A big challenge for me is when parenting values conflict. I want to be consistent and responsive, but sometimes they seem to guide me in opposite directions. I started thinking about this because of bedtime routines. On one side we have people who argue that consistency is key. You need to teach your children that when you put them in their cot, it is time for sleep, and no amount of crying will convince you otherwise. On the other side we know that responding to emotions is really important for developing children’s emotional regulation. How can you be consistent and responsive in this situation?
Thankfully, psychologists have studied this conflict for decades. A conclusion that has gained a lot of support is that you can be consistent and responsive; they are not opposite ends of the same scale.
By most scientific definitions “consistent parenting” is when parents check that their child has done as asked, and don’t let them get away with things they have been asked not to do (1). So consistent parenting is following up on demands. Consistency is similar to demandingness, which is when parents expect their children to become an integrated, and contributing member of the family, and hold children to those expectations (4). Consistent parenting is associated with less conduct problems than inconsistent parenting (2, 3).
I always thought of consistent as sticking to an approach to the letter. By this definition, consistency is not about sticking to an approach, it is about sticking to your own communication. Therefore, the first step in being consistent is clear communication at a level that your child is able to understand.
Responsiveness includes emotional warmth and supportive behaviours that fit with your child’s needs, thoughts, and plans. I think that a trap that both “cry it out”, and “no cry” proponents fall into is assuming that all cries are the same. That cries are all behaviourally inappropriate demands for attention (cry it out), or all cries of anguish (no cry). Being responsive is about responding to the underlying needs, and therefore learning to interpret the meaning of cries. For some guidance on how you can learn to interpret your baby’s cries, please sign up here.
Kind and Firm (Responsive and Consistent)
You can expect your child to become a contributing member of your family and society more generally (Consistency/Demandingness), whilst also being warm and considerate of his or her needs, wants, and plans (Responsiveness). This is called Authoritative parenting in psychology circles, and has been associated with a lot of positive outcomes including self-reliance, pro-social behaviour, self-control, cheerfulness, and social confidence (4).
I have always struggled with the term Authoritative, especially as low responsiveness and high demandingness is called Authoritarian. So for ease, I’m going to refer to responsive and demanding parenting as “kind and firm”, and unresponsive, demanding parenting as “harsh and firm”. Lets explore what kind and firm might look like. For a brief explanation of what each of the four possible combinations look like see the Figure.
The key to being kind and firm is to find ways of encouraging compliance with expectations that strengthen, not weaken, your relationship with your child. Kind and firm, and harsh and firm parents both expect compliance. The difference lies in when and how. Here are some principles and behaviours that have been found to be effective:
How to ask for compliance
Firm but considerate parental control
This is where parents control certain necessary events in the day, such as bedtime, while allowing children to contribute to the rule and decision-making process. How you attempt to control these processes is important.
1. Love is unconditional, not a bargaining chip.
Any control attempts that make love and kindness contingent on behaviour are not kind and are associated with negative outcomes such as anxiety, depression, and aggression (5). What does this mean? It means showing affection even when your child is not behaving as you would like. As long as you show affection when they are behaving well and badly, you are showing that you love them unconditionally, not rewarding any particular behaviour.
2. Give reasons and explanations.
3. Provide choice (7).
Too much choice can be overwhelming, even for adults, so consider the age and stage of your child. Choices could include which toy to bring, which book to read, the order of events, or for older children, even the timing of events.
4. Negotiate where appropriate.
Negotiation can be used to attempt to find a mutually agreeable compromise (8). Again this depends on the age and stage of your child, and should happen within reasonable limits that you set.
This is the core of consistency. When you say “no”, you mean no. “Last”, means last. When you negotiate an agreement, both parties are expected to follow through, no matter how much protest there is (8). To maintain this consistency, you need to think before you speak to make sure you mean what you say and are willing to follow through.
6. “Confrontative discipline”
Confrontative discipline involves confronting your child when they disobey, not being coerced by your child, enforcing after initial noncompliance, being confident and unambiguous in your requests, using negative sanctions, and discouraging defiance. Confrontative discipline is associated with successful long-term child outcomes (8). I find this interesting because it includes negative sanctions, i.e. punishment, which seems to be a dirty word now. Punishment has certainly been over-used, and over-done in the past, and should never be an emotional act. However, negative consequences occur all the time, and give valuable learning experiences. For example, if a child falls, and it hurts, they learn to be more careful. Wherever possible, I like to use natural consequences (For a great explanation of natural consequences see this positive-parents post). For example, if Alex doesn’t eat enough at breakfast, I don’t give him an early snack, I mention that he should have eaten more for breakfast. When it is time for a nappy change, Alex has 10 seconds to climb up himself, or I lift him up. This is my follow through, and Alex doesn’t like being helped up, so it acts as punishment also.
Be predictable and responsive to emotions
This involves how you respond to your child’s emotions, and your own emotions. I could do a whole post on emotions, so I will. I’ll summarise here. When your child doesn’t want to comply, he is likely to respond emotionally. Being kind means responding appropriately and predictably to your child’s emotions (I will do another post soon that goes into more detail, in the meantime you could check out Teaching Emotion Management posts one and two).
When to ask for compliance
Differences between harsh and kind parental control also lies in what and why parents try to control. There are some things parents should control, and some they should not, and these change with age and stage. Research suggests that:
Parents should not attempt to control the “personal domain”.
This is more relevant to older children. The private domain includes diary contents, preferences, choice of friends, etc. This does not mean parents cannot or should not show interest in these private aspects, but that children consider parental attempts to forcefully control them to be intrusive. As early as 4 to 7 years old, children begin to distinguish a personal domain (9).
Pick your battles. Don’t try to control for the sake of control.
Firm discipline is common to both “firm and kind” and “firm and harsh” approaches. One difference is that harsh parents tend to demand immediate compliance, use force or threats, make arbitrary demands, discipline in a domineering way, and are concerned with retaining hierarchical family relationships (10). So, reversing this, kind demands:
1. Are flexible on time
For example you can allow your child to finish what they are doing before they comply with your request; Give them a choice of doing x before or after y; or for older children, allow them to do a task whenever they like but by a certain deadline. It does not mean your request can be delayed indefinitely.
2. Are not arbitrary
I take this to mean that you request compliance for necessary things, such as safety rules, and nappy changes. I’m beginning to think it should also apply to contributing to the family things, like cleaning up. Thus far I haven’t been picking that battle, but I am going to start.
3. Show respect for the child
This involves incorporating a lot of the kind approaches listed above.
Example 1: Firm but kind bedtime for toddlers
Based on these guidelines, here is what I think a firm but kind bedtime for toddlers would look like: Parents make and enforce important decisions such as when it is time for bed, and where the child will sleep.
Children are given some choices, such as the story (remembering that decisions can be too difficult and may need to be minimised when overtired).
Children may also be given more control over the bedtime routine by creating a routine chart. Children can then refer to the chart to tell you what the next step in the routine is.
Parents meet resistance with understanding but firm words. For example “I know you want to keep playing, but that was the last one, now it is time for bed. You can play again tomorrow morning.”
Example 2: Firm but kind bedtime for babies
Let’s return to what got me thinking about this; the conflict between consistency and responsiveness for baby bedtime. Applying the kind but firm approach to babies is an extrapolation from the research. Most research on consistency examines older age ranges. However, in principle, when you say it is time for sleep, you want to stick to that expectation. At the same time you want to be responsive to your baby’s emotional and physical needs.
I recently tried to carry out the Dream Baby Guide’s settling routine with Liz. The theory is that I was teaching her through modelling and action that if she called, I would come and comfort her, but I would not pick her up. With Alex, it just worked overnight, he didn’t cry much and certainly didn’t get distressed.
Liz got distressed, and I couldn’t follow through, I felt that being responsive was more important, so I took a more gradual approach. I’ll talk through my logic, given what I have read.
- For a 6 month old, responsiveness trumps consistency. Responsiveness aids development in babies (11), whereas consistent parenting seems mostly to be studied in toddlers and older.
- The right message needs to be communicated before enforcing compliance. Liz didn’t necessarily understand my request. She was still young, 6 months at the time.
- It needs to be a developmentally appropriate request. I wasn’t sure Liz was able to self settle at night. She self settled during the day, but rarely at night. I figured she was just too tired by night time.
- I was responding to the emotion, not the cry. A 6 month old cannot fake a distressed cry. The consistent message I was trying to communicate to Liz was “I expect you to fall asleep by yourself (that is what I model with Teddy, and what I encourage you to try first). If you struggle, I will comfort you in your cot and let you keep trying. If you get distressed I will help you.” This way I provide predictable responses to her emotional states, which are probably more central to her experience than time or counts or other tools that adults use to regulate their responses.
- Context. I also didn’t want to disturb Alex who now shares a room with Liz.
Have you struggled with value conflicts? Please start (or continue) a discussion in the comments.
Other great links
For more information on the individual parenting styles, and a link to a quiz to discover your current parenting style visit “What’s your parenting style?” by Dr Graeme Stuart from Sustaining Community.
For why parenting styles and their outcomes are more complex than the typologies would suggest see “Parenting Styles – Another Look” also by Dr Graeme Stuart
1. Côté S, Vaillancourt T, LeBlanc J, Nagin D, Tremblay R. The Development of Physical Aggression from Toddlerhood to Pre-Adolescence: A Nation Wide Longitudinal Study of Canadian Children. J Abnorm Child Psychol. 2006;34(1):68-82.
2. Brannigan A, Gemmell W, Pevalin DJ, Wade TJ. Self-control and social control in childhood misconduct and aggression: The role of family structure, hyperactivity, and hostile parenting. Canadian Journal of Criminology. 2002;44(2):119-42.
4. Baumrind D. Authoritative parenting revisited: History and current status. In: Larzelere RE, Morris AS, Harrist AW, editors. Authoritative parenting: Synthesizing nurturance and discipline for optimal child development. Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association; 2013. p. 11-34.
5. Morris AS, Cui L, Steinberg L. Parenting research and themes: What we have learned and where to go next. In: Larzelere RE, Morris AS, Harrist AW, editors. Authoritative parenting: Synthesizing nurturance and discipline for optimal child development. Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association; 2013. p. 35-58.
6. Reeve J, Jang H, Hardre P, Omura M. Providing a rationale in an autonomy-supportive way as a strategy to motivate others during an uninteresting activity. Motivation and emotion. 2002;26(3):183-207.
8. Larzelere RE, Cox Jr. RB, Mandara J. Responding to misbehavior in young children: How authoritative parents enhance reasoning with firm control. In: Larzelere RE, Morris AS, Harrist AW, editors. Authoritative parenting: Synthesizing nurturance and discipline for optimal child development. Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association; 2013. p. 89-111.
10. Barber BK, Xia M. The centrality of control to parenting and its effects. In: Larzelere RE, Morris AS, Harrist AW, editors. Authoritative parenting: Synthesizing nurturance and discipline for optimal child development. Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association; 2013. p. 61-87.