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What’s Your Parenting Style?

August 14th, 2010

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My son loves participating in a community theatre program in Atlanta. He is a true thespian. He loves the drama of a Broadway show. He loves the drama of television or movies. He loves the drama of musical theatre. Unfortunately, he’s seen a little too much drama from the adults in his life. If a parent in this community theatre program feels their child wasn’t’ cast appropriately, or if someone doesn’t affirm their child’s talent when her self-esteem is low, or if they don’t spotlight their son’s abilities when the talent scouts are present—these parents can turn into guerillas. There’s nothing more intimidating than a mom or dad who’s determined to fight for their kid’s rights. I cannot tell you how many times parents have embarrassed me by their immature behavior. I find myself thinking: “Please… let’s keep the drama on the stage.”

It’s a sign of the times. I believe we not only have a new generation of kids today, we have a new generation of parents. I am one of them. This new generation of parents started with the Tylenol scare in 1982. During the rest of that decade, parents prioritized the safety and future of our children. That’s the good news. The bad news is—we didn’t know where to draw the line. We’ve wrapped them in cotton. We love them. We fund them. We defend them. Often, they are our trophies. We want to protect them and perfect them. Most parents I meet want to be a good parent. At times, however, we can’t draw the line between mothering and smothering; fathering and bothering. It’s a sad commentary on the most educated generation of parents in U.S. history.

But the real issue is not the education of us parents. Most of us have sound minds. Our problems are issues of the heart. While I am aware there are millions of healthy families across the U.S., most of us slip into habits that aren’t so healthy. I’ve spotted a handful of damaging parenting styles that have plagued our culture over the last decade. Let’s examine these styles and explore what we can do to correct them.

The Helicopter Parent

These parents hover over their kids, working to make sure they get every imaginable advantage. This parent style has been written up most widely in journals. They are the parents who want to ensure that doors open for their children and no negative incident affects their self-esteem or diminishes their chances at being accepted at an Ivy League school. Helicopter parents are committed to helping their children make the grade, make the team and make the money. When we become helicopters, we create unfair environments and unrealistic scenarios that students must recover from when they enter the real world as adults.

The problem: They don’t allow their kids the privilege of learning to fail and persevere.

The Issue: It is very possible parents can be “helicopters” because they possess a controlling spirit. Adults who struggle with being “out of control” or who find it difficult to trust others to deal with items they hold precious tend to be “hovering” and micromanaging in style. They mean well—but they feel it is up to them to make sure life turns out well for the kids. These adults, quite frankly, must learn to trust the process. And to trust God. I must face this issue from time to time myself. I am not in control and one day my children will enter an adult world. I must prepare them for it. Control is a myth—and the sooner we acknowledge that fact the better we’ll act as parents.

The Karaoke Parent

Like the karaoke bar, where you can grab a microphone and sing like Barry Manilow did in the 1970s, these parents want to look and sound like their kids. They want to dress like their child, talk like their child, even be cool like their child. They hunger to be a “buddy” to their kids and emulate this younger generation. They somehow hope to stay “cool” and “hip” so they can relate to their children all through their young adult years. They don’t like the thought of being out of style—and work to maintain an image. Sadly, these karaoke parents don’t offer their kids the boundaries and authority they desperately need. Last month, I read about a mother who allowed her daughter to have a house full of friends over—all minors—then allowed them to drink alcohol, and even bought it for the kids. Several got completely inebriated; damaged the house and neighborhood; the police were called and a mess had to be cleaned up. The reason? Mom reported she wanted her daughter to feel like she trusted her. Mom didn’t want to be disliked by her daughter and was willing to take big risks to accomplish that goal. The children of these adults often grow up needing a therapist at 28, angry at their impotent parent.

The problem: They don’t provide their kids the clear parameters that build security and esteem.

The issue: Frequently, parents and teachers become karaoke in their style because of their own emotional insecurities. Adults may have an extremely high I.Q., but if their E.Q. (Emotional Quotient) is low, smart people begin to do dumb things. These adults will rationalize why they do what they do, but in the end, the only remedy is for them to embrace their own age and stage, and relate to the students in an appropriate manner. When I began to teach students in 1979, I related to them like an older brother. In the 1980s, I moved to the role of an uncle. Some years later, I remember moving to the role of a dad. I could be a father to the students I teach today. I must embrace who I am and give them what they need, not necessary what they want.

The Dry Cleaner Parent

We take our wrinkled or soiled clothes to the dry cleaners to have them cleaned and pressed by professionals. It’s so handy to drop them off and have them handed back to us looking like new. These “dry cleaner” parents don’t feel equipped to raise their kids so they drop them off for experts to fix them. Although the home environment has spoiled or damaged their child’s character, they hope a school, or counselor or church youth group can fix them. Sadly, these parents forget that none of us are “pros” at raising kids. It is a learning experience for all of us, but we must recognize it is our most important task. Yesterday, I met a preschool teacher who reported the mothers of her young students are all stay-at-home moms, but drop their kids off (with a tennis racket in their hand) because they aren’t ready for the responsibility of caring for their child. They leave them at the school for eight hours each day.

The problem: Dry Cleaner parents don’t furnish their kids the mentoring and authentic face to face time they require.

The issue: For some of these teachers or parents—connecting with kids is just not their specialty. They may be an inadequacy and identity issue. They don’t feel adequate for the task, or they just don’t believe it is part of their identity. Sadly, this parent or teacher has kids staring them in the face. It’s time to be what they need. Sadly, it is too much work for them to connect with the student. Consequently, they hide behind the fact that they are busy with so many other priorities—even work—which enables them to pay for their child’s interests. These teachers or parents need to run toward the very challenge in which they feel they’re weak.  Relationships make it all happen. Parents must build bridges of relationship that can bear the weight of truth.

The Volcano Parent

These parents can transform into a rage, like the Incredible Hulk if they are backed into a corner. They erupt like a volcano. Why? Life has not turned out as they planned. They’ll write papers for their children, do homework, apply for jobs or colleges just like the helicopter parent—but for a different reason. They do the work of their kids attempting to live out their unlived life through their child. These parents can be seen on little league fields, in theatre programs or in a principal’s office. When their child does poorly—they erupt. Why? It’s a bad reflection on them. They want so much for their child to make it, because that child is their last hope of leaving some sort of name or legacy themselves. They have unrealized dreams or baggage inside that they never dealt with in a healthy way. Sadly, they don’t provide the model or the healthy environment young people long for.

The problem: These parents have unrealized dreams from their past—at times an unhealthy past. 

The issue: The child represents the best way for the adult parent or teacher to accomplish the dream they gave up on years earlier, even if it is vicariously done. Their behavior is often the result of baggage from their past. The best step this adult can take is self-care. They must address their own emotional health; deal with their own issues, so they don’t’ further damage a child in their wake. Children have a much better chance of growing up if their parents have done so first. The best way we can help kids become healthy leaders is to model it for them.

No doubt there are millions of healthy parents around the U.S. Yet, each of us lean toward one of these styles above to some degree. I believe healthy leadership from healthy parents produces healthy students who become healthy leaders themselves. I am haunted by the truth that James Baldwin once penned: “Children have never been good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”

I’m voting that we parents become the healthy mentors our kids need and live lives worth imitating. Let’s stop spending time preparing the path for the child and start preparing the child for the path.

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