Eight-year-old Maya begs to stay up later because she wants to watch TV or play a game. Her mother, Isabel, often gives in because she thinks her own parents were too strict, and she wants to be a different kind of parent. Maya often gets cranky and sleepy during the day, and cajoling her leads to frustration and power struggles. Eventually Isabel loses her cool and yells angrily, "Go to bed!"

Nathan, age ten, is made to go to bed every night at the same time. His parents are very strict and don't let him read in bed, even though Nathan finds that makes him sleepy. His parents say they know best, and if they catch him with a light on in his room after bedtime, he will lose his screen-time the next day. There are frequent power struggles in Nathan's house, too. At times, his parents throw up their hands and say, "Fine - stay up as long as you want, we're tired of fighting."

Pendulum Parenting

When we choose the permissive style of parenting, similar to Isabel's, things seem to go well - until they don't. Then parents swing in the opposite direction, becoming authoritarian, because nothing seems to happen until they show that they "mean business."

When we choose an authoritarian style of parenting, like Nate's parents, we eventually throw up our hands and swing toward permissiveness, because being an authoritarian parent is exhausting and it's not much fun either.

Both of these scenarios are examples of "pendulum parenting." When we cling to one of these styles, we inevitably end up going to the other extreme, either because we doubt our approach or because it causes too much hardship to maintain. In some families, this pendulum can be seen within a set of parents, with one tending to be more permissive and the other more authoritarian.

Democratic Parenting

There is a third style known as "democratic parenting." Rather than the parent running the show (authoritarian) or the child steering the family (permissive), democratic household are based on respect for both the parent and the child. This style represents a consistent path forward, rather than inconsistent swinging from side to side.

The mutually respectful, democratic approach offers what Dr. Betty Lou Bettner and Amy Lew (authors of "Raising Kids Who Can") call "The Crucial C's." The Crucial C's include a sense of Connection, feeling Capable, having Courage and feeling like he or she Counts. Every child craves the Crucial C's.

Promote Connection

Two tools that help parents foster connection are Special Time and Family Meetings. Special Time is one-on-one time spent with one parent and one child. The child chooses the activity and the parent is invited into the child's world. Phones and electronic devices are put away during this time so that parents can focus exclusively on the child and the activity. Special Time does not cost any money and can be spent playing a board game or make-believe, or tossing a Frisbee outside. Special Time has a beginning and an ending time and is scheduled in advance and put on the calendar. It is never taken away as punishment.

Family Meetings are another way to foster connection. Children are introduced to the democratic process as they choose weekly Family Fun by consensus. Each family member has a voice, and roles such as chairperson and secretary are rotated weekly. Upcoming events are highlighted when calendars are reviewed and allowances are distributed. The Parent Encouragement Program (PEP) offers programs designed to help parents implement both of these useful tools to foster connection.

Help Your Child Feel Capable and Courageous

Parents can help children feel capable by taking time to teach them how to do tasks around the house. When young children know how to dress themselves and prepare their own snacks, they feel proud. When older children know how to contribute to the family by preparing a meal, organizing a closet or fixing a squeaky door, they feel confident and courageous.

Our children need encouragement. Help them build on strengths by "catching" them doing the right thing. When a parent says, "I noticed you helped your little cousin put his coat on," a child knows his mom or dad appreciates his help. Saying, "I see you used a lot of bright colors in your picture" lets a child know his parent is looking carefully at his artwork and means more than a generic comment such as "Awesome picture." With encouragement, children will be ready to face life's challenges.

Let Your Child Know She Counts

By making Special Time and Family Meetings part of the family routine, your child receives the message that she is worthy of your time and that she has a voice in family life. Knowing her importance in the family lets her know she counts and gives her a sense of belonging. When she is capable of taking care of her own needs and capable of contributing to her family and to her community, she will feel confident in many situations, which also will contribute to her sense of belonging.

When we keep these needs of children in mind, it's easier to stay on course with the democratic model of parenting. We witness our children being able to connect, feel capable and courageous and experience a true sense of belonging. When children receive the "Crucial Cs," they are less likely to act out and misbehave because they are getting what they need. This helps keep everyone in the family moving forward together, rather than swinging in opposite directions.


Maureen McElroy LGMFT (maureenmcelroy.com) is a licensed family therapist in Bethesda, Maryland. She is also a Certified Parent Educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (pepparent.org), which offers classes and workshops for parents of children ages 2 1/2 - 18.