There is no such thing as a one size fits all parenting style, and our parenting choices represent important parts of our identities. Parents.com's 'Ask Your Mom' advice columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., shares how to explain that different families have different rules, and your rules are based on what you believe is best.

By Emily Edlynn, Ph.D.
April 30, 2020
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Illustration by Yeji Kim

Dear Parenting With Rules,

Parenting styles are so much richer than all the labels and categories our society has given them. As much as we like to put ourselves in groups with tidy descriptions (hence the infinite number of online quizzes that are completely meaningless, but oh so popular), it's far from simple.

The more complex reality is that our parenting styles represent parts of our identity, including who we choose to be in the world and who we want our children to be. Although we rationally know our children are their own people, there's no getting away from feeling like they are also walking symbols of how well we have done as a parent.

This internal struggle is hard enough, but add what you are describing with external pressures, and it can fill us with doubt and second-guessing. Beyond some very broad parenting categories studied for decades in psychological research showing authoritative as typically the most effective, there are plenty of mixed messages about "good parenting." Despite the thousands of parenting "experts" and "guides," there's just no one solution that fits every family.

Why Your Style?

In our family, we value routine and structure because we think it helps our kids do better overall, and my partner and I happen to naturally be people who love following a good plan. But I know many families with a much looser style and everyone seems fine and happy—it's just different from our approach.

We sometimes forget why we do things because they become habitual, but our values often drive our behaviors. Think about what values are important to you as part of raising your daughter, and if your parenting behaviors match those values. Giving this thought may reinforce your resolve to keep on keeping on with a style different from your daughters' peers, or you might see opportunities to change some behaviors in a way that still aligns with your values.

Cool the Comparisons

It sounds like your concern is your daughter watching children her age with more freedom and fewer limits, and how this difference could affect her confidence. It's true that children are the masters at comparisons—it's part of social development. As they get older, they become more aware of similarities and differences, and it's normal for them to want to fit in, especially during elementary school ages. I have not yet met a parent who has not heard from one of their offspring that other parents are clearly superior!

If your daughter asks about why other parents don't seem as strict, you can explain that families have different rules and make different choices about raising children. You have your rules because of what you value for your family and what you believe is the best for children.

When my kids complain that I'm "so strict" about what they watch on TV and how we do not allow most social media, I explain it's a decision their Dad and I have made to protect them from content designed for adults. Their friends' families have different rules, which can make my kids feel left out, but we stick to our choice for our family. In fact, in one unguarded moment, my fourth-grade daughter thanked me for having these strict rules.

When the Differences are Internal 

You didn’t mention your partner, but it’s not uncommon for co-parents (in a relationship or not) to have differences in parenting styles, which creates a whole new level of complicated! These differences likely emerge early, and should be addressed as soon as possible. Inconsistent approaches between a child’s parents are a recipe for problems—the child’s environment is less predictable, and they soon learn how to capitalize on these inconsistencies for their gain, making your job that much harder. Parenting partners with differences need to have a discussion about the why of their parenting style, and then find common ground and compromise—and then keep doing it over and over as the parenting decision landscape keeps shifting.

Be Flexible

We've all learned, however, that flexibility must be woven into the fabric of parenting or we won't survive. There's usually room to examine and analyze parenting choices—where are they an extension of important values, and where is there room to be flexible? When my daughter begged to use TikTok, my first response was a hard NO. But we heard her out and compromised by allowing an extremely limited version of TikTok set through the app using her birthdate and parental controls. (It also allowed us to have an honest discussion about online safety concerns.)

Flexibility is about finding that happy middle ground between maintaining your parenting principles and an open mind about other ways to parent that could be a better fit for your child in a certain context. Consider if there are times your rules could be softened a bit—maybe it's not the time to be a stickler if it means your daughter can be more included and involved with a group. I do support your stance on not allowing running around in restaurants! But maybe there are other settings and opportunities to loosen up, even a little bit, in a way that doesn't compromise your values and beliefs.

Set an Example

As parents, we can model for our children how to be confident in differences. Although your daughter may not appreciate your convictions every moment, it shows her how to stand strong even when making comparisons with other families. Setting an example like this will probably do more for her confidence than giving in to parenting in a way that is just not who you are!

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns. 

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

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