Back to the Future: Why We Need a Bit of Old School Parenting

By Michael F. Mascolo, Ph.D.

The November 2013 issue of North Shore Children & Families contained a call to “Reclaim Parenthood”.    In that issue, I argued that there have been many unintended negative consequences from adopting what has been called “child-centered” parenting.   In an attempt to foster individuality, autonomy, self-confidence and creative expression, child-centered parenting places the interests of the child above that of the parent.  As a result, the present generation of children tends to show high levels of narcissism, entitlement and self-focus, an impoverished academic work ethic, inadequate responsivity to others, and a diminished sense of moral and civic purpose.

In this issue, we examine the need to replace child-centered parenting with authoritative parenting (which is not the same as authoritarian parenting).  Authoritative parenting is “old school” parenting.  It is not “old school” simply in the sense of being “old fashioned”.  There are many things that are “old fashioned” that are best left in the past.  Similarly, authoritative parenting is not “old school” simply because (many of) our grandparents may have used it.   There are things that our grandparents did that we may not want to repeat.  Instead, authoritative parenting is “old school” in the sense that it has stood the test of time.  It worked “back then”; it works right now; and it will continue to work in the future.   This is because authoritative parenting combines the two things that children need most: Clear direction and responsive care.

Authoritative parents combine high expectations with loving nurturance.  They are simultaneously demanding and responsive.  They set high maturity demands and help their children to live up to those demands.   They are fully aware that it is their job as parents to attempt to influence their children.  However, they are also aware that children require loving guidance and understanding if they are to grow into responsible and competent adults.

Why have we tended to stray away from authoritative parenting?   One answer lies in the way we think about the responsibilities that we have to our children.   When we think of parenting, two ideas tend to come to mind:  Love and discipline.  Parents love their children!  We tend to feel that love is what fuels our desire to take care of and nurture our children.   Because we love our children, we would do anything for them.  Parents also know that they have a responsibility to teach their children.   They know that they are responsible for teaching children right from wrong and proper from improper behavior.   Problems arise, however, when parents come to think that being loving toward children is the opposite of having high maturity demands.   That is, a parent can either make her child feel loved or hold her child to high standards, but she cannot do both at the same time.

In order to understand how authoritative parents produce competent children, it is first necessary to show that love and discipline are not opposite poles of a single dimension.   This is the subject of our first article.  Thereafter, we show how different parenting styles lead to different outcomes in children.  Decades of research shows that authoritative parenting, in comparison to most other forms of parenting, produces competent, friendly and morally autonomous children.   In this issue, we will show just how authoritative parents make this happen.