenting is not something  that we should think of as something that is either nice or mean.

When many of us think of parenting, we often start by making  The Big Mistake.  The Big Mistake is thinking of parenting as something that occurs along a single dimension or continuum.  This view is shown in the figure that accompanies this article.  From this view, a parent is either strict or permissive, loving or demanding, nice or mean.   Parents will often joke about being “nice” or “mean” to their children:  “My son wanted to go to a friend’s house before finishing his homework.  I didn’t let him, and he missed the chance to see his friend.  I’m such a mean parent!”  “She knows she can get whatever she wants from her Dad.  He’s the nice one.  I’m the mean one.”  Although we tend to say these things in jest, jokes tend to have an element of truth in them.  We often feel as if we are being “mean” to our children when we deny them what they want.

For example, a parent wanted her four-year-old to say “thank you” after his grandmother gave him a gift.  The child was simply unwilling to do so.  He was being quite defiant.  I suggested that the mother require that the child sit in the corner until he was read to say “thank you” to his grandmother.  The mother agreed to try this.   As she did, her face had an unintentional look of deep empathic sadness.   Her lips turned down into a sad inverted “U” with her lower lip protruded out in a kind of pout.  Her eyebrows were turned down in sadness and her forehead wrinkled.   Her expression was deeply empathic in the sense that she seemed to anticipate that her child would suffer from this intervention.  She seemed to be sharing her son’s suffering.  She didn’t want to make her child suffer!  It is hard not to believe that in this moment, the mother experienced herself as a “mean” parent.

Thinking of parenting in terms of nice versus mean is a trap.  It gives us only two choices!    Because we love our children, we want them to feel good.  When we do something to make our children feel good, we are being nice.   Because we have to teach children responsibility, we sometimes have to stop them from doing things that they want to do.  This makes them feel bad.

For example, 3 ½-year-old Alison spilled watercolors over the kitchen table and floor.   When a friend attempted to commiserate about the mess, Alison’s mother said “No problem.  She did it on purpose, but it was part of her project.”  This mother was struggling with the dilemma of whether to let her child use splash the watercolors around as she completed her project.  For the mother, restricting Alison’s actions was unnecessary, as the watercolors could easily be cleaned.  In the end, however, the mother experienced some difficulty cleaning up Alison’s mess.   Acting out of love, Alison’s mother was being “nice”.  As a result, however, Alison not only caused a mess for her mother, but she also failed to learn a lesson in self-control and the appropriate use of paints.

However, Alison’s mother could have easily acted out of love while simultaneously providing guidance and direction for her child.   “Let’s make some pretty pictures.  However, we need to be careful.  If you spill some of the paint by mistake, we can clean it up.  But even if you are experimenting, we have to be careful.  You can make a mess that’s hard to clean up!  So here – paint like this so that you don’t spill any on the table.”  In responding in this way, Alison’s mother would have (a) encouraged Alison’s interest (i.e., painting a picture) in a way that also (b) communicated a rule (i.e., don’t spill the paint on the table), (c) explained the reason for the rule (i.e., it makes a mess), and (d) provides an alternative way to meet Alison’s interest (i.e., painting with care on a newspaper-covered table).

The trick to understanding authoritative parenting is to realize that being demanding (i.e., enforcing discipline; enforcing high standards; imposing maturity demands) and being responsive (i.e., attempting to encourage a child’s interests; acknowledging a child’s emotions; acting with loving care) are not opposite ends of a single dimension of parenting.   Instead, they are two separate dimensions of parenting altogether.   Parenting doesn’t fall along a single “demanding ß à responsive” dimension.  Instead, demandingness and responsiveness are two separate dimensions.   In any given situation, a parent can be more or less demanding (“more demanding ß à less demanding”) as well as more or less responsive (i.e., “more responsive ß à less responsive”)    Enforcing high standards is not the opposite of being loving and nurturing.   Instead, they are two separate dimensions of parenting.