Parenting styles of home educators

I posted yesterday about the use of operant conditioning with children, which apparently left many readers with the impression that I am a cold and authoritarian parent. Some of the comments were very revealing; 'nauseous', abhorrent', 'distasteful' and so on. I am not altogether surprised by this, because the parenting style of many home educating parents who comment here is very different from my own. Let's have a look at parenting styles and see what the difference is between how I operate and how many other home educating parents seem to do things.

One of the most popular ways of categorising parenting styles is that devised by Diana Baumrind, an American developmental psychologist. Her classifications are very widely used these days. She divides parents into four types, based upon how demanding towards their children they are and how responsive to their needs. The first type are authoritarian parents. They are highly demanding, with very structured homes and expect instant obedience from their children. They are demanding without being responsive. Judging by some of the comments yesterday, this is how readers evidently see me! Perhaps this is because most of them seem to belong to the permissive or indulgent type of parent. This seems to be a very common type of home educator; they feel that they must not demand much of their children, focusing instead upon being responsive to their needs.
The children are free to choose how they wish to behave and few demands are made upon them. These parents are very non-traditional in the approach to parenting. Their children really direct their own lives and decide what they wish to do. There are also uninvolved or neglectful parents, who just leave their kids to it. These are both unresponsive and undemanding. I don't think many of the parents who come on here are like that.

The type of parenting which many psychologists today think is best is what is known as authoritative parenting. These parents are both very responsive but also demanding. This is child-centred parenting which has high expectations in terms of the child's behaviour. There is unconditional love combined with clear standards for the child. This sort of parenting is also known as balanced parenting and it is the parenting which most childcare experts today recommend.

Now I can see clear links between the indulgent or permissive style of parenting, in which few demands are made upon the child, and those home educating parents who describe themselves as autonomous or child centred. They allow the children to dictate what they wish to do, what they will learn and various other matters. Some have no set rules for bedtime or getting up in the morning and their children are almost entirely self-directed. No limits are set on television watching or computer use and no formal academic work is demanded. They do not like telling their children what to do and have an aversion to the word 'No'. Somebody who attends a home education group contacted me recently and said that the other parents at the group stared at her in shocked surprise because she often tells her son, 'No'. The feeling she got was that some home educating parents regarded this in the same light as smacking a child! It has to be said at once that this kind of parenting is associated with serious problems in adolescence and adulthood. What kind of problems? Well, drink and drugs for one. A recent study in America on teenage drinking found that the children of indulgent parents, those who are very warm emotionally to their children but make few demands upon them, are three times as likely to binge drink as the children of authoritative parents. The children of authoritarian parents were also at risk of misusing alcohol, as were those of uninvolved parents.

The children of permissive parents are also more prone to getting into trouble generally as adolescents than those of authoritative parents and also more likely to experiment with illegal drugs. Not surprisingly, they do not do as well academically either! On the plus side, indulgent parents do tend to have children high in self esteem and with low levels of depression. By far the best adjusted and happiest children and teenagers are those of authoritative parents. They are socially more competent than other children and generally better able to function in society. This is not only their own perception of themselves, they have very high self esteem, but also shows up on objective tests. Academically, this group also performs best.

A parenting style which imposes strong demands upon the child to behave in accordance with the parents expectations seems to be psychologically the best and most healthy for children. When this is combined with a child centred approach, unconditional love and a degree of flexibility, the resultant way of raising a child is called balanced parenting and it is almost universally recommended. Permissive parenting on the other hand, where the child decides for herself what she will do and when she will do it and few demands are made upon her by parents, is associated with many problems in later life. I said yesterday that I deliberately set out to use operant conditioning to modify my children's behaviour. I can make no such claim about my authoritative style of parenting. This came about through observing some pretty frightful children of friends, all of whom had been raised in an indulgent fashion by their misguided parents. These kids were generally of the spoilt brat type and some were so awful that we stopped inviting their parents round. It was the experience of those children which caused me to think carefully about what seemed the best way of childrearing. These were not dysfunctional families; most of those were uninvolved or neglectful parents. Our friends tend to be teachers, social workers and so on. The indulgent parenting style definitely seemed to be most popular among them.