One of the hardest things I've ever had to do was explain to one of the closest people in my life why I was nervous about letting her watch my toddler. She's a fantastic person in so many ways, but we have very different ideas about how adults should relate to children. One of the things no one tells you about authoritative parenting, is that you will end up having some really tough conversations with people you care about when it comes to your kids. "Your approach is more 'command and control,' while mine is more 'empathize and educate.' I know you have great intentions, but my son can be challenging, and I'm worried we'd be setting you up to lose your patience with him, and respond in a way that could hurt all of our relationships."
In a nutshell, authoritative parenting is the sweet spot between permissive, "Anything goes" parenting, and authoritarian, "Do as I say, or else!" parenting. Authoritative parents have high, age-appropriate expectations for kids' behavior, but we also offer lots of support and understanding for kids as they strive to meet those expectations. We work to build trusting, caring relationships with our kids, which is often harder than it sounds, especially when they're struggling, and we're running low on patience (which this parenting style requires a lot of). Unlike permissive parents, we believe in the importance of discipline, but we also intuitively recognize that the root of that word means "to teach or instruct," so we aim to teach our kids how we want them to behave, rather than punishing them (using external punishments, shame, and/or force) for acting in ways we don't like.
If you are or are trying to become an authoritative parent, you may have heard a lot about how an authoritative approach to parenting is linked to positive outcomes for our kids. Setting limits with love and empathy serves them well, and makes for healthier, more satisfying relationships for all of us. But, after years of teaching and raising kids with this philosophy, I've found there are other things that the books don't necessarily tell you about what it's like to be an authoritative parent, so I will.
Authoritative Parents Come In Lots Of Different Styles
Authoritative parenting is definitely different from permissive or authoritarian parenting. But as far as other, more style-oriented parenting choices are concerned, there are few limits — there's often no simple, visual way of identifying authoritative parents in a crowd (unless you catch a glimpse of the kinds of conversations we have with our kids). Authoritative parents come from all different races, religions, creeds, and walks of life. We might look like hippie parents, or "mainstream" parents, or attachment parents, and so forth; we breastfeed and formula feed, co-sleep and sleep train, wear our babies and push them in strollers. The key is how we approach our relationships, not what we look like or what other lifestyle choices we make.
It Requires A Lot Of Self-Understanding And Reflection
When you can’t default to “because I said so!” and aren’t willing to just let everything slide, you have to be able to understand why you’re setting the limits you’re setting. Indeed, you have to understand why you’re making pretty much every choice you make with or for your child. That means you’ll need to continually reflect on whether or not your actions align with your values, and you’ll spend a lot of time unpacking a lot of your assumptions and things from your own childhood — particularly if you grew up with permissive or (especially) authoritarian parents.
It Requires A Lot Of Patience And Compassion
Authoritative parenting requires a ton of patience and compassion, both with your kids and with yourself. Some days, your kids will need to test your boundaries over and over again, in order to internalize that, yes, you really will hold them. Other days, you'll fall short of your goals, letting something slide that you feel you shouldn't, or yelling an order instead of respectfully setting a limit. Either way, you'll get a lot of practice breathing and contemplating before deciding, and figuring out ways to grant your kids and yourself a little grace at times when your best doesn't meet your high standards.
You’ll Spend A Lot Of Time Talking And Modeling
Because we take "discipline" to mean "to teach," that means we spend a lot of time modeling the kind of behavior we want to see, explaining the limits we set, explaining things our kids don't understand, and trying to understand what our kids are thinking and feeling. Time-consuming, sure, but worth it in the long run.
You’ll Need To Be Prepared To Deal With Other Parents Who Don’t Agree...
Other parents, particularly authoritarian ones, often take our parenting choices personally or feel as though we're going "too easy" on our kids. To parents who believe the parent-child relationship should be a superior-subordinate one, our reliance on natural and logical consequences instead of punishment, and our appeals to reason instead of authority, appears like "spoiling" our kids instead of "letting them know who's boss." We have to be ready to ignore these kinds of criticisms, even if/when it hurts to have our choices as parents attacked.
...And Other Adults In Your Child’s Life
If your own parents and extended family — and/or your child's other caregivers, teachers and principals — have a more authoritarian (or permissive) outlook than you do, you might need to be prepared to articulate and defend your own philosophy to people whose opinions you actually care about, and who may really need to understand what you're choosing to do with your kid(s).
You Might Have A Harder Time Trusting Caregivers
This is, personally, one of my biggest struggles as a parent. Because I know how common it is for adults to set rules and then use shame and even force to gain kids' compliance, it takes a lot for me to feel OK about entrusting our kids to other people.
If you're like me, you may have different (and more) questions you ask potential nannies, daycare providers, and babysitters, and may want to see them in action more before leaving them alone with your little ones. And that's totally OK.
You’ll Spend More Time Reasoning Than Punishing (If You Punish At All)
Authoritative parents are all about natural and logical consequences rather than punishment, which is both a relief (yay, no dreaming up random punishments that require extra work for you to enforce!) and a bit of a chore sometimes (OMG, I have to explain how this all works, and then let them experience the consequences of their actions instead of rescuing them or forcing them to accept what I say).
You Need To Be Really Good At Setting And Holding Boundaries, With Everyone
This is tough at times. Setting and holding boundaries is hard because it requires acknowledging and understanding your own needs, being able to set limits accordingly, and being willing to maintain them when people try to pressure you. Your kids will test your boundaries constantly, because that's how they learn the norms of life with you and others. But so will other people in your life, particularly those who (wrongly) believe they have the right to challenge your decisions and authority as a parent. In all cases, you have to be ready to defend yourself, compassionately yet firmly.
You’ll Need A Ton Of Confidence…
Because authoritative parenting is so closely tied to setting and holding firm boundaries, you've got to know why you do what you do, and have the confidence to assert and reassert your decisions when other people challenge you.
(IMHO, Janet Lansbury's tips for staying "unruffled" when kids are being difficult — and in response to anyone else who tests your boundaries — is incredibly clutch.)
…And A Ton Of Humility
We all fall short of our own standards and make mistakes as parents. But since we're creating authentic, caring homes for our families, we also have to be honest about our mistakes and make amends, instead of pretending our mistakes didn't happen. It's the right thing to do, but man does that suck sometimes. Humility goes a long way when you're an authoritative parent.
It’s Really Challenging...
There is so much unpacking, considering, discussing, observing, reflecting, (and more) involved with being an authoritative parent. At times, it is so tempting to just say, "F*ck it, just do whatever you want! See if I care!" or to use whatever brute force and authority we have as parents to make our kids comply. In the short term, both of those approaches are far easier than taking the time needed to reason with our kids, and consider their perspectives.
...But It Pays Off Massively
In the long term, though, letting things slide or cracking the whip both have awful consequences. Kids who aren't expected to respect limits tend to behave terribly, and often have a hard time learning self-discipline. Kids who are constantly bossed around tend to either struggle to develop self-discipline and self-confidence, or they go on to abuse and disrespect other people's boundaries. Raising kids who can respect their own and others' rights and needs makes parenting easier in the long run, and enriches their personal and social lives. The short-term challenges and sacrifices on the road to raising empathetic, well-adjusted people are absolutely worth it.