Thursday 14 November 2019

Pick your tribe: Are you a panda or a helicopter parent?

From tigers to pandas, it’s a jungle out there in the world of parenting styles. How do you know which one’s for you? And do you even need one? Deirdre Rooney asks the experts

Deirdre Rooney

You are undoubtedly familiar with pandas.

They’re big and cute and cuddly and like to hang out in trees. But don’t let their big doe-eyes fool you — they have bear teeth and bear strength and aren’t afraid to use them if they think they or their cubs are in danger.

It is this “perfect ratio of cuddliness and claw” that inspired the latest parenting trend coined by author Esther Wojcicki —panda parenting.

Unlike the stricter and more hands-on alternatives of ‘tiger’ and ‘helicopter’, panda parenting is about gently guiding your child as opposed to forcing them down a path, giving children freedom to do things themselves, while remaining quietly supportive in the background.

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It is the latest addition to an expanding group of trends in the world of parenting. From attachment to helicopter, lawnmower to panda, there’s a catchy title encapsulating all the ways in which parents choose to raise their children. Gone is the time of the ‘children should be seen and not heard’ approach to parenting.

These days, parents are bombarded with advice and information, and it can be confusing. Choosing a parenting style can narrow down their options.

“As there is so much information, support, advice and resources out there, parents feel overwhelmed at the volume, and will ask themselves, ‘What is the right or wrong way?’,” says Aoife Lee, parent coach at Parent Support.

If parents can see a clearly defined ‘way’ of parenting, with associated outcomes, it’s almost like having a ‘how to’ guide. Such is the lure of picking a style. And with each style there is an associated result: for example, if you want a high academic achiever, you ‘tiger’ parent with strict rules; you want a more free-thinking child, you ‘panda’ parent.

This concept of applying particular rules to your parenting to achieve a certain outcome stems from a theory established in the 1960s. Diana Baumrind, a developmental psychologist, noticed that pre-schoolers exhibited distinctly different types of behaviour, and each type of behaviour was correlated to a specific kind of parenting.

She theorised that there is a close relationship between parenting styles and children’s behaviour, which leads to different outcomes in the children’s lives. Her three determined styles were later expanded to four in the 1980s, by Eleanor Maccoby and John Martin: authoritative, authoritarian, permissive and uninvolved (see panel).

Permissive and uninvolved are fairly self-explanatory. Authoritative means you have rules but you don’t insist on unwavering obedience. Authoritarian parents have strict rules and insist on unchallenging obedience.

From these distinctions, new and exacting parenting styles emerged, each one with a more attention-grabbing name than the last.

As much as a style can be a reference guide for parents, do they really need to pick one?

Not necessarily, says Aoife Lee, who believes there’s a lot more to be said for focusing on values.

“Parenting is very much based on our values, so ask, ‘What’s really important to me for my children and family?’. Values guide us through what feels right and how we approach aspects in our work, relationships, family life, careers and friendships,” she says.

“What might be important for me may be very different to another parent, so therefore picking an approach is not only about what might be effective or practical but also what’s important. For example, it’s really important to me that my children are respectful of one another.

“Highlighting your values will impact on how you parent, so picking one way is not necessarily a straightforward decision.”

Every parent has different values and different goals; some may value academic achievement over their child’s ability to form relationships, while others may prioritise instilling independence in their little ones. As their intentions are so varied, a one-size-fits-all parenting doesn’t work.

But are there downsides to sticking to a regimented style when every day throws up something new in the world of parenting? Eileen Keane Haly, a parent coach and founder of Jump Start Your Confidence, believes there are.

“I think it is a little unfortunate that some parents try to stick to a certain style of parenting. How can this work? Not only is every family different but every child within that family is different,” she says. “Different kids need different types of parenting. But really when parents love, respect, accept and communicate openly and honestly with their kids, they tend to do just great.”

For all the lure of a format, Aoife Lee says that the most suitable style of parenting often comes instinctively to people.

“Particular styles come naturally, whether it’s because the values of a particular parenting approach are really important to them or whether they were influenced by how they were parented themselves,” she says.

“This can be very much based on trusting your gut. When we decide to have children we don’t necessarily know how we are going to parent. We do need to know what feels right and also what works and is effective for everyone, including the children, to be secure and happy.”

Each to their own when it comes to parenting, but the experts do warn of the pitfalls of the stricter, less forgiving methods. All is not equal when it comes to styles.

“If parents decide that they want to approach a strict way of instilling rules, it’s their choice, and if it works for them and the children respond positively, that’s great,” says Aoife.

“What we need to be mindful of is that often children — young and old — rebel and act out, they can push the boundaries for control, and so a lot of our interactions deal with challenging behaviour. I often recommend to parents that while establishing expectations and rules is important, it’s also really effective when we offer the children the chance to make their own positive choices — that way they are less likely to seek control in negative ways.”

Eileen Keane Haly agrees, and further warns of the downside to being too hands-on.

“Over-parenting is a huge problem. Doing everything for our kids is doing them an injustice,” she says. “Our job as parents, in my opinion, is to set our kids up so they can live happy, independent, responsible lives on their own. I would advise parents to trust your gut, read everything you want to about parenting but take only what you feel suits your family and your kids.”

Both Aoife and Eileen believe that parents are often too hard on themselves and that parenting is not easy, with or without a rule book. Sticking to a regimented style should not be a source of conflict or pressure in your house. “It’s okay to make mistakes,” says Aoife. “Parenting is a hard job whether we have one or six kids. It’s overwhelming and it’s okay to have a bad day. We as parents can be so hard on ourselves and will often seek out the right way. While practical approaches and plans can be very effective, it needs to feel right, regardless of what your parenting style is.”

Eileen adds: “I think we are getting a little carried away with ‘styles of parenting’. If we all focused on the basics — love, honesty, trust, acceptance, open communication, support, understanding — I truly believe we would have happier children and parents. But certain ‘styles’ of parenting will not allow for all these basics to take place. Parenting is one of the hardest jobs any of us will ever have, yet it’s the only job that comes without training.”

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