The Parenting Style That Best Fits Growing Brains

There is a lot of talk these days about finding balance. Work-life balance. A balanced diet. Keeping media in balance. In general, balance is a worthy goal.

Parenting, though, often feels like an exercise in grappling with persistent imbalance. Curve balls are constant. Kids are messy, unpredictable, challenging, and delightful. This is in part because their brains are under construction from early childhood all the way through adolescence. Their ability to manage their behaviors, make choices that take other people’s feelings and perspectives into account, prioritize, problem solve, and regulate their emotions are all works-in-progress. Their ability to manage their feelings and behaviors is also quite variable, depending on all kinds of things including sleep and stress.

Add to the mix that we parents are often “wired but tired” and it’s no wonder parenting is often seems like a roller coaster. While our brains might be fully developed our own executive function skills can be more or less difficult to access depending upon how difficult or tiring the day has been.

So when it comes to parenting styles, is balance a meaningful goal?

The answer, according to brain science, is yes. It is hard to remember during a two-year-old temper pushing boundaries or a teenage meltdown, that our kids are walking around in the world with these little miracles perched on top of their shoulders. Their brains are undergoing incredible transformation and are exquisitely designed to learn from their ups and downs.

They are testing out big questions like, “What should I do when I have a big feeling?” or “Does anyone care if I do this?”  and “How far can I go?” Research shows that while each of us certainly has a unique way of interacting with our kids and handling challenging behavior, parenting styles generally fall into one of three categories: permissive, authoritarian, and yes, balanced.

Overview of balanced parenting style

The goal informs the means

It turns out that it is precisely because of all the turbulence and growth inside our children that a balanced parenting style is so useful. A couple of key principles in brain science help us understand why:

  • “Whatever the brain does a lot is what the brain gets good at.” In other words, the brain learns new skills by practicing.
  • “The experiences we have during the growth spurts of our brain have a greater impact than at any other times in our lives.” In other words, the brain is especially sensitive to experience while it is growing and developing.

With these principles in mind, it becomes more clear why an authoritarian or permissive parenting styles isn’t a good match for growing brains. Authoritarian parenting might get kids to comply through fear of punishment, but it doesn’t usually allow kids much room to practice. Remember, “Whatever the brain does a lot is what the brain gets good at.” The goal isn’t simply compliance; the goal is that they ultimately learn how to manage their emotions and behaviors themselves.

The permissive approach, on the other hand, isn’t a good fit either. If authoritarian parenting robs kids of practice, permissive parenting robs kids of coaching. Without limits and boundaries it is tough for kids to practice new skills and take responsibility for their impact on others. Shifting limits and uncertain boundaries makes for a chaotic and confusing playing field.

It’s not that the authoritarian or permissive parenting styles aren’t tempting in the face of challenging behaviors; they just aren’t a very good fit for growing brains. Just this morning my five-year-old was particularly poky and emotional getting out the door, rounding out a trying morning where he had spent most of his time in an exhaustive search for the perfect pair of socks (an elusive and ultimately futile endeavor). Late for work, tired of whining, and eager to make sure that both kids weren’t late for school I had these two extremes ready to go:

  2. Okay buddy, you are in charge of footwear, and school for that matter. I’ll be here drinking my coffee.

We somehow got out the door without having to employ either extreme. That evening we found our way towards a more balanced approach. He chose an outfit before going to bed, including two pairs of socks from three options I provided. Fingers crossed for tomorrow. I share this example because it is fairly mundane and insignificant. The reality, however,  is that parenting is full of mundane and insignificant moments. The most commonplace routines of just getting out the door in the morning can easily turn into explosions, transform us into doormats, or give us opportunities to practice a different way.

Working our way towards the middle

Of course parenting styles aren’t just shaped by mood or fatigue. It is also shaped by our training. This past fall a parent shared with me, “I wasn’t raised with much balance so I don’t know how to do it. My house was full of shouting when I was a kid so I tend to do the opposite when conflict comes up. I just let it go.”

I appreciate this kind of real talk. Far from a theoretical exercise, we each bring our own training from our families of origin to our interactions with our kids. There is no one way to parent or single recipe for raising kids. With all the ups and downs, perfect parenting is not the goal. But each of us can find our own unique way towards a balanced approach. In the end, everyone benefits.

Just like for our children though, new skills require preparation and practice. Outside of conflict and when we aren’t about to fly off the handle ourselves, it can be helpful to make a game plan for working towards a more balanced approach. Start small with a few simple questions:

  • List one challenging behavior.
  • Brainstorm what an authoritarian, permissive, and balanced response would look like. How would you respond? What would you say? What would your child learn?
  • Which response most closely resembles your own?
  • Now name one concrete thing you could do to move towards a more balanced approach.

Don’t forget to share your ideas, goals, and progress with a friend or parenting partner. And celebrate your small victories. Did you successfully draw a boundary? Hold your own temper? Recognize your progress. These are the seemingly insignificant moments through which the best parenting is born.