Why We Parent the Way We Do

A look at the many sources that influence our parental style.

Posted Nov 11, 2020

There are billions of parents out there and each is unique in their approach to their individual children. For many of us, our methods are fairly instinctual and natural. That’s certainly not a bad thing, but it can be useful to take a step back and reflect on where our own parenting approach comes from and whether or not these influences are in the “proper” place when considered more carefully. The following parenting influences are not in any particular order but likely play a role for many of us when it comes to why we parent the way we do.

  • What our own parents did. The strongest influence on someone’s parenting practices for many people is our own parents or others who filled that role for us. And why not? We had a front-row seat for many years to make an indelible impression on us. If not our model, then at least the example of our own parents is the template or default mode from which we can adjust.
  • What our parents didn’t do (but maybe should have). Sadly, sometimes our parents provide a glaring example of what not to do, with children growing up and vowing that they will decidedly go in the opposite direction. Most commonly this occurs with people whose parents weren’t there for them as children or who were victims of mistreatment, but it can be present in much smaller and lighter versions. My grandfather, for example, purposely never made any comments to his grandchildren about their growth because he got so sick of hearing about how much he had grown when he was young.
  • Culture and values. Some parental actions, such as how much physical affection children are given or the acceptability of things like corporal punishment, have links to a person’s cultural or religious background. While we have to be careful not to fall for stereotypes by acknowledging that there is often more variability within a culture than is often appreciated, our cultural and religious environment remain a strong source of parental influence for many people.
  • What fits our personality. Parenting practices usually line up with someone’s personality. People who tend to be more anxious, for example, can often be more protective of their children and supervise them more closely. These traits can easily work their way not only into what parents do but what they believe. A parent who struggles setting limits or confronting others, for example, might find parental approaches that de-emphasize conflict to be quite appealing intellectually. As much as we like to think that our actions follow our beliefs, research tells us that it also can work in the opposite direction.
  • What kids pull out in us. In a similar vein, studies have also demonstrated that frequently our parenting actions are evoked from our children’s behavior and in this way are more reactive than proactive. Children who may have a tendency to be more irritable and defiant, for example, can easily trigger similar responses in others. The reactions, while understandable, may often not be ideal with parents needing to learn how to “override” this process.
  • The advice we get. Parents have always been inundated with advice from lots of sources including relatives, friends, and sometimes even strangers passing on the street. Parenting-related books and articles have also become increasingly popular, supplemented now with blogs, online groups, and social media posts. While these days there is more than enough advice for everyone, questions often remain about how reliable the information actually is.
  • And then there’s the science. There actually is a large volume of scientific studies on topics ranging from daycare to praise to sleep training; the problem is that the literature can be tough to read and is often not that consistent. Research studies often get cited in previously mentioned books and blogs, but it can be tough to know whether this is a balanced presentation of the existing literature or some convenient cherry-picking being done to prove a point the author has wanted to make all along. Parents also often wonder about how much a conclusion from a particular study should apply to their individual kid. For these reasons, science may not get the seat at the table it deserves when it comes to making rational decisions about one’s parenting approaches. This was one of the main motivations for my new book

Of course, there can be more than one force driving your own approach. For most of us, our parenting style is a mash-up that can change from child to child, even moment to moment. The point is not that we necessarily criticize that approach but that we at least examine it and consider parenting as something that, while still natural and instinctive, can also be thoughtful, rational, and, most of all, deliberate.