As the 2017 ‘Good Childhood’ report and several other surveys reveal, large numbers of children in the UK and the US are anxious, depressed and fearful, and the scope of their unease seems to be broadening.
Parenting styles are only one of many factors at work in producing this situation, and assessing the costs and benefits of different child-rearing patterns on personal, social and political change is controversial. But there is a substantial body of research in psychology, psychoanalysis, neuroscience and attachment theory that shows that—while genetic endowment interacts with the environment—the emergence and progress of personhood is very much conditioned by the quality of attachment in one’s early life, whether secure or insecure.
Ideally, as a mother or other primary caregiver responds to their child’s needs, so an ‘affectional bond’ is formed, becoming integrated into the child’s developing personality—the blend of qualities giving us our distinct character—and serving as the basis for future affective relationships.
But the ways in which we are brought up don’t only influence our childhood identities; they also help to shape our relationships, beliefs and values throughout our lives, which go on to influence the kinds of economic, political and social systems we choose to build. In this respect, infancy is ‘the hub of cultural transmission’—the place where we first learn how to feel for the self and others. Put plainly, ‘people...think as they do partly because they have been brought up to think it.’
What we have learnt, however, is not always uplifting. We are beset by the multitude of vices that characterise the vertigo of our modern malaise: materialism, narcissism, inequality, vindictiveness and indifference. Each one is tutored through the therapeutics of emotional capitalism so that even happiness is exploited and corrupted. We appear to be living in an 'age of anger', marked by ressentiment with its trail of envy, humiliation and powerlessness.
Over the last 20 years, childcare gurus of all political hues—including government departments, charitable agencies, and health and social work professionals—have converged around the ‘authoritative’ approach to parenting, also sometimes known as ‘positive,’ as in neither ‘authoritarian’ nor ‘permissive.’
‘Authoritative parental control’ was first proposed in the late 1960s by Diana Baumrind, an American psychologist, as a liberal response to the conservative critique of ‘permissiveness’ in the divided America of that period. It is based on a ‘two factor’ model of discipline: emphasising ‘control’ (‘demandingness’) and ‘warmth’ (‘responsiveness’). Authoritarian parents exercise ‘high control’ but are ‘too hard’ and low on ‘warmth;’ while permissive parents, although showing ‘high warmth’, are ‘damagingly’ low on control and ‘too soft’ altogether. Only the authoritative parent, it is claimed, gets it just right.
Children who are loved 'unconditionally', says Baumrind, do not become ‘good, or competent, or disciplined.’ She dismisses criticism of punishment as ‘utopian,’ claiming that ‘structure’ in families requires ‘contingent reinforcement,’ and labelling parents who fail to use their power to achieve obedience as ‘indecisive.’ Ironically for a Marxist, underpinning her disciplinary model is the principle of ‘reciprocity,’ which may be defined as little more than a market view of human relationships and, as such, a precursor to neoliberal ethics: “the rule of reciprocity, of paying for value received, is a law of life that applies to us all.” But possibly it's less ironic than first appears since the popularity of her parenting style across the political spectrum suggests that childism is as much alive on the left as it is on the right.
The authoritative approach derives its psychological status from the ‘new behaviourism,’ with its focus on what can be observed and measured (i.e. behaviour), rather than on feelings. Behaviours are said to function on the basis of ‘reinforcements’—positive , aversive, or constructional—which emphasise the role of external forces in being brought to bear on what people do. ‘Subjective’ information is discarded in preference to ‘objective’ assessment. Consequently, authoritative parents are keen to set their children ‘boundaries,’ and to use rewards like star charts and punishments like a ‘naughty step’ to induce compliant behaviour in their children.
However, critics of this approach have shown that authoritative control is associated with a lower level of intrinsic motivation, less internalisation of ethical values, lower self-esteem, and relatively poor self regulation, and that these negative consequences continue into adulthood. Control is no less damaging in minimising relational virtues such as considerateness and tolerance, in ignoring the art of combining perceptiveness and imaginativeness, and in failing to encourage integrative parent-child relationships.
Perhaps even more important, the children of authoritative parents do not receive warmth as a gift of love (as a right or entitlement), because in such families warmth itself is a feature of control and reciprocity—almost a transaction. The child learns neither how to ‘love’ herself for being who she is, nor how to give warmth to others unconditionally. This is the path to a ‘false’ or ‘minimal’ self, which can develop into neurosis and be passed on from one parenting generation to another with tragic results.
Of course, it is not always what is done but the way it is done that yields long-lasting effects for good or ill (including the tone, moods and rhythms of parental speech). One of the most beneficial of these effects comes when children learn to ‘mentalise,’ i.e. to reflect positively on their own emotional experiences while also engaging with and understanding those of other people. Unfortunately, in embodying the popular appeal of discipline, authoritative control prioritises autocratic parental power to do to others over the democratic responsibility to work with them. This inhibits children’s capacity for mentalisation; consequently, their ability to build up relational intelligence is undermined.
The radical American educationalist Alfie Kohn campaigns for a very different approach to ‘unconditional parenting,’ which involves not rewards and punishments but ‘love and reason.’ Rather than seeing behavioural conduct as a sum total, he views it respectfully as an expression of feelings, thoughts, needs and intentions. The child as a person becomes the focus of interest, instead of only his behaviour. Naturally, these children are encouraged to do likewise in their own relationships, supporting them to develop an interdependent and emotionally mature self that is connected to other selves in the wider world.
By contrast, the temptation with conditional parenting is to love children for what they do—mainly, being obedient, successful and ‘good’ (as in ‘trouble free for adults’)—rather than for who they are, accepting that they may not always be the sort of people we wish them to be. In Kohn’s words, we should let our children know that we love them ‘for no good reason;’ it is vital that they know this: that they feel loved. This helps children to like themselves, which is important for coherent social development, since without a reasoned belief in their own being they risk becoming unhealthily narcissistic.
In thinking about the significance of these different child-rearing styles, the psychologist Alison Gopnik’s critique of ‘parenting’ as a verb is insightful. She uses the metaphor of the gardener and the carpenter to show that parenting is often likened to carpentry as a collection of skills and techniques that set out to produce a final product as a goal-driven and controlled exercise—the objective being ‘valuable’ children who will develop into equally ‘valuable’ adults.
But through its emphasis on producing a valuable child, the carpentry approach weakens the moral good of caring for children as ends in themselves, each with a ‘cherished uniqueness.’ It also sets children a poor example in terms of the demands and rewards of commitment. In subverting our commitment to them, the value of commitment as a universal worth is similarly compromised.
Virtuous parental care for children is better compared to gardening: providing the child with a safe and secure environment in which a variety of flowers, shrubs and trees will bloom. In the garden, the child creates an untold number of futures, each unavoidably unpredictable. Furthermore, just as the good gardener works with and through trust in Nature, so good parents do likewise with their children. After all, without trust we are mere cynics.
In truth, whatever our best intentions, we cannot ensure that any particular childrearing pattern will make people better than they are. But we can understand and help our children as they work at growing up. Instead of practising behavioural techniques for so-called ‘character building,’ we should rely on the example of goodwill that is set through unconditional love, shepherded by Paiget’s astute warning against exaggerating the importance of morality: ‘How much more precious is a little humanity than all the rules in the world’.