'Old-fashioned parenting': What does that really mean and why is the term now increasingly being used as an insult?

This week a dear friend of mine attended one of my parent sessions. Jo has heard me speak many times over the past 18 years but her reaction to this talk was very different than it had been in the past. She and her husband are currently raising their 15-year-old grandson (having had him since he was a baby) and although they've been through the adolescent years before with their children (many years ago), they're now going through it all again – this time feeling far more pressure than before. When I finished my presentation she turned to others in the audience, took a great big sigh and said "I'm so pleased I came tonight, I am constantly being told that I am being 'old-fashioned' when it comes to my parenting – I now feel like I actually may be doing the right thing!"

We had a bit of a chat about what she thought 'old-fashioned parenting' actually meant and in what context the term was being used. Jo's response reflected what I am hearing across the country from parents who attend my talks. Not surprisingly, teens are likely to use the phrase, particularly when their parents are restricting them in some way (I'm sure we can all remember a time that we threw a line at our parents like "You don't know what it’s like nowadays … "). But when the term is used by adults to criticise or judge someone else's parenting choices, often around alcohol and partying, that's when I find it quite offensive. As some Mums and Dads have said to me recently, try to enforce some boundaries or rules around parties and alcohol and, heaven forbid, roll out some consequences if those rules aren't actually followed and you can find yourself being criticised by all and sundry. "Loosen up a little", "Don’t be an old fuddy-duddy", "We live in a different time now" or even "Do you really want to be the same as your parents?" are just some of the statements people have shared with me that have been thrown at them when they have tried to put their preferred parenting strategies into place …

It is important to make it clear at this point that there is a big difference between the 'family' and 'parenting'. Our understanding of what makes up a family today is very different to what it was even 20 years ago. Where once the 'average family' was portrayed as Mum, Dad, two kids (usually white and middle class) and a dog, all wrapped up nicely in a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence, it is now accepted (by most but certainly not all) that families can come in many forms. But regardless of whether a child is brought up in what was regarded as the 'traditional family', or a blended family with step-parents and siblings, a single Mum, a single Dad, two Mums or two Dads, or a mixture of all of the above, what we know about parenting and what is most likely to work remains the same ...

Earlier this year I received an email from Rochelle, a mother who had attended one of my Parent Information Evenings that touches on a similar issue (she even used the term ‘old-fashioned’ at one point), this time regarding how she saw her own parenting style. Here is an edited version of her message:

"My parents (and most particularly my father) were very old-fashioned when it came to parenting and there was little love in our home. The rules we lived under were extremely restrictive and my sisters and I weren't allowed to do anything. I would never have been able to go to parties when I was in my teens and I dread to think what would have happened if they had ever caught me drinking. From a positive perspective, I didn't start drinking alcohol until my 19th birthday, unfortunately when I started, I didn't stop and ended up having a significant alcohol problem all the way through my 20s, culminating in a stint in rehab in my early 30s. I always promised myself that I would be different than my parents – I wouldn't wish that 'type of parenting on anyone.  But after coming to your talk and hearing that rules and boundaries being so important I am totally confused ... If I do have rules, how do I make sure that my children don't grow up with the same terrible attitude towards drinking that I developed …"

I think Rochelle's story highlights the conflict that many people face around parenting, particularly if they have strong and painful memories of their own adolescence. In a recent blog I talked about how we have recently seen a move away from more 'adult-centred' parenting, that was more the norm in previous generations, to a style that is more 'child-centred'. So does old-fashioned parenting have to mean that it was 'adult-centred'? I don't think it does and after talking to many parents right across the country, it would appear that so many of our parents actually 'got it right'!

Four types of parenting styles have been identified, each defined along two axes – strictness ('parental control') and warmth ('parental support'):
  • authoritarian (strictness but not warmth)
  • authoritative (strictness and warmth)
  • indulgent (warmth but not strictness)
  • neglectful (neither warmth nor strictness)
Parental control reflects how children's behaviours are managed, e.g., how family rules are developed and enforced, parental knowledge and monitoring of their child's activities, etc. Parental support refers to parental affectionate qualities and is associated with characteristics like warmth, acceptance, and involvement. I've talked a lot recently about indulgent parents and those that come under the neglectful banner are in essence almost abusive, so let's put those to one side for the purposes of this piece. What I'd like to do is take a bit of time to tease out the first two and try to establish the key difference between them because that's where I think some parents of today are getting confused.

Authoritarian parenting is often referred to as 'top-down' parenting. These parents make rules and expect that their children will follow them without exception. Children are not usually given the reasons for the rules and there is little room for any negotiation. Authoritarian parents are far more likely to use punishments instead of consequences. To clarify, consequences are the result or direct effect of an action. The goal for giving consequences is to teach a lesson that leads to positive choices. On the other hand, punishments are about causing pain and suffering and usually aren't logical or natural (i.e., they don't 'fit the crime').
Authoritative parents also have rules that children are expected to follow, and the consequences of breaking those rules are made clear, however, all rules and consequences are bound in unconditional love. Rules and boundaries are set because you love them and want to protect them. This is sometimes referred to as 'tough love' parenting. These parents are more likely to tell children the reasons for the rules and involve them in the rule-making process to some extent. Changes to the rules are made over time, usually as a reward for good behaviour and an acknowledgement that they are growing up and becoming more self-sufficient.  Authoritative parents tend to use consequences instead of punishments and use positive consequences to reinforce good behaviours.

What I say in my talks (and what Rochelle would have heard) is that research has shown that the most protective parenting style, particularly in terms of future drinking behaviour, is authoritative parenting, i.e., rules and consequences bound in unconditional love. Unfortunately, as soon as I mention rules and boundaries I think many people (including Rochelle) confuse this style with the more 'top-down' approach, i.e., authoritarian parenting. The most important part of her email is when she says "there was little love in our home". One of the most important keys to good parenting is unconditional love. Put the rules in place, make sure there are fair and age-appropriate consequences but make sure this is all wrapped up in a great big package of love ... Yes, there were lots of 'restrictive' rules in Rochelle's home as she was growing up and she rebelled as soon as she was able to and developed a range of problems as a result. But was it the rules that caused the issues or was it how they were implemented? When there is no warmth or love in a home and no understanding of why rules exist (i.e., because you love them and you want them to be safe), it is no real surprise that problems arise in the future.

No matter how you handle the issue of alcohol and partying, your teen will continue to do things to test and push you to your very limits (that's their job!) and you will need to hold fast and try to maintain your boundaries and adjust them when needed (that's your job!). But remember when they do something terrible and let you down (and almost everyone of them will at some time or another) and you're tempted to explode and say something you may later regret, always remember that it's their behaviour at that time that you don't like but you will always love them - no matter what they do!

Certainly, the adult-centred parenting of the past is not effective, particularly in regards to promoting healthy attitudes around alcohol and partying, with many young people rebelling against it at the time or developing problems in the future as a result of their experience as a teen, as Rochelle's story clearly illustrates. As much as some people would love to categorise anyone who has rules and boundaries in this area and enforces them as 'old-fashioned', often using the term in a derogatory way, I believe there is absolutely nothing wrong with this style of parenting if it is (or was) based on love. For many of us who were very clearly told in our teens that alcohol was a 'no-go', that we would be dropped off and picked up from the parties we went to on a Saturday night and that if we broke the rules there would be consequences, we were also told (or shown) that this was all being done because our parents loved us ... If that's old-fashioned parenting, bring it on! We didn't necessarily like the rules and many of us regularly broke them but deep down we knew they were there to keep us safe and if we didn't know it then, we certainly gained a appreciation of it later in life.

When I told Jo that I was going to use her comment as a subject for a blog entry, she told me about a recent discussion she had had with her daughter where she had voiced her concerns about once again taking on the parenting role of a teen so much later in life. In response her daughter had told her mother that she wanted her "to raise him (her son, Jo's grandson) just like you raised us" ... as Jo said, "I couldn't have got it all so terribly wrong, I must have done something right!" I told Jo to wear the term 'old-fashioned parent' as a badge of honour - she and her husband obviously love their grandson very much. They may not get a lot of appreciation for their efforts now but the future will see them hopefully reap the rewards!

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