There's something about being a parent that erodes your self-confidence. After every decision comes indecision. After every edict comes a pesky voice in your head second-guessing what you just did. Was it fair to ground her for a week because she crossed a busy street on her bike? Did forcing him to gag down that spinach ensure that he'll forever be deficient in antioxidants? Should you have thrown Barbie out the window -- or patiently explained that it's unsafe to be wagging her in Mommy's face during rush hour on the interstate? And, come to think of it, should you have caved in to her tantrum in the store and bought that darned doll in the first place?
Although you face a myriad of choices when raising your children, psychologists package them in just four styles of parenting: authoritarian, permissive, balanced, and rejecting/neglecting. Being able to identify which one you are is the first step to becoming a confident and, ultimately, better parent.
But instead of boring you with all the psychobabble, marriage and family therapist Ron Huxley, the Fresno, CA-based author of Love and Limits: Achieving a Balance in Parenting, explains each parenting style using characters from classic TV shows. By the end, you'll know if you're a Marion Cunningham or a Marge Simpson, an Al Bundy or a Mike Brady.
Morticia and Gomez Addams
The Addamses repeatedly took the side of their children when problems arose. When Wednesday returned from her first day of school and threw a fit because all the witches, giants, and ogres were killed in Grimm's Fairy Tales, her father threatened to keep her home until the book was banned.
Runners-Up: Lily and Herman Munster
High Ratings: Parent and child become friends. The child sees that she is a special part of the family and that her opinion counts.
Low Ratings: Sometimes being a friend is a liability. Without fear of punishment, the child may become disrespectful, spoiled, and demanding. And that makes kids selfish as friends. Constant reasoning may confuse younger kids, who respond better to rules.
Finale: Surprisingly, kids get screwed up from this style. Because they're self-centered, they tend to get into trouble at school, where rules aren't negotiable and other kids are equally important.
Clair and Cliff Huxtable
You could argue that there's never been a TV show with truly authoritarian parents, where Mom and Dad are the supreme power, the rules are nonnegotiable, total obedience is expected, and misbehavior is strictly and often forcefully handled. But The Cosby Show did have an authoritarian tone. "I brought you into this world," said Cliff, an obstetrician, to son Theo in one episode, "and I can see you out!"
Runners-Up: Olivia and John Walton
High Ratings: Since the parent is firmly in charge, the child knows the expectations and can meet them. Having clear-cut boundaries creates a sense of security and stability for the child. He respects the rules and understands the consequences of breaking them.
Low Ratings: The child obeys but may not learn. Since his opinion isn't valued, he never has to think about why something is right or wrong. In some cases, though, the child rebels -- acting in the approved manner when at home but turning into a terror when Mom and Dad aren't around.
Finale: The child considers the parent's love to be conditional. The young adult who results will tend to be very submissive or passive-aggressive. Either he bows to all authority or he rebels against it.
Marge and Homer Simpson
The Simpsons' jokes arise from this style of parenting, in which the adult may be authoritarian one minute ("Get me a beer!") and permissive the next ("Grab one for yourself!"). Bart is a budding juvenile delinquent, and baby Maggie is ignored. Middle-child Lisa is resilient because of her naturally high intellect, but underneath she has a cynical, depressed nature. Her favorite kind of music: saxophone blues. "Fatherhood isn't easy," said Homer in one episode, "but I wouldn't trade it for anything -- except for some mag wheels. Yeah, some mag wheels."
Runners-Up: Peg and Al Bundy, Roseanne and Dan Conner
High Ratings: It may make for funny television, but that's its sole advantage.
Low Ratings: The parent is frequently absent or preoccupied, so there's minimal supervision -- making it more likely that the child will get into trouble or hurt herself. And when the parent is around, the child is usually confused or even humiliated. The child feels like a nuisance and, in extreme situations, may not even receive adequate medical attention or nourishment. In most cases, though, the neglect is emotional. Without emotional connection to the parent, the child has no model for relationships with others.
Finale: This style results in an unhealthy, unhappy child. She feels deeply hurt that no one cares about her and may eventually become bitter and hostile. In just about every facet of life, she's an underachiever, and what's worse, she doesn't understand why. She may develop emotional disorders such as depression or substance-abuse problems.
Elyse and Steven Keaton
The Keatons of Family Ties were rational and patient. ("Parents are conditioned to accept a few mishaps, Alex. A broken vase, some spilled milk on the floor… But there was a kangaroo in my living room!") They were confidants and wise advisers. ("Alex, $75,000 a year is a lot of money; it's very impressive. But don't forget to ask yourself this question: Will it bring you fulfillment?") Yet they were also disciplinarians. ("We're going to ground Mallory like she's never been grounded before. Ground her deep, ground her long, ground her hard.") In other words, they considered their children to be equals -- but only up to a point.
Runners-Up: Carol and Mike Brady
High Ratings: This popular parenting style combines the strengths of authoritarian and permissive while eliminating their weaknesses. There's negotiation, but Mom and Dad have the final say. You'll find a lot of affection and emotional nourishment in a family like this. In fact, children of balanced parents generally turn out the healthiest and happiest. These are the parents you wished you had.
Low Ratings: You won't find many disadvantages, except that, for lots of parents, such a style doesn't come easily.
Finale: Despite the fact that children raised under this style generally have high self-esteem and excel academically, it does not produce the perfect kid. Perfect kids -- and, for that matter, perfect parents -- simply don't exist. "What's important," points out Huxley, who has four children, "is having the courage to be imperfect."
Copyright © 2001. Reprinted with permission from the May 2001 issue of Child magazine