by DONNA HABENICHT
The evening meal was the most important one of the day in Maria and Jorge’s home, the only time they ate together as a family. Nothing was allowed to interfere with this cherished family time – no newspapers, no books, no TV, no iPads, no computers, no cell phones, and the landline automatically went to the answering machine. Their kids, from four-year-old Yomarie to thirteen-year-old Pedro, eagerly anticipated this special time with their father. They knew he was very busy ministering to the people in the church and the community, but at this special time of the day, Dad was theirs – no interruptions allowed.
Sometimes Dad even got home a little early and they could play a quick game of catch the- ball or look at an interesting new website before eating. Occasionally a serious emergency came up and Dad didn’t make it home for the evening meal, but the kids understood. Their father – the minister – must respond to a real emergency. Sometimes he was out of town on important business.
After mealtime, Jorge and Maria worshiped God as a family before going about their evening activities. Jorge generally visited church families, studied the Bible with interested families or attended committee meetings while
Maria helped the kids with their homework assignments and tucked the younger ones into bed. Jorge tried to get home by 9:30 p.m., in time to have a quiet conversation with one of the older kids and with Maria after the kids were in bed.
Things were quite different in Elena and Eduardo’s home. Elena served a delicious evening meal, but she and the kids generally ate alone. Usually, Eduardo thought he was too busy to come home to eat, so most evenings he grabbed some fast food and continued working on his sermon, helping a needy member of the congregation, or attending a committee until long after the children had gone to sleep. When he did make it home for the evening meal, he answered the cell phone repeatedly and often ate hurriedly, running out the door to an “emergency.” Rarely was there time to play ball with the kids or hear about their day and generally, Elena had worship with the kids without him. Eduardo’s kids barely knew him. Elena yearned for support with child-rearing, but Eduardo thought he was too busy to be involved. Most of the time she had to deal with school assignments, misbehavior, worship with the kids, decisions about everyday issues, friends, sports, the Sabbath School Bible study guide, and much more. The list seemed endless. Sometimes Eduardo would get involved if there were a serious discipline problem. He was very strict, not inclined to listen to the child’s point of view, and favored severe punishment.
Fast-forward fifteen years. What are the children from these two pastoral families doing? Do they love the Lord and are they serving Him? Or have they wandered away from God and want nothing to do with the church? The best predictor of the parenting outcome of these two families is their parenting behavior, generally called parenting style. Hundreds of studies, beginning in the 1950s and continuing into the 21st century, have explored the relationship between different parenting behaviors and many different outcomes in the lives of children.1, 2
Parenting style – the big picture of child-rearing – is described by two main aspects of the parent-child relationship: Support (responsiveness to the child’s needs) and control (demandingness, teaching, and discipline). The way parents support and control their children affects the atmosphere of the home and the emotional tone of family interaction, which influences everything else that happens in the family.
On the diagram of the parenting styles the vertical line represents support which can range from very strong support at the upper end to an almost total lack at the other extreme (see Figure 1).
Supportive parents are child-centered and responsive to their children’s needs. They show much love, kindness, and tenderness to their children, hug and cuddle together, say “I love you” frequently, and use their child’s love language often. They also notice when their child has had a difficult day and needs an extra dose of love by stopping what they’re doing to “tune in” and listen. These parents eat, play, work, and pray with their children every day.
In a supportive home parents and children talk with each other a lot. Both know how the other feels, and the children understand the reasons for the family’s standards. Parents respect and listen to their child’s viewpoint
and show patience with childish mistakes and inconsistencies. They are tactful, sympathetic, understanding, and merciful with their children. An atmosphere of respect for each family member pervades the home. Independence and individuality are encouraged. Supportive parents are messengers of God’s love to all their children.
Nonsupportive parents are generally centered on their own needs. Adult-centered parents give little consideration to the needs of the children – daily survival or parental power are what matter. The kids are rarely allowed to express an opinion because the parents are afraid of losing control or don’t make time to listen. The parents don’t show much sympathy and can be unpleasant, cold, and harsh with their children. They aren’t very interested or involved in their kids’ lives. Put-downs are common. Independence and individuality are taboo.
Emotional Climate of the Home
The support dimension of the parenting style and how the parents get along with each other create the emotional climate of the home, either a general atmosphere of warmth and caring or one of coldness and hostility. The emotional climate colors everything that happens in the home, giving family life an aura of joy and happiness or repression and sadness. It plays a significant role in whether children will accept or reject the religion and values of their parents.
Control describes who’s in charge of the family – the parents or the children. Control can vary from demanding, directive, high in control parenting to undemanding, low in control permissive parenting (see figure 1). Control also plays a role in acceptance or rejection of parental religion and values.
High Control Parenting
Directive, demanding parents establish limits for their children’s behavior, explain the limits clearly and answer any questions the kids may have. Then they consistently enforce these limits. They teach their kids to reason and make age-appropriate decisions, and the kids get plenty of practice in decision-making. While these parents are firm and teach clear values to their family, they’re reasonable and don’t expect their kids to be perfect, even if they are the pastor’s kids!
Self-control cuts both ways – parents must also be self-controlled. If they can’t maintain their cool and calmly deal with the situation, they simply say, “We’ll deal with this later.” Then exit to pray for calmness and wisdom. Who’s in charge of the family? The parents.
Low Control Parenting
Indulgent, undemanding parents don’t think kids need limits and guidance. “The kids need to express themselves” is a favorite line. Generally any behavior is OK. The limits they do try to establish are usually inconsistently enforced. The household has few rules and generally doesn’t function on a schedule. Bedtime and mealtime are whenever the children want them. The parents make only weak or unpredictable attempts to teach the kid’s self-control, decision-making, or planning skills.
Who’s in charge of the family? The kids.
The intersecting support and control dimensions identify four quadrants which define the four parenting styles: Authoritative- Communicative, Authoritarian, Permissive- Indulgent, and Indifferent-Neglectful. Each style is described by the quality and amount of support and control in the parent-child relationship. Let’s begin with the best
Authoritative-communicative parents are seeking to follow God’s model for parenting: Unconditional love and grace, clear guidelines for moral values and behavior, disciplinary action when needed.3
Authoritative-communicative parents have a warm relationship with their children and are considerate and attentive to their needs. Parents are firm, patient, loving, and reasonable. They teach their children to reason and make decisions.
The rights of both parents and children are respected. John, the pastor of a multi-church district, explained clearly to his children why the members of all his churches want to see his family at their church. It’s important for the kids to sometimes go with him to each church. Most of the time they can stay at “their church” because the kids need to feel they belong and want to be with their friends.
The pastoral parents set clear standards and expect mature behavior. The limits are consistently enforced, so children know where the boundaries are. When punishment is needed, it is reasonable and well understood by their child. They don’t expect cookie-cutter kids, after somebody’s model of the “perfect pastor’s kid”. The children have choices, and independence and individuality are encouraged.
Authoritative-communicative parents are interested and involved in their children’s lives. They know their kids’ whereabouts, activities, and associates when away from home and they keep up with what is happening at school. Parents and children converse daily. The children know that their parents will listen, consider, and value their opinions.
The kids are securely bonded to their parents. Their moral development is strong and firm. They are confident, friendly, happy and cooperative, and enjoy personal self- respect and self-esteem. Usually they do well academically and are achievement-oriented and successful. Responsible and independent, they often show leadership skills.
Usually they choose to embrace the values and the religion of the pastoral family they grew up in. A strong, reasonable conscience enables them to generally have the strength to resist peer pressure and do what they know is right. Their God is the perfect blend of mercy and justice, a God who continually loves them and draws them closer to Himself.3
Authoritarian parents are adult-centered, power-assertive, demanding and controlling, as well as rejecting, unresponsive, and non- communicative. They tend to rely too much on force and physical punishment. Communication between parents and children is usually one way – parents to children in stern commands the children are expected to obey without questioning. Parents rarely explain the reasons for their commands or allow their children to make decisions for themselves. They don’t teach decision-making skills. There’s very little loving support of the children.
Unfortunately, the authoritarian style is quite common among conservative religious families who justify their own actions by hiding behind a misconception of God’s authority. It’s easy for the pastoral family to unintentionally fall into this way of parenting. After all, isn’t the minister the “voice of God” for the parishioners? It’s quicker to command than to explain, teach, and dialog with the kids. In a too busy life, it’s easy to become self-centered and take out one’s frustrations on the family.
The children of authoritarian parents usually react in one of two ways: They either rebel against the values of their parents and get out of the home as soon as possible, or they become weak-willed, indecisive individuals incapable of dealing with difficult moral decisions. They don’t have a strong conscience and are apt to embrace the negative values around them, or they may try to be “perfect,” hoping to earn God’s favor through their good works. Their God focuses on justice. Mercy and grace are not part of the picture.
Permissive-indulgent parents have a warm relationship with their children and are very interested in their activities, but they are overly responsive to their children’s needs. They are their children’s friends, not their parents, so the kids develop their own values without parental guidance. Because the kids usually can do what they want, when they want, they become impulsive and egocentric.
They’ve never learned self-control, so moral and conscience development are weak. They have difficulty facing problems and working through tough situations. They prefer to do their “own thing.” Their God is an accepting, loving God who looks the other way when humans misbehave. Sin isn’t a major problem in the universe.
Indifferent-neglectful parents make few attempts to guide their children and basically ignore them. They’re not committed to child-rearing and have little interest in their child’s needs. They may be physically abusive to their children and may not provide for their physical needs. Other parents may provide well for the physical needs of their children, but are too busy or too disinterested to be involved emotionally with their children or guide them. Busy families with two professional careers can easily fall into this style. Often their children are given excessive freedom and unsupervised time too soon (premature autonomy). Recent research shows that remaining connected with families, especially father-youth connectedness, through middle school reduces substance abuse, risky sexual behavior, delinquency, and other problem behaviors during adolescence.4
The children of indifferent-neglectful parents are more likely to accept the negative values of society because their moral and spiritual development is weak. They tend to be delinquent and often have deep emotional problems related to the neglect they have experienced. Their God is a distant ruler of the universe who doesn’t really care what happens on earth.
What is the secret to successful parenting? Demonstrate the maximum amount of love with the right balance between independence and control. Authoritative-communicative parenting is the model most resembling God’s parenting style and is the most successful, according to decades of research.
Does authoritative parenting yield similar results in different cultures? The positive effects of authoritative, directive parenting are strong for every cultural group studied. Responsiveness or emotional closeness have cultural specific components. Children understand how their culture expresses closeness between parent and child. “Regardless of how specific cultural groups define and express responsiveness, the fundamental premise of the authoritative model that children need to feel loved, respected, and firmly guided while they are maturing into adults seems to be true for all children.” 5
The parenting style used by their parents tends to influence people throughout life. Remembering their parents as authoritative is associated with a positive adjustment even with middle-aged and older adults.6
Parenting is learned behavior – we tend to parent like we were parented. The good news is that, with God’s help, parenting style can be changed. Many families I know are living proof that change is possible. The results of authoritative-communicative parenting are so superior to any other style that it is worth the effort. The future of your children and your grandchildren is at stake.
About the author
Donna Habenicht, EdD, is a professor of educational and counseling psychology at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, USA.
1 Eleanor E. Maccoby and John A. Martin (1983). “Socialization in the Context of the Family: Parent-Child Interaction”, Handbook of Child Psychology, Fourth Edition, Vol. 4 (E. Mavis Heatherington, Volume Editor; Paul H. Mussen, Editor). Wiley.
Ross D. Parke and Raymond Buriel (1998). “Socialization in the Family: Ethnic and Ecological Perspectives”, Handbook of Child Psychology, Fifth Edition, Vol 3 (Nancy Eisenberg, Volume Editor; William Damon, Editor-in-Chief). Wiley.
Ross D. Parke and Raymond Buriel (2006). “Socialization in the Family: Ethnic and ecological perspectives”, Handbook of Child Psychology, Sixth Edition, Vol 3 (Nancy Eisenberg, Volume Editor; William Damon and R. M. Lerner, Series Editors). Wiley.
Robert E. Larzelere, Amanda Sheffield Morris and Amanda W. Harrist, Editors (2013). Authoritative Parenting: Synthesizing Nurturance and Discipline for Optimal Child Development. American Psychological Association.
2 From antiquity God has described Himself as a parent, most often as a Father, but sometimes as a Mother. God’s “parenting style,” as described in Scripture, could be the model for the best of the parenting styles described in the contemporary
research. Long before the parenting research began, Ellen White described parenting styles, using different names, but identifying the same parenting behaviors and their results in children’s character and spirituality. For starters, see Genesis 18:19; Psalm 103; Proverbs 3:11-12, 13:1, 13:24, 15:1, 15:5,
19:18,22:6, 22:15, and 29:15,17; Isaiah 49:13,
54:13 and 66:12,13; Luke 15:11-32; Ephesians
6:1-4; Colossians 3:20- 21; Hebrews 12:5-11; The Adventist Home, chapter 52 & p. 439:4; Child Guidance, chapters 41-49; Counsels to Parents, Teachers and Students, p. 155:2; Education, pp. 283, 287-297; Ministry of Healing, pp. 384:2, 391-392; Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing, pp. 130-134; Desire of Ages, chapter 56; Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1, p. 390-405; vol. 3, pp. 131-135, 531-532; vol.
4, pp. 362-363.
3 Holly Catherton Allen, et al (2012). Sungwon Kim concludes, from her meta-analysis of research on parenting styles from the last several decades, that “the authoritative parenting style, one that combines a supportive, responsive approach with a directive, even demanding approach, is associated more frequently with healthy spiritual development than are other parenting styles. This style exhibits both loving support and strong boundaries and discipline for children.” How Parents Nurture the Spiritual Development of their Children: Insights from Recent Qualitative Research in Kevin E. Lawson (Ed.), Understanding Children’s Spirituality: Theology, Research, and Practice, p. 204. Cascade Books.
4 G. M. Fosco, E. A. Stormshack, T. J. Dishion and C.
E. Winter (2012). Family relationships and parental monitoring during middle school as predictors of early adolescent problem behavior. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 41, 202-213.
5 Robert E. Larzelere, Amanda Sheffield Morris and
Amanda W. Harrist, Editors (2013). Authoritative Parenting: Synthesizing Nurturance and Discipline for Optimal Child Development, 130. American Psychological Association. Chapter 5 reviews the research on parenting styles in different cultures.
6 Carol A Sigelman and Elizabeth A. Rider (2012). Life-Span Human Development, 7th edition, p. 491. Wadsworth.