The stairwell to our basement is lined with pictures of our children, from infancy to present day. When I look at them, slowly, in order, I can observe the gradual changes in my kids over the years as they transform from infants to adults. The change is dramatic, but it is incremental.
Change can be like that, very slow over long periods of time. But there are times when we may desire a more radical change. Parenting is one of those areas where we do not have the luxury of many years to make big changes.
It’s not easy, but through prayer, self-reflection and commitment to goals, it can be done. It starts with knowing where you have been, where you are, and where you are going. But in order to chart your path to radical change, you will need a roadmap.
Which Parenting Style Are You?
In the 1960’s, developmental psychologist, Diana Baumrind, conducted research on parenting styles through observation of middle-class preschool children and their parents. She concluded that there are three parenting styles: authoritarian, permissive and authoritative. Although this model has been criticized for cultural bias and a homogenous population sample, it can be helpful to think of parenting in terms of style as a starting point for change.
The first parenting style Baumrind identified is the authoritarian style. These parents make high demands on their children and have limited responsiveness. This means that they ask a lot of their children but give little emotional or relational support in return. This is the children-should-be-heard-not-seen mentality. These parents are often harsh, punitive and controlling. Children who are parented this way often fear, rather than respect their parents.
The second style, permissive parenting, places few, if any demands, on their children and quickly respond to every need or want. These parents erect very few boundaries for their children and are extremely child-centric. In our western culture, this style is often preferred to the authoritarian style described above. But it’s not just about indulgence; permissive parents are often motivated by a fear of not being loved by their children and go to great lengths to secure those feelings of love.
The third parenting style that Baumrind identified is the authoritative style. It is a blend of the best aspects of the previous two. These parents have high expectations of their children in terms of behavior, accountability and responsibility, but they are also highly responsive to the needs of their children, encouraging communication and connection.
These families have healthy boundaries among members, but all have the opportunity to be heard. Baurmind identified this style as the “ideal.”
We can use these 3 types to help create a framework for radical change in how we parent, in these following 3 steps.
1. Know Where You Have Been
I remember when we drove home from the hospital with our firstborn. I sat in the back seat, hovered over his baby carrier and cringed at every bump in the road. I couldn’t believe that the nurses let us leave with him. We had no idea what we were doing.
We felt empty-handed leaving that hospital, but we were not. We both had our own playbook for parenting. You have one too; it was written on your heart during your childhood.
For better or for worse, how you were parented affects how you will parent. If you want to make radical changes in your parenting, it is going to take some self-exploration into your own childhood. Depending on your experiences, this may best be done in the context of a counseling relationship. Memories of childhood trauma can be very overwhelming, especially if you have spent a lot of energy to keep them locked away.
Start with prayer. Ask God to show you any important memories of your childhood that have impacted the type of parent you have become. Use a journal to document your conversations with God and what he shows you. Even if your childhood was difficult, it’s important to focus on what went right too. You will find the goodness of God at work in your past if you look.
Think about the three types of parenting styles outlined above. How would you categorize your parents? Keep in mind that these are broad categories and no one will fit neatly into any one box. Just think in terms of themes and generalities. Were your parents responsive to your needs and thoughts? Did they demand complete obedience without question? Or did they bend over backwards to make sure you were happy?
As you reflect back, you may not like everything that you find. But remember, you are not bound to your past. It is important to face it and let God use it to grow and shape you, but you are not stuck in it. In Philippians 3:13, Paul is focused on his future in Christ and said that he is “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead.” We can do the same.
2. Know Where You Are
Now it is time to take a look inside. Using that three-style model, where do you fall? Are you indulgent, controlling or connected? Have you reacted to your own childhood and in doing so, gone too far? It’s not uncommon for parents to become permissive in response to an authoritarian upbringing. In an attempt to give your children what you missed (warmth, attachment, connection), you may withhold what they actually need (boundaries, structure and security).
This self-reflection will take some time. Ask God to show you where you are reacting to your past experiences rather than learning from them. Talk with your spouse or a trusted friend and ask what they see in you and your parenting. Vulnerability is an essential ingredient to change but it isn’t always easy.
Be kind to yourself during this process. You may start to see things about how you have parented that you regret. But remember, as a believer, you are a new creation in Christ, “the old is gone and the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). The information you gather during this stage of the process is not intended to tear you down, but to motivate you toward change.
Scripture shows us that no matter who we are or what we have done, radical change is possible. This is no more evident than in Acts chapter 9. Paul, the most aggressive persecutor of Christians at that time, had an encounter with Jesus that changed everything. Verse 20 tells us that as soon as Paul recovered from his encounter with Jesus, he went immediately into the synagogue and preached that Jesus was the Son of God.
He was a persecutor turned proponent. Now that’s a radical change. God can do the same in you.
3. Know Where You Are Going
The last step in radically changing your parenting is one filled with hope and expectation. It is during this step that you get to dream, envision and imagine. You get to decide where you are going. Your past does not.
Some might suggest that you find someone in your church or community that you admire as a parent and model your parenting after him or her. While there is nothing wrong with having a mentor or someone to look up to, when it comes to parenting style, you will need to find what is uniquely yours. If you want to make radical changes in your parenting, you will need to be true to who you are and the children God has given you.
Start by setting goals. At this point, you have determined your current parenting style. Now it is time to determine where you want to end up. For example, if you struggle to set boundaries for your children or follow through on consequences, you can employ self-talk to counter any scripts from your childhood that may interfere with your goals of consistency.
You can practice saying, “Follow-through shows that I love them.” Or you can recite a passage of Scripture such as Hebrews 12:11 which says, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”
Create positive goals for yourself, not negative ones. For example, a positive goal would be to “actively listen when my children speak to me” rather than, “stop yelling.” Write your parenting goals on a notecard and tape them to your bathroom mirror, one at a time. Every morning, pray about that specific goal and ask God to help you be sensitive to His leading in that area in the coming day.
At the end of the day, review your progress. Celebrate victories and use setbacks to reflect, adjust and learn. Keep moving toward the goals you have set for yourself.
This process will take work and it will not happen overnight. But it will produce radical change. It is important to not go it alone. Even if you are a single parent, find someone in your life to support you, encourage you and hold you accountable to the goals you have set.
God is in the business of transformation, and He will be right beside you on this journey.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Prostock-Studio
Laura Kuehn is a licensed clinical social worker with a specialization in children and families. She is the founder of www.cornerstonesforparents.com, an online resource for Christian parents. Cornerstones offers parents faith-based tips on how to correct, disciple, and connect with their children. She lives in New England with her husband and two teenage children.