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The Many Shades of Fear-Based Parenting

Trustful parenting is thrown off course, in various ways, when fear prevails.

Pixabay, Creative Commons
Source: Pixabay, Creative Commons

I have long been advocating, on this blog and elsewhere, for what I refer to as trustful parenting. Trustful parents allow their children as much freedom as reasonably possible to make their own decisions. They trust their children’s instincts, judgments, and ability to learn from mistakes. Trustful parents do not try to guide their children’s development; they trust their children to guide their own development. They support, rather than guide, by helping children achieve their own goals when such help is requested and needed.

Trustful parenting is the most natural and least stressful form of parenting, for both parent and child. Ethnologists have found this style of parenting to be universal in hunter-gatherer cultures (here and here). Many families in our culture now, especially those in the Self-Directed Education movement, have adopted this style of parenting and written about its pleasures and benefits. My own research on young people who grew up with trustful parents bears this out (e.g. here and here). Trustful parents are not afraid of life, and they are not irrationally afraid for their children’s lives. Trustful parents have faith in their children’s capacities, and that faith becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As I wrote nearly 10 years ago (here), trustful parenting sends the following messages to children:

"You are competent. You have eyes and a brain and can figure things out. You know your abilities and limitations. Through your self-directed play and exploration, you will learn what you need to know. Your needs are valued. Your opinions count. You are responsible for your own mistakes and can be trusted to learn from them. Social life is not the pitting of will against will, but the helping of one another so all can have what they need and most desire. We are with you, not against you.”

I add now these additional messages: Your life is yours, not mine, and life is to be enjoyed.

The enemy of trustful parenting is fear, and, unfortunately, fear runs rampant in our society today. It runs rampant not because the world is truly more dangerous than it was in the past, but because we as a society have generated dangerous myths about dangers. We are afraid that strangers will snatch our children away if we don’t guard them constantly and that our children will be homeless, or in some other way life failures, if they don’t get all As in school, do all the proper extracurricular activities, and get into a top-ranked college. Somewhat more realistically, we are also afraid of others’ judgments of us, if others see that we are not guarding, pushing, and pulling our children in all the ways that society says we should guard, push and pull, but instead are letting our children be and are enjoying their being.

Fear-based parenting comes in various shades, depending partly on the types of fears most prominent in the parents’ minds and partly on the parents’ personalities and economic means. Here is a list.

Helicopter Parenting

The term helicopter parenting has been used for at least the last three decades (here) to describe parents who are overprotective and, more generally, over-involved in their children’s lives. The typical helicopter parent, on hearing my argument favoring trust, would likely say (and I have heard some say), “It’s not my child I don’t trust, it’s the rest of the world.” They’re convinced that danger lurks around every corner, and so they guard and advise their child at every turn.

In a previous post, I described how researchers have identified helicopter parenting using questionnaires and have found at least a correlation between this style of parenting and offspring’s subsequent poor coping skills in young adulthood. These parents have difficulty letting go, even when their children are adults, perhaps partly because their offspring actually seem to need extra help, as they developed habits of helplessness resulting from all the previous helicoptering. These parents continue to want to know all the details of their adult children’s lives and to offer unsolicited advice as the latter pursue higher education or careers or start to raise a family of their own.

Snowplow Parenting

Instead of just hovering around to help them through the obstacles of life, snowplow parents smash down the obstacles. This is protective parenting on steroids—or, more precisely, on money, power, and hutzpah. These are parents who use their wealth, status, and inflated sense of privilege to clear the path for their children. Much of their effort is aimed at getting their children into and through the most elite college possible, or the most prestigious and well-paying career because these are parents who place great value on the outward appearance of success.

These are the parents who hire tutors to help their children through courses, hire counselors to write their children’s college application essays, shop for doctors willing to give their child some sort of diagnosis that will allow extra help at school, make large donations to colleges in exchange for an improved chance that their child will be admitted, and call teachers and even professors and employers to ask for extra privileges for their child.

At the extreme—as was uncovered in the Operation Varsity Blues investigation—these are the parents willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars criminally to bribe test proctors and college coaches to cheat and lie to get their children into a chosen college. These parents also do what they can to hide their snowplow efforts from their children, to spare them the humiliation of knowing that their “success” did not come from their own merits (here). Their snowplowing is aimed not just at clearing paths and opening doors, but also at inflating their children’s egos.

Fuel-Injector Parenting

This is a term that I just now made up. It’s not a great term, but it’s the best I can think of now. Maybe you can suggest something better. I wish there were a vehicle metaphor for it, comparable to helicopter or snowplow, but at least I’m still dealing with a mechanical device.

Fuel-injector parents are not so concerned with removing barriers for their children as they are with injecting their children with what they regard as the sorts of motives and attitudes that they (the parents) perceive as necessary to navigate this frightening world. In particular, they are hooked on the idea that life is fundamentally a competition, like a race, to be won or lost. To win you need to want to win and know how to compete.

It’s not surprising that many parents think this way. Our whole schooling system, by design, is a constant competition for children. Everyone’s on the same track, running supposedly to the same goal, and those who fall behind or wander down some other track are deemed “failures.” By extension, many people grow up feeling that all of life is a competition, like school, where some are winners and others are failures. I’ve even heard parents argue, seriously, that the main value of school is it teaches children to compete.

The best study of fuel-injector parenting I know of is one conducted a decade ago by Hilary Friedman, for a doctoral dissertation, and subsequently published as a book entitled Playing to Win (I reviewed the book here). Friedman was interested in the motives of parents who push their children into competitive activities and then invest large sums of money, for lessons and participation fees, and large amounts of time and energy carting their children to practices and events and encouraging them to work hard to win. What do these parents expect as a return on this investment?

To find out, Friedman spent sixteen months interviewing parents from 95 different families and in some cases also interviewing the children. She chose families involved intensely in three quite different competitive activities—soccer, chess, and dance. In each case, the child was of elementary school age.

What she found, in short, was that most of the parents were investing all this money, time, and energy not because their child loved the activity, nor because the parents wanted their child to become a professional at it. The activity itself was rather arbitrary. The important thing to the parents was the competitive aspect of the activity. They believed the competitions would foster, in their children, a set of attitudes and skills, which Friedman refers to collectively as Competitive Kids Capital, that would serve them well in such future competitions as getting into a high-ranking college, getting a high-paying job, and gaining promotions.

The primary goal, to these parents, was that their children would internalize the value of winning and acquire certain general skills important for winning any competition, such as abilities to persist and to perform under pressure. Toward this end, many of the parents rewarded their children with cash or material goods or treats (such as trips to Disneyland), well beyond the trophies provided by event organizers, if they won or improved their ranking, but not if they lost. The goal was to reinforce the value of winning.

When Friedman asked the children what they enjoyed about the activity, they often talked about making and meeting friends and about the rewards given to them for winning, rarely about the love of the activity itself, or even about any intrinsic pleasure they got from winning. In fact, some even said they felt bad if they defeated a friend. In contrast, according to Friedman, none of the parents mentioned making friends as a reason for having their children participate in these activities.

These parents were toward the extreme, but I suspect that belief in a competitive world and the value of internalizing a drive to win is one of the reasons why so many parents today put their children—even their little ones—into competitive activities rather than just let them go out and play. What trustful parents realize, which fuel-injector parents do not, is that the real secrets to success lie not in a drive to beat others but in discovering what you truly love to do, in making friends, and in learning how to cooperate. By far the best place to learn these is play.

Tiger Parenting

If snowplow parenting is helicopter parenting on steroids, then tiger parenting is fuel-injector parenting on steroids. Tiger parenting is the term coined by Yale professor Amy Chua a few years ago, in her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, to describe her ferocious, hard-driving parenting style.

Chua clearly sees life as a competition and the purpose of life as winning. As a parent, her purpose was to make her children win. For example, in the realm of music, she decided which instrument each of her two children would play (piano for Sophia, violin for Lulu) and used every means possible, short (apparently) of physical violence, to make them practice for hours per day. Her methods included fits of screaming, threats, bribes, insults, shaming, and lies (as when she promised a future respite from practice and then reneged). Her favorite method was to tell them over and over again that they would disgrace the entire family—especially their mother—if they come out any less than number one in an upcoming competition.

Chua made sure that every minute of her daughters’ time was occupied with activities of her (Chua’s) choosing. Mostly her daughters went to school, did homework, took music lessons, practiced their instruments (usually with Chua standing over them criticizing), and traveled to give recitals in prestigious settings. They had to get all As and win all of the competitions in school. They were not allowed play dates, or sleepovers, or (apparently) any free time to play on their own or hang out with other kids.

Chua’s book would be funny if it were a parody, but it is not. She is serious. She calls it the Chinese way of parenting and presents it as something for Westerners to emulate. It’s interesting to note, however, that Chinese Americans who reviewed the book on Amazon were far less approving of it than were others who reviewed it. In fact, in my analysis of the many reviews (described here), I found that 40.5% of Chinese American reviewers gave it one star, the lowest rank possible, compared to 20.9% for other reviewers. Many of the Chinese American reviewers hated the book because it reminded them of the way they were treated by their own parents, which they regarded as abusive and cause of lifelong suffering. Emphatically, they said, they were not raising their children this way.

The interesting question to me is why so many Western, non-Chinese readers (46.6% of them) gave the book five stars and why the book very quickly reached bestseller status. It seems to appeal to people who, like Chua, see the purpose of life as winning, and who believe, like Chua, that children are not going to win if left to their own devices. Fortunately, few of those people have the perverse determination and ability to shut out empathy that it takes to carry out Chua’s extreme methods, but apparently many wish they did.

Why is winning so all-important that one is willing to sacrifice children’s freedom and joy for its sake? The only answer I can come up with is that not winning is failing, for such people, and nothing is more frightening to them than failing. Tiger parents, like snowplow parents, seem also to put great stock in the outward appearance of success, but their method of trying to ensure such appearance is the opposite of snowplow parenting. Instead of removing obstacles for their children, they create obstacles and then browbeat their children to surmount them. Instead of inflating egos, they deflate egos and make their children subservient. They see themselves as trainers of their children more than protectors.

As I noted in my review of Chua’s book, I think the term tiger mother is inappropriate for this style of parenting. It’s an insult to tigers. No real tiger mother would train her young that way. Mother tigers permit their cubs to play to their hearts’ content, because they know intuitively that play is how cubs practice the real skills they need to survive and thrive. Chua’s method is that of a tiger trainer in a circus, not a tiger mother. The circus trainer makes young tigers do things they do not want to do, not for the ultimate good of the young tiger, but as a way of showing off the skills of the trainer.

Defensive Parenting

Defensive parenting, as I use the term, is parenting aimed at protecting the parent more than the child (I thank my son Scott for suggesting this term). The fear here is fear of other people’s judgments. All of us are naturally concerned about others’ judgments of us, and defensive parenting is aimed at reducing negative judgments about their parenting. I have considerable sympathy for parents confronting this problem. It is hard to do what you think is right if most other people in your life think it is wrong.

I’ve heard from many parents who express awareness of how such defense is inhibiting them from being the kind of parent they want to be. They say things like, I know that my children are mature enough to walk to school or play in the park by themselves, but I am afraid of being accused of negligence—by my relatives and neighbors if not by the police—if I do allow that freedom. Or, I know that my child is suffering in school and would be better off homeschooled or attending a school designed for Self-Directed Education, but my own parents and siblings would hate me for enabling that.

In our study of unschooling families (here) Gina Riley and I found that the biggest challenge reported by parents was that of dealing with other people’s explicit and implicit criticism of their unschooling choice. These parents overcame the barrier of defensiveness, but for many, it was not easy. I believe that there are far more parents out there who could not surmount the barrier. If it were not for fear of criticism from others, or the more general fear of violating a cultural norm, I think there would be many more trustful parents, and many more families taking their children out of coercive schooling than is presently the case. This is why Let Grow is working hard to reverse society’s negative judgments of parents who give their children the freedom to roam and play independently of adults, and why the Alliance for Self-Directed Education is working hard to normalize Self-Directed Education.

A Few Caveats

Perhaps it is my own defensiveness that leads me to conclude with some caveats, to ward off some of the critical reactions I anticipate from some readers.

Source: Olimpik/Shutterstock

First, let me be clear that I am not Pollyannaishly, saying that there is nothing to fear in this world. Of course, there are dangers; and of course, it is natural for parents to be concerned about those dangers and want to protect their children from them. For some people, the dangers are greater than for others. If you are poor and black the dangers are greater than if you are rich and white. But we do not do our children a favor by letting our exaggerated fears of dangers constrict our children’s lives in ways that remove their joy and disempower them so they don’t develop the coping skills needed to deal with actual dangers. We do well when we teach our children about realistic dangers and help them think of ways to cope with them, but we do poorly when we disempower our children, depriving them of play and other opportunities to practice the coping skills needed to confront dangers, in the belief that we are protecting them.

Second, let me be clear that by trustful parenting I do not mean completely permissive parenting. We as parents have an obligation to be sure that our children understand that other people have rights, not just they, and that our children do not have permission to interfere with other people’s rights. There are certain rules by which we all must abide. Usually, in trustful families the children come naturally to understand and abide by such rules, partly through the good examples of their parents; but this does not always happen, and in such cases, parents need to enforce those rules.

And finally, I urge readers not to see this post as blaming parents. Parents, especially moms, already suffer too much blame. In fact, that’s part of the problem. With a few exceptions (notably extreme snowplow and tiger parents), I have considerable sympathy for parents who fall prey to any or all of the societal pressures that lead to the maladaptive varieties of parenting I’ve listed here. What we need is not more blame but more enlightenment, and that is what we are trying to foster through Let Grow and the Alliance for Self-Directed Education.

Do you agree or disagree with the thoughts expressed here? What other maladaptive parenting styles might you want to add to the list? This blog is, in part, a forum for discussion. Your questions, thoughts, stories, and opinions are treated respectfully by me and other readers, regardless of the degree to which we agree or disagree. Psychology Today no longer accepts comments on this site, but you can comment by going to my Facebook profile, where you will see a link to this post. If you don't see this post near the top of my timeline, just put the title of the post into the search option (click on the three-dot icon at the top of the timeline and then on the search icon that appears in the menu) and it will come up. By following me on Facebook you can comment on all of my posts and see others' comments. The discussion is often very interesting.

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