Early Childhood Intervention: Module One – Typical and Atypical Development

Parenting Styles and the Goodness of Fit Model

All parents, regardless of their parenting style, love their children and feel that they are offering them the best.

Many factors take place when parents decide how to raise their child. Researchers usually classify parenting styles into four broad categories. These usually relate to the parents’ belief systems (see full Glossary) and their overall views on life:

The authoritative parent…has the capacity to not only love their children, but also to show it.  Living in structured households, their demands are reasonable on their children. They are consistent, caring and warm. At the same time, they understand that children are not always capable of following-up on these demands. Children living with authoritative parents know the rules they live by, and that there are fair consequences in place when rules are broken. Children who grow up in such homes have a better chance of becoming happy and well-adjusted adults.

The authoritarian parent…is a loving parent, and is also very strict in terms of having many—somewhat rigid—rules. This parent does not tolerate their child breaking any rules, and doing so usually results in harsh punishment. They may reject their child and withhold expressing their love when feeling that their child is being defiant. Authoritarian parents hold the belief that being strict with their children prepares them for the “real world.” Studies have shown that children who grow up in authoritarian homes are likely to become unhappy adults, who are quite rigid in their thinking, even though they may excel and be successful in their careers.

The permissive parent…is the “anything goes” parent. A loving parent, they will provide an unstructured and inconsistent environment for their child with very few rules that are usually not enforced. Children who grow up within these environments are generally not happy when “things do not go their way.” They also usually have difficulty with impulse control, simply because they were never taught this skill.

The uninvolved parent… demands very little from their child. At the same time, they tend not to be nurturing or supportive. In extreme cases, these parents may tend to neglect their children, which affect the children’s emotional growth. Children who grow up in such environments are usually easily frustrated and they tend to not achieve.

These parenting styles exist on a continuum, from the uninvolved to the authoritarian parent. Research has shown that the authoritative parenting style may yield the healthiest and most emotionally adjusted children and adults. Children need structure―and love―in their environments. In authoritative households, children receive love that is not tied to their actions. Authoritative parents may disapprove of something a child does, but they do not disapprove of the child.Temperament and “goodness of fit (see full Glossary) play a major role in how parenting styles play out. In the end, it’s not just about the parent or child’s personalities. How the parents’ and the child’s personalities fit together has an impact on how happy parents and children feel with one another.

Discipline1 is not an “all or none” topic, and it has become an issue with which most parents and professionals struggle. While finding a balance in discipline methods is not easy, it is generally agreed that parents want their children to learn to be respectful and to behave themselves. Some people use harsh punishment methods (e.g. spanking and/or yelling) while raising or taking care of young children. Many of them tend to think of punishment as a method of discipline, however, these are not the same.

  • Discipline refers to the guidelines adults give to children in order to gently guide and shape their behavior. It is usually a positive process that emphasizes what the child can do.
  • Punishment is defined as a penalty for misbehaviour. It is usually negative, and it focuses on what the child cannot do. When the child does not understand why he/she is being punished, he/she may be experience it as unfair, and create feelings of resentment toward the punisher.

In her article published on the Attachment Canada website, Gershoff (2002) states the difference between discipline and punishment:

  • When we discipline, we teach, guide, communicate and prevent.
  • When we punish, (see full Glossary) we hurt.

Children require and benefit from consistent discipline. They do not benefit from harsh punishments.  At the same time, flexibility can go hand in hand with firm and consistent discipline.

One form of punishment is physical or corporal punishment, including slapping, spanking and hitting. Physical punishment is highly discouraged for parents. Findings from recent research have revealed that other discipline methods are not only more effective, but prevent leaving physical and emotional scars on children.  It has been found that physical punishment used as a discipline method not only hurts the child, it also does not make it clear for them what they did wrong. It teaches children that it is fine to use violence as a means to solve problems. This may explain why some children consistently hit or are very aggressive towards other children.

Using physical punishment as discipline may stop the child’s behaviour, but only for a short while.  This is why it has also been found as less effective.

Ongoing physical punishment has been labeled physical abuse. Examples of harsh punishment include beating (with hands or objects), pinching, kicking and biting. Harsh punishment is never to be used.

Findings in recent research have identified harsh discipline tactics to be associated with the following:

  • Higher levels of aggression in children (e.g., hitting, yelling);
  • Lack of understanding of moral values and standards;
  • Higher chances that children will break rules and as adolescents and young adults, will break the law (e.g., showing criminal behaviours such as stealing, using drugs, and others;
  • Damage in the parent-child relationship as the child feels resentful, unsafe and untrusting of his primary caregivers.

What works:

  • Discipline is more effective for children when adults keep a low tone of voice. Raising voices will only make it louder, and the message is lost and made aversive for children.
  • It is also highly recommended that parents reassure children that they are loved, cared for and accepted for whom they are, in spite of their wrong doings, and not to withdraw these feeling as a punishment tactic. Children need our reassurance and love when they feel that they have done something wrong.  Adults’ comments should address the misbehavior, not the personality or the whole child.
  • The consistent withdrawal of love and affection as a form of punishment could become emotional abuse and/or neglect. As violence begets violence, children who are emotionally abused and/or neglected may learn to become abusive or neglectful adults.

Note: Some children may show behaviours that parents find extremely difficult to manage. Being aware of typical and atypical social emotional developmental patterns is important for parents and service providers.

1. see References

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