Perhaps you are familiar with the old saw: “Parents grow up to be useless”. This references the notion that good parents do a good enough job parenting that their children no longer need them after they grow up. I think there is a good deal of truth here. Proverbs says “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it”.
In order to “grow up useless” parents can neither be too permissive/laissez faire nor too authoritarian/dictatorial. It’s generally easier to be a permissive parent, in that children who can basically do what they want are not apt to be rebellious. They have little to rebel against. It can also be pretty easy to be an authoritarian parent, because children become afraid to rebel. Parents use their authority to make rules and enforce punishments. In both circumstances, however, children are not learning how to negotiate the world themselves and to make good decisions. Children with permissive parents learn to be self-indulgent. Children with authoritarian parents learn to do the right thing – when someone is looking.
There is a third option. An alternative parenting style, sometimes called authoritative, sometimes called responsive, sometimes called attachment, can avoid the pitfalls of being either too rigid or too lax. Here parents do set rules, but also ensure that their enforcement is elastic. Children know they can push against boundaries and that sometimes the boundaries are pushed out. When parents set rules, they do so not so much with their convenience in mind, but with a child’s needs and developmental stages in mind.
In addition, and of critical importance, parents take the time to explain the rationale behind their rules, boundaries, or limits. Even with a very small child, I can say “No. But go ahead”(permissive), or “No. Try it and you’ll be punished”(authoritarian), or “No. And this is why I’m saying no”(responsive). Without a doubt the third option is more time-consuming. And parents are frequently in a time crunch. But I can guarantee that this way is much more likely to raise responsible and respectful and empathic adults.
For a child with permissive parents, there is little risk for misbehavior. For a child with authoritarian parents, there is a great deal of risk with misbehavior, but generally not much reward for good behavior. For a child with responsive parents, risk and reward are not paramount. Behavior becomes about understanding and about making good choices for the right reasons. The parents put themselves on the same side as the child. And this is the only way that a child actually internalizes good behavior, rather than using it as a way to avoid punishment. When I internalize something, it becomes part of who I am.
If a child grows up knowing how to be considerate of herself and others, if the child sees the sense in ethical choices, if a child can look back and say this is why I chose not to have sex or drink when I was a kid, if a young adult can say this is why I stand up to bullies, don’t cheat others, value the truth, and want to be with a partner who is these things also – then their parents can recognize a job well done.
And while the playing field is never completely level between parents and adult children, they can now relate in an adult-to-adult fashion. All those times a parent had to drop everything to explain a limit to a child have now come to fruition.