Parenting young children can feel a lot like surfing: One moment we’re in calm waters, enjoying a harmonious moment with our kids; the next we’re in a riptide, where a preschooler’s meltdown pulls the whole family momentarily out to sea. We have to be nimble, keep our knees bent, and expect the unexpected as we shift between our many roles of monitoring, teaching, enforcing, comforting, playing.
A recent study validates this idea. Based on a careful review of the research on parenting, developmental psychologists Joan Grusec, of the University of Toronto, and Maayan Davidov, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, identify five distinct modes of interaction between parents and their kids, each of which helps a child to mature in important ways. They argue that, rather than having a single parenting “style,” parents take on different roles in different situations.
Their analysis, published in the journal Child Development, helps give parents a better grasp on their complicated and shifting roles—and offers ways to help them raise happier, more well-adjusted, and caring children.
Here are the five parenting “domains” that Grusec and Davidov identify.
1. Protection and comfort. Like other species, humans evolved behaviors that enable children to draw an adult’s attention for help and survival.
Not all cries are for protection, but when parents respond sensitively to a child’s feelings of being threatened, there are many short- and long-term benefits: The child’s neurobiological system becomes “trained” to eventually cope with stress on his own; he is more empathic to other people’s distress; and he tends to want to cooperate with and be close to his parents.
Comforting a troubled child is a tonic for the parent-child relationship—an investment in future cooperation, positive emotional development, and general well-being.
2. Control. Sometimes a parent has to exert his or her power over his or her children to enforce discipline. This may mean drawing from a bag of tricks of positive reinforcement, disapproval, reasoning, withdrawing privileges, or time-outs.
Researchers caution that the discipline has to be carefully matched to the misdeed or else parents can interfere with their child’s budding sense of autonomy: Too little discipline and the behavior is not affected; too much discipline and parents can undermine their child’s ability to want to set limits for himself.
A second challenge is that children differ in what they respond to, depending on their age, sex, temperament, mood, self-image, and the nature of the problem. One child responds to a severe look, the other child needs to have stronger consequences.
In the control domain, then, effective parents know the child well enough to choose the method and the volume necessary to help that child correct his misdeed. When discipline is well-crafted, children grow to do the right thing on their own, even overriding impulses to do otherwise.
3. Reciprocity. Despite the regular need for parents to exert control, Grusec and Davidov’s analysis also highlights the need to comply occasionally with the requests that children make of us and with their attempts to influence us.
Research shows when parents acquiesce to their children’s reasonable wishes, children tend to happily comply later when something is asked of them. However, giving children rewards when they cooperate can backfire and undermine their genuine desire to work together.
Children who are respected in this way tend to be happier, and have more positive social skills, fewer problems, and less conflict. Studies show, for example, that mothers who play with their sons in some equal give-and-take have less conflict with them.
4. Guided learning. Sometimes being a good parent is being a good teacher, whether it’s training a youngster to tie shoes, use the potty, navigate sticky social situations, or learn about feelings.
Effective parents “scaffold” their instruction: They assess what the child already knows, they teach to just the next step, and they support the child until he or she is successful. Not only can children learn many new skills this way, but under close, gentle guidance, they come to understand the parent’s holistic picture of the problem, which creates a deep kind of meta-learning.
Studies show, for example, that mothers who talk with their children about specific emotional issues in a coherent and meaningful way—and include details, interpretations, and feedback—help to advance their children’s general understanding of emotional life.
5. Group Participation. Children easily and naturally learn a lot about what is expected of them by participating in groups, including their extended family, circle of friends, neighborhoods, churches, and extra-curricular activities.
As parents guide them through the rituals, routines, and practices of different kinds of organizations, children implicitly learn all kinds of norms—gender roles, cultural expectations, ideas about social class, appropriate public behavior—which help them create a firm sense of social identity.
In reality, there are probably many more domains, and it is likely that more than one operates at any given time. The roles are not exclusive to parents—any adult caregiver, or even an older child or sibling, can have the same impact. The emphasis on certain domains will change with development, and parents will be better at some than others.
Still, giving more definition to parents’ vast sea of emotional labor can help us improve our form, enabling us to stay upright, balanced, and facing forward.