Commando Parenting

By Dr. Michael Oberschneider, Ashburn Psychological & Psychiatric Services

Dear Dr. Mike,

My husband is very strict and hard on our three boys, and he is a big believer in “Commando Parenting.” Sometimes it’s too much on our kids. The other day I found my oldest, who’s 14 years old, crying alone in his bedroom during the day after his dad removed his mattress, bedding, clothes, and devices for not getting straight A’s.

Our son had to do his chores and homework to earn his things back — one at a time. For example, to earn back his mattress, sheets, and blanket, our son had to do everything my husband said just right that day.

Our son could be trying harder with academics, but he gets A’s and B’s, so why go “Commando” on him? I’m very worried about our two younger children, who have repeatedly told me their dad is “mean” and they’re scared of him.

I’ve tried to talk to my husband, but his go-to responses are, “It’s good for kids to fear their parents a little” and “It’s my job to get them ready for life. That’s why I’m hard on them.”

He also accuses me of being “too soft” with our boys, and I can be, but I also know my husband’s actions are a million times worse. It’s beginning to ruin our marriage. Help!

Dear Concerned Parent,

As you likely know, Commando Parenting is a controversial and extreme behavioral parenting approach that was first introduced in the early 2000s. It involves taking control of a child’s behavior by strictly enforcing expectations and rules.

When the child manages parental expectations and follows the rules well enough, the child is allowed to keep their things, however, when the child doesn’t, they lose all the important things that matter to them and then must earn them back — one item at a time.

While it’s important for our children to manage our parental expectations and follow our rules, and while punishments and consequences are sometimes necessary for the service of good Parenting, Commando Parenting lacks the parent-child emotional and relational engagement, warmth, and nurturing that is vital for healthy development.

Commando Parenting is an offshoot of what developmental psychologists have termed 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 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 responses heard?

Generally, children from authoritarian homes tend to get in trouble less than those 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. As a result, these children can be more passive and struggle academically and socially later in life.

As a child psychologist, I have seen firsthand the damaging impact of Commando Parenting or Authoritarian Parenting on children. Sometimes, a parent needs to be firm and take control of a situation with a child, but repeatedly and harshly shutting down a child’s behavior without emotional warmth, engagement, and positive reinforcement will ultimately do more harm than good.

In my opinion, Authoritative Parenting is most often the best parenting style and approach, and this is also supported by the research on child development. Authoritative Parenting is egalitarian or democratic Parenting where there are rules, but the parents are more responsive and engaged when their children ask questions.

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 main parenting approaches, these children have the highest self-esteem and the greatest confidence. They also tend to be more independent, self-assured, competent, and socially responsible.

First, you should discuss your concerns with your husband openly, respectfully, and non-judgmental. For example, you could start by praising your husband for what you like about his parenting and then lovingly move to the topic of what you don’t like.

You could also tell him that his parenting approach drives a wedge between you, him, and his boys. I encourage you to be open to what your husband shares with you. You write that you can be a softie with your sons. Perhaps there are some changes you could make that he would find helpful and supportive.

Parenting is sometimes difficult and can become especially difficult when we aren’t in sync with our partner. However, there is no reason that being firm or loving needs to be mutually exclusive ideas in parenting.

With patience, respect, and improved communication, I’m hopeful that you and your husband will get to a better place in co-parenting your children. However, if things don’t improve or worsen with your efforts over time, I recommend that you and your husband meet with a therapist with expertise in Parenting education and guidance.