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Authoritative and Democratic Parenting Programs
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The Big Answer


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The Baby Book

a book by William Sears

(our site's book review)

What Dr. Spock was to the 1950s, William Sears, M.D. was to the 1980s. He is a main author for the Attachment Parenting movement, which originated mostly from the work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. It would be appropriate to have a quick overview here of some of the people involved in attachment parenting and authoritative parenting:

One parenting instructor teaching ideas that were derived from the Attachment Parenting movement is Aletha J. Solter (see our comments on her books Tears and Tantrums and Helping Young Children Flourish), the key author of the Aware Parenting movement (which is a spin-off of the Attachment Parenting movement). Her Aware Parenting methods oppose any sort of punishment or spanking—even logical consequences training is opposed, which make it the most like P.E.T. of any method, although she has the best advice about avoiding timeouts and handling crying and tantrums of any parenting method.

Tantrums are natural, and are emotional solutions, not parental problems—Solter is the expert here
Tantrums are natural, and are emotional solutions, not parental problems—Solter is the expert here

Another parenting instructor from the attachment school is TV’s T. Berry Brazelton. He believes in rewards and punishments, as do Bowlby and Sears, and Sears even approves of spanking as a last resort to maintain parental authority. All three men are somewhat sexist in their expectation of the mother as the main nurturer and their implication that it’s best if she stays home. They don’t believe in authoritarian parenting but do believe in parental authority and Sears and Brazelton think the goal of discipline is obedience! This is not unlike the thinking of the famous researcher Diana Baumrind—the mother of the term authoritative parenting. But she is not the founder of the Authoritative Parenting movement. That honor, in our opinion, would have to go to Adler, Dreikurs, Ginott and Gordon. (Although few refer to it as a movement, it truly is.) These four men believe in Democratic Parenting in addition to authoritativeness, however; democratic child-raising is quite different than the belief in parental “authority.” They also oppose: spanking or other physical negativity, rewards and punishments, and sexist assumptions, although Dreikurs and Brazelton have some questionable power tactics.

Adler, Dreikurs, Ginott and Gordon oppose spanking or other physical negativity, as well as rewards and punishments
Adler, Dreikurs, Ginott and Gordon oppose spanking or other physical negativity, as well as rewards and punishments

Baumrind’s research shows that democratic parenting is the way to go, but, oddly enough, her actual recommendation to parents is authoritative parenting accompanied by firm parental control—which is the language of authority, not democracy. Her efforts to get others to include this firm parental control in the definition of authoritative parenting had mixed results. The attachment school (except for Aletha J. Solter's Aware Parenting and Pam Leo's Connection Parenting) seemed to accept it warmly—as we’ve already demonstrated, but the democratic parenting school nixed it from the word go.

A term was needed to define the parenting method that transcends the continuum defined by an authoritarian thesis and a permissive antithesis—via dialectical synthesis. So quite a few people—such as George Lakoff (author of Moral Politics) and Catherine C. Lewis—wisely declined the unnecessary power-based aspect of Baumrind’s definition while welcoming the rest of Baumrind’s definition of this very important term with open arms. See our comments on Catherine C. Lewis’ article, The Effects of Parental Firm Control, and our comments on Baumrind’s works.

The best of the methods that call themselves authoritative are STEP (Systematic Training for Effective Parenting), Active Parenting, Winning Family Lifeskills, Positive Discipline, Redirecting Children’s Behavior, and Positive Parenting (which we call any Dreikurs-styled authoritative parenting that is not any of the aforementioned methods).

They rely on wisdom from the likes of Alfred Adler, Rudolf Dreikurs, Abraham Maslow, and others, to greater or lesser degrees. All of these methods advocate natural consequences and (except Gordon’s P.E.T.) nonpunitive logical consequences and can all be called authoritative parenting (methods which discourage all permissive and authoritarian tactics) and democratic parenting (since they believe in equality, rights, win-win and avoidance of power trips from anyone).

Democratic Parenting believes in equality, rights, win-win and avoidance of power trips from anyone; the picture depicts win-lose
Democratic Parenting believes in equality, rights, win-win and avoidance of power trips from anyone; the picture depicts win-lose

P.E.T. is authoritative and democratic, but it tries to avoid even the slightest taint of punitive strategies by rejecting logical consequences—which most other methods embrace (except Aware Parenting, Connection Parenting, Discipline Without Distress, Nonviolent Communication (N.V.C.), and Alfie Kohn's Unconditional Parenting). These methods and Gordon’s P.E.T. are the best parenting methods anywhere.

Attachment Parenting, according to its web site, opposes physical punishments of any kind, even though it promotes Sears’ book as the best thing since sliced bread. Sears wants parents to discipline by close and effective attachment which promotes trust and kindness and prevents much of the need for punishment or spankings. However, if parental “authority” is challenged, then punishment can be allowed in Sears-think.

Sears’ methods are mostly very kind and loving, but allowing parents to resort to rewards and punishments—especially corporal punishment—places his parenting method outside the boundaries of the Authoritative Parenting movement which is outlined above in the discussion of the best parenting methods. Even though the inventor of the term authoritative, Diana Baumrind, allows for punishments just like the Attachment school does, the Authoritative Parenting methods we call “best,” above, do not. They opt for reliance on good communication, examples to emulate, and natural and logical consequences training only, while Attachment Parenting relies on all these but punishments and rewards as well even though research has clearly exposed the severe weaknesses of these latter methods.

One example of such a weakness is the way they promote indirect self-acceptance, à la Putney and Putney (The Adjusted American), and inner- or other-directedness, à la Riesman (The Lonely Crowd) rather than autonomy. If a parent’s focus is on how well kids obey, then the fact that this can be promoted via authority figures doling out rewards and punishments proves to this parent that reliance on the power of the authority figure is a good idea. But if kids learning self-control and autonomy is the parent’s focus, then this parent will opt for authoritative, democratic, nonpunitive methods that teach this, such as those in the above discussion of best parenting methods.

Sears thinks the confrontation between kid and authority figure is inevitable, so his bag of tricks is ready for this in that it contains punitive measures. Those in the authoritative movement don’t feel power and coercion are appropriate since they believe in democratic methods.

Praise is a bad way of instilling self-esteem—it  produces not self-esteem but dependency; verbally encouraging is bad for kids if it is done with You statements but good for kids if it is done with I statements ('I'm wondering how you felt when you drew that' or 'I appreciate it when you help with dishes')
*Praise is a bad way of instilling self-esteem—it produces not self-esteem but dependency; verbally encouraging is bad for kids if it is done with You statements but good for kids if it is done with I statements ("I'm wondering how you felt when you drew that" or "I appreciate it when you help with dishes")

The weaknesses of the Attachment Parenting movement, as defined by Bowlby, Brazelton and Sears, are: including punitive methods even including physical ones, allowing parents to get involved in kids’ squabbles and other kids’ problems which are the kids’ responsibility, using unqualified *praise, using rewards in parenting, using orders when deemed necessary (e.g., breaking up a squabble), using nondemocratic power tactics, providing too little focus on the win-win context of parental needs being filled as well as kids’ needs, including too much sexism, including old-fashioned Second Wave ideas about family structure and function especially with regards to mothers, and assuming too much naively about the available time parents will have to be around kids in modern society. These weaknesses are not found in the democratic, authoritative methods in the above discussion of the best parenting methods. Happily, Aletha J. Solter's Aware Parenting and Pam Leo's Connection Parenting are Attachment Parenting methods that do not have these punitive-control weaknesses.

Read P.E.T. books for more on rewards and punishments, praise, problem ownership, communication barriers, no-lose problem solving, orders, coercion, win-win and democratic values. Then read the Tofflers’ Powershift book and War and Anti-War and ask yourself if Second Wave power tactics are really the choice you wish to opt for in parenting and the choice that will empower the world to survive the 21st century.

The strengths of Sears’ method are: it is kind, it is very loving, it is very security-promoting, it believes in active listening and mutual respect and family meetings, it subscribes to natural and logical consequences, it at least attempts to avoid punitive tactics, and its attachment-based methods are scientifically validated and sound. Moreover, of all methods known, this is the one with the most detailed instructions on how to raise kids, including medical problems. There’s a vast array of issues with solid answers that have been helpful to millions of parents over the years. It can be highly recommended for its wisdom and helpful knowledge in dealing with most of these issues—except the discipline area.

The weakness present in all known parenting methods, except MC methods as depicted in our website, is that there is too little acknowledgement of the well-known difficulties caused by steep-gradient nurturance, in addition to too little acknowledgement of the well-known fact that other cultures today and historically have avoided said difficulties by use of more flat-gradient parenting methods. This doesn’t question the research about mother-child bonding or attachment parenting, etc. Mothers being there for an intense—minimally six-month—period of attachment is valid science. But exclusive mothering and steep-gradient nurturance in general constitute a separate issue entirely.

The best flat-gradient nurturance is not only less oppressive and stressful for all, it is more realistic relative to the needs and desires of the modern woman and family, it promotes better community and social and democratic values, it’s more win-win than any other way, and it is experienced by kids not as less of anything but more. Kids who can choose from more nurturers (including mom) get more needs filled better, become more dynamic and independent and autonomous, are more inspired and less mentally and psychologically confined (so they learn better and are eager to do so), and are less likely to end up as symptoms of their mothers’ psychological problems. (Read Philip Slater’s and R.D. Laing’s books for examples and specifics.)

Furthermore, the more kids can choose, the more they can learn autonomy and self-control and the more they can feel at cause rather than at effect. Read Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd, Maslow’s Toward a Psychology of Being, and Putney and Putney’s The Adjusted American for the specific differences between an at-effect, other-directed, deficiency-cognition-based, indirect-self-acceptance-seeking person and an at-cause, autonomous, self-actualized, being-cognition-based, self-aware and self-guided person who can choose who he is and how he relates to people.

The self-directed autonomous has less mind-mud to trudge through when thinking or deciding
The self-directed autonomous has less mind-mud to trudge through when thinking or deciding

The autonomous is more than just an inner-directed rewards-and-punishment-conditioned, obedient conformist who “makes parents proud” and therefore seems fine—if a little limited and repressed. He—the self-directed autonomous—is his own person, is more creative and wise than most people, has less mind-mud to trudge through when thinking or deciding, makes better decisions than most people, is more one with himself and the world than most people, is able to understand others and give to others better than most people, and is happier than most people. He has more self-esteem because his self-talk is positive rather than negative. (Finally, he is likely to join an MC at first opportunity, since he will understand that the deteriorating situation in the world, the environment, in society, in relationships, in nurturance, in childcare, in community, and in democratic value dispersal is his problem and not someone else’s problem, and modern people’s alienation, disconnectedness and unhappiness is likewise not seen as someone else’s problem, but his problem personally, since he often feels one with the world.)