Does Harsh Parenting Hurt Children — Now & in the Future?

By Dr. Michael Oberschneider, Ashburn Psychological & Psychiatric Services

Dear Dr. Mike,

Does harsh parenting hurt kids later in life? My husband is very hard on our kids who are 3 and 7, and there are way too many fights and tears in our house for my comfort level. He says that our kids need to learn to listen without talking back, and he points out that they always obey him with his approach.

He also often makes the point to me that his parents were very strict with him as a child, and he turned out good. He also gets angry with me because I am not as strict as he would like me to be. It’s true that I tend to give in to the kids too much, but I think I do that because he is so mean. He is the firm one, and I am the loving one in the house.

He’s not a bad dad, but he’s too hard on them. Beyond my strong need to protect my kids from him, this is causing a problem in our marriage. Your thoughts are appreciated.

Dear Concerned Parent,

While there is no absolute right or wrong way to parent, the research in this area, beginning in the 1960s, is well-established and has consistently identified four main parenting styles. Several studies have shown coloration between the four parenting styles and a child’s later well-being.

Authoritarian Parenting
Authoritarian Parenting is rule-bound parenting, where the parents make up all the rules, which the child is expected to follow without any input, discussion, or questioning. These parents are considered to be strict and demanding with their children, and they rely on punishment or the firm hand approach when their children disobey. These parents are typically not emotionally responsive, and when a child questions a parent with this style, “because I told you so” or “just do what I say” are the sort of responses heard.

Generally, children from authoritarian homes tend to get in trouble less than children who are raised by permissive or uninvolved parents. However, since obedience and respect are taught to be much more important than independence and autonomy, children from these homes tend to grow up with challenges. Research studies have shown that children raised by authoritarian parents have higher rates of low self-esteem and can be negatively influenced by antisocial peer pressure during the teen years. These children can be more passive and can struggle more academically and socially later in life.

Authoritative Parenting
Authoritative Parenting is egalitarian or democratic parenting where there are rules, but the parents are more responsive and engaged when their children ask questions or present with challenges. Parents with this style take a more nurturing approach to their children over a punitive one when expectations are not met. Authoritative parents foster a supportive and relational climate that encourages their children to problem-solve and think for themselves. In these homes, rules can be discussed for the child’s increased understanding and not just for the child’s adherence to the parents’ demands.

Several research studies have shown that the authoritative parenting style is the superior parenting style. Children from these homes tend to be well-adjusted and are poised to do the best in life academically, socially, and career-wise. Between the four groups, these children have the highest self-esteem and the greatest confidence. They also tend to be more independent, self-assured, competent, and socially responsible.

Permissive Parenting
Permissive Parenting is characterized by parenting with few expectations, rules, or demands for their children’s behavior. These are the “no-discipline parents.” While these parents are viewed as being nurturing, involved, and loving with their children, permissive parents appear more like friends to their children and will often rely on bribery, cajoling, and gifting as a form of reinforcement.

While research has shown that children raised by permissive parents can be better off than children raised by uninvolved or authoritarian parents, raising children with too much freedom and too few expectations or boundaries can create problems later in life. “Spoiled” and “self-centered,” these children can act out and become more aggressive, can develop a lack of drive/motivation and self-discipline, and can have problems with authority later in life.

Uninvolved Parenting
Uninvolved Parenting is typically considered neglectful parenting. These parents are emotionally detached and dismissive; they have few, if any, expectations for their children, and they offer little to no supervision. Instead, these parents have passive or even avoidant relationships with their children, and at their worst, these parents can be wholly neglectful.

Research has shown that children who are raised by uninvolved parents generally turn out to be the unhappiest and least successful among the four groups later in life. They can experience a host of problems, including increased anxiety, alcohol or substance abuse, depression, poor social skills, and poor academics.

While research on the four parenting styles is reliable and valid, and the styles can provide a roadmap to guide us in our parenting, the types are not absolute. Gender, culture, genetics, and personality are factors that challenge the four-type parenting model. For example, there are fundamental differences between Western and Eastern cultures regarding parenting successful children. The book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom is a good example of a more authoritarian style of parenting being advantageous.

Based on what you have written, it seems that your husband has more of an authoritarian approach to parenting, where you are more permissive. If that is the case, it is understandable that the two of you are not getting along well as parents. The first thing I think you should do is discuss your concerns with your husband in an open, respectful, and non-judgmental way. The point of the discussion should not be to prove the many ways you think he is wrong, but rather to find a place for compromise and increased agreement in your co-parenting.

You could start by praising your husband for the things you like about his parenting and then lovingly move to the topic of what you do not like. It might be helpful for your husband and you to read or skim through some parenting books together to better understand where your 3- and 7-year-old children are cognitively and emotionally. Developmentally, your 3-year-old is going to listen and respond differently to parental demands than your 7-year-old, and your husband needs to understand and appreciate these differences.

There is no reason that “firm” or “loving” needs to be mutually-exclusive ideas or parenting approaches, and with patience, respect, and improved communication, I am hopeful that you and your husband can learn to be firm and loving in the co-parenting of your children.