Finding Your Right Parenting Way: Five Questions to Ask

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Tales from the Parenting Trenches

“Given how varied parents, children and contexts are, how could there be one best way to parent?”

By Sabrina Connell | Twitter: @sabrinaconnell

I had a friend who could not have been more my opposite. I’m fairly certain she kept me around because she didn’t have enough people in her life who would openly disagree with her. In addition to opposing personalities, political and religious views, we had incredibly different parenting styles. Yet, despite our differences in parenting, all of our children, who shared classes together, thrived. While my husband and I often allowed our children to sleep with us, frequently played with them and gave them room to negotiate with us, she and her husband drew more strict boundaries and encouraged more independence in the form of their children packing their own lunches (including their two-year-old), comforting themselves at night when they were scared and playing without adults involved.

She freely expressed her opinion that she was parenting correctly and I was operating in error. Was one of us wrong in our parenting? More importantly … was one of us more right?

Numerous books promote varying parenting styles. Recent popular books like Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and Bringing Up Bebe may even suggest that parenting styles in other cultures might be superior to ours. Given so many options and arguments, what should we do as parents?

Parenting style depends on so many various factors that I’m convinced there really isn’t a one-size-fits-all type of mothering.

  • What outcomes are you hoping for?

Parents make choices in the service of values they hope will shape their children. In raising her children, my friend was seeking to help them develop self-reliance and independence. We, on the other hand, were aiming to raise our children in a manner promoting community and interdependence. Every parenting choice we make is in the service of some type of goal or desired outcome that is shaped by our own values.

  • In what type of context are you raising your children?

Children being raised in urban neighborhoods face different challenges and expectations than children raised in suburban or rural neighborhoods. As such, different parenting strategies may be required. Globally, children around the world develop in vastly different contexts with dramatically different parenting practices, and yet still they manage well. For example, among the Efe people of Congo, West Africa, Efe babies learn how to use machetes very early on, because knowing how to do so is helpful in securing survival in the Ituri Forest!


(Photograph by David Wilkie, from The Cultural Nature of Human Development, page 6, by Barbara Rogoff)

  • What type of personality do you have?

Are you more sensitive and reactive? Or are you stoic and able to conceal your emotions? Admittedly, I’m a bit of a push-over with my children and being strict or firm feels unnatural to me. I’m pretty sure my children even see my attempts at being strict as contrived and forced.  Similarly, some parents are naturally more structured and organized, while others are more spontaneous and … unorganized (myself included).

  • What type of resources and social support are available to you?

A single mother who works numerous jobs to support her children may have a different level of energy and availability for her children than a mother who works part-time and enjoys the support of her relatives. Similarly, some parents raise children in communities where libraries, playgrounds, schools, and parks abound, while others raise children in communities that lack such resources.

  • What type of child do you have?

Many of us who have more than one child can attest that even within our own family systems, we often adjust our parenting styles between our own children. My son and my daughter require different routines, different encouragement and different discipline.  If I were to tell my children that touching a particular object could be dangerous, my daughter would carefully back away while my son would take such information as an invitation to discover the potential danger himself.

Given how varied parents, children, and contexts are, how could there be one best way to parent? There are few absolutes in childrearing beyond wanting the best for our children and seeking to help them thrive using the resources, knowledge and abilities available to us. In addition to monitoring our judgment of others’ parenting practices, we may also want to monitor our judgment of ourselves. Rather than questioning whether or not we’re parenting our children right, perhaps we can take comfort in the fact that we’re asking that question at all as it reflects our motivation to raise our children well. Kudos to all you momma’s out there making the most of what you’ve got this Mother’s Day weekend!

For a fascinating peek at how babies are raised in different contexts, watch the documentary Babies.
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About Sabrina:

An artist-turned-academic, Sabrina spends her days navigating between a wide variety of roles including that of mother, wife, graduate student, researcher and daydreamer. She is currently a doctoral student in the Communication Studies program at Northwestern University where she researches the various ways in which children and parents engage media and technology and the potential effects these interactions might have on the development of children. Prior to her time at Northwestern, Sabrina earned a Master’s degree in child development from Tufts University, as well as a Master of Arts in puppetry from the University of Connecticut. She has a passion for all things involving play, whimsy and the art of nurturing.

Image credit: Boy in field, by Thomas Fleenor

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