Every parent has that moment of reckoning, the point when a karate lesson goes south or a temper tantrum at the toy store rises to a fever pitch. Your reaction may not be the most rational at the moment, or one you’re particularly proud of, inevitably leading you to wonder what kind of parent you are.That question was recently at the heart of a provocative piece in the The Atlantic by therapist Lori Gottlieb that suggests parents who agonize over keeping their kids happy might be steering them into an adulthood of disappointment and even depression.
She compares the coddling by many of today’s moms and dads with the severe parenting of Amy Chua, whose memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (excerpted here in the Wall Street Journal) set off a firestorm.
Gottlieb acknowledges the argument that a child who is given limitless choices is a child who feels entitled. She writes:
As a parent, I’m all too familiar with this. I never said to my son, “Here’s your grilled-cheese sandwich.” I’d say, “Do you want the grilled cheese or the fish sticks?” On a Saturday, I’d say, “Do you want to go to the park or the beach?” Sometimes, if my preschooler was having a meltdown over the fact that we had to go to the grocery store, instead of swooping him up and wrestling him into the car, I’d give him a choice: “Do you want to go to Trader Joe’s or Ralphs?” (Once we got to the market, it was “Do you want the vanilla yogurt or the peach?”) But after I’d set up this paradigm, we couldn’t do anything unless he had a choice.
RECIPE FOR HAPPINESS?
All of this leads me to wonder about the experiences of those who may have grown up somewhere between the “Tiger Mom” and the padded parent. If your parents did not demand perfection, were you raised by a mother and father who praised your every move? Or were your parents perhaps more concerned with finding a school that wasn’t crumbling and overcrowded? Were you offered a choice of snacks and grocery store destinations? Or simply given one option to eat at meals because that’s all there was in the house for that week?
My sense is that for Latinos, and many other people for that matter, the recipe for raising a happy child in America is vastly more complicated than either of these paradigms suggest. I asked a couple of experts to weigh in on the subject.
“Even with this term ‘Latino,’ there is so much heterogeneity in terms of parenting styles that it is difficult to capture one,’’ said Dr. Milton Fuentes, a psychologist at Montclair University. Several factors come into play, Fuentes points out, including acculturation, education, socioeconomic status, and even temperament.
“If you have an easygoing style and you can be tolerant and open to variability in your life, you may be more authoritative and possibly permissive than if your character is more rigid,” he said. “There are so many factors … My experience corroborates that this is a complicated and complex phenomenon.”
Fuentes, who supervises a team of graduate students that works with parents in the South Bronx, says that despite these differences, there are some common building blocks.
“I have yet to come across a parent who says ‘I’d like to screw up my kid as much as possible,’ ” Fuentes said. “They want their kids to excel. They want their kids to do better than they did. That value exists across cultures.” Fuentes uses those values to discourage parents from practices that can be harmful to their kids, like corporal punishment.
“By creating dissonance, by examining people’s goals and values and at times highlighting how these goals and values are in contrast to certain practices, you get people to try something new.”
Fuentes, who is Puerto Rican and grew up in New Jersey, recognizes the complexity of parenting styles in his own upbringing.
“In my case, I grew up in a very authoritarian household, but one that valued education,’’ Fuentes said. “They brought warm, caring, responsive adults into my life. I attribute all those factors to the way I turned out.”
Fuentes shared a study in the journal Family Process that showed how traditional labels do not always neatly fit Latino parents.
Researchers Melanie Domenech-Rodríguez, Melissa R. Donovick and Susan L. Croweley studied 50 first-generation Latino parents who were mostly of Mexican decent and their kids (ages 4 to 9). They observed their interactions using traditional parenting labels (authoritarian, authoritative, permissive, and neglectful). These labels have various measurable dimensions including: levels of warmth, “demandinginess,” and autonomy granting. In gauging these factors, the researchers in the 2009 study measured such things as: whether parents used terms of endearment, whether they yelled or shouted at their children when they misbehaved, and whether they encouraged the child to look at both sides of an issue.
Only a third of the parents scored in the four traditional categories of authoritarian, authoritative, permissive, or neglectful. The majority, 61 percent, were categorized as “protective,” which meant they scored high on warmth, high on demandingness, and low on giving their kids autonomy. The findings confirmed a suspicion about traditional classifications and the judgments that sometimes go along with them.
“When you think about immigrant parents, first generation parents, should we be surprised that parents are not granting a lot of autonomy? To me it seems highly adaptive and healthy,” said Domenech-Rodríguez, a professor of psychology at Utah State University who has done research on Latino communities in Northern Utah, Mexico City and Michigan.
The monitoring of children may be approached differently among Latinos, says Domenech-Rodríguez, using the example of kid sleepovers, commonplace among some American families, but sometimes a completely foreign concept to many Latinos.
“Do I want to convince a Latino family to start sleepovers so they can adapt to this culture? No. I want to talk about monitoring in a way that makes sense to them… I might go more in the way of ‘how do you find out what is going on with your kids at school.’ ”
The takeaway from all of this is that some differences can be embraced. Just because you may not be a Tiger Mom or a padded parent doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong.
“The message that there is a lot of variability should really be validating to focus on in terms of being able to say ‘maybe I do things a little differently from most of my neighbors, but my kid is doing alright,’ ” Domenech-Rodríguez said. “Trusting your relationship with your child and your child’s outcomes should give you a sense that you may be doing alright … There are a lot of different ways to parent that lead children to the same place.”