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The Big Answer

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The Effects of Parental Firm Control: A Reinterpretation of Findings

an article by Catherine C. Lewis

(our site's article review)

This extraordinarily insightful classic, that reinterprets various findings from developmental psychologists which accept the notion that parental firm control is a prerequisite for effective socialization, was written in 1981 and is a milestone in parenting technique thinking and a watershed that was long overdue. One could use a political Culture War perspective on all this and consider this a fatal blow to the domination of widespread right-wing influences in parenting literature, except that such influences still abound.

There are widespread right-wing influences in parenting literature—many supporting spanking
There are widespread right-wing influences in parenting literature—many supporting spanking

So one might be better served to consider this part of the Second Wave to Third Wave transition, and ultimately the landmark event (along with Thomas Gordon’s successful attempt to insert his democratic parenting ideas into the mainstream and the success of the P.E.T. movement itself) that signaled the serious evolution of the parenting area from the old, mechanistic-reductionistic paradigm focused on power, win-lose, authority, unilateral limits setting, control and obedience, to the new, ecological-holistic paradigm focused on cooperation, knowledge, communication, self-control, autonomy, expression of feelings, democratic conflict resolution, and bilateral limits setting with kids participating.

In spite of Baumrind’s thoughtful, learned attempt (specifically in 1983 and generally in 1996) to discredit Lewis’ new insights, the attempt was ultimately unsuccessful, and serious attribution theorists’ laboratory research continues to point in this new (1981) direction that Lewis championed, even though the developmental psychologists also continued promulgating their entrenched, punishment-and-control-favoring ideas, completely in parallel with the rightmost side of the Culture War. (Of course, Baumrind hated authoritarian parenting and what it represented, but favored strict, punishment-including authoritative parenting instead—a bit of an oxymoron. Lewis, obviously, favors nonpunitive authoritative parenting.) If only those who favor punishments would read Gordon’s Discipline That Works!

Why, indeed, should the science of child-raising be spared the contamination of the bumfuzzling Culture War when no other area of life and society in the U.S. was overlooked? But, then again, science reflects culture as much as culture reflects science—they are interdependent, with each influencing the other. A polarized culture tends to polarize science and vice versa.

Happily, MCs (microcommunities—See Why Register for an MC?) will be a unifying force that helps both culture and science depolarize as they are aided in transcending the right-left continuum and entering a new era of win-win negotiations and insights. Once both society and science see an exponential growth of superbly functional, individually chosen and actualized microcommunity-based lifestyle enhancements, their right-left polarized dialogue will be empowered to cease being about arguing about what works, and psychologists can begin rewriting and reformulating any of their theories that contain either authoritarian or permissive leanings, and they can finally dump the punishment idea as an anachronism. After all, isn’t the greatest hope of the 21st century that (Alvin Toffler's) First and Second Wave violence/threat/force will no longer be the main problem solver, but that communication, knowledge (Third Wave highest-quality power), and win-win cooperation will not only allow countries to settle differences but also the planet to begin taking ecology seriously?

Lewis points out the growing research that has shown that salient external control is negatively associated with internalization of standards. Mark Lepper’s research, Eleanor E. Maccoby’s and John A. Martin’s research, to name but a few, show that excess (authoritarian) or inadequate (permissive) force leads to less internalization of standards of behavior, while a balanced amount (authoritative) leads to optimal internalization. They also confirmed the effectiveness of reciprocal respect for one another’s needs between parent and child (à la P.E.T.), and that parenting practices that afford kids a sense of control over their compliance—a sense of complying by choice (à la P.E.T.) and not because of external pressure—will best promote kids’ internalization of norms.

They confirmed the essential nature of being at cause, not at effect, choosing rather than being “obedient,” defining oneself, and the Maslovian perspective (see Toward a Psychology of Being) on growth wherein secure and loving parent-child relationships support choices, adventuring and exploration in the young in such a way as to engender the optimal, natural-consequences-rich learning and growing environment for the development of maturity, security, beingness, self-actualization and autonomy.

A child whose parents support his learning to be 'at cause,' not 'at effect,' choosing rather than being 'obedient'
A child whose parents support his learning to be 'at cause,' not 'at effect,' choosing rather than being 'obedient'

What Baumrind has defined as definitively firm parental control in her studies was based upon too many preconceptions to necessarily be what she says it is, says Lewis. Referring to Baumrind’s concept of firm parental control, she says: “. . . the category might equally well be considered a measure either of the child’s willingness to accept parental control or of parent-child disciplinary harmony.” Lewis points out that high self-control is one of the criteria used to select Pattern I (authoritative) children, and yet Baumrind’s conclusions are all about how much successful control parents are exercising over kids—appropriate for dogs, not children.

Baumrind’s obedience conclusions are all about how much successful control parents are exercising over kids—appropriate for dogs, not children
Baumrind’s obedience conclusions are all about how much successful control parents are exercising over kids—appropriate for dogs, not children

Since Pattern I (authoritative) kids and their parents are reciprocally need-filling, and use reason and persuasion more than power, Lewis rightfully asks why such good cooperation and communication has been labeled by Baumrind as “parental control.” This explains why the great social responsibility and competency characteristics of harmonious children are a mystery to Baumrind, who claims the parents “had control but did not exercise control.” In truth, such kids had self control, not parental control, and they also had cooperative relationships (à la P.E.T.) in which win-win was the reward for their efforts. Trying to force a “parental control” label onto a situation that didn’t warrant it is basically like trying to put a square peg into a round hole.

Forcing a 'parental control' label onto a 'self-control' situation is like trying to put a square peg in a round hole
Forcing a 'parental control' label onto a 'self-control' situation is like trying to put a square peg in a round hole

In view of the evidence, Lewis concludes that “parental firm control is not essential to development of the masterful/socially responsible behavior of authoritative parents’ children.” This of course doesn’t mean that control isn’t manifesting in the situation. It’s just that Baumrind obviously perceived the situation through “parental-control”-colored glasses, not leaving open the possibility that someone besides parents could exercise control over children’s behavior. This reveals a lack of objectivity. So does Baumrind’s conclusions that children must be punished for nonconformity.

Lewis finds little evidence to support such a conclusion (nor do we), and it’s obvious Baumrind was unknowingly looking to support this punishment conclusion before the evidence was in. Certainly there was no intentional deception from Baumrind, one of psychology’s best researchers. But that preconceptions about punishment corrupted some of her studies seem to us beyond question. One wonders how the great works by Riesman, Fromm and Maslow that preceded Baumrind somehow got by her—if she did see them they seemed to have no effect. Autonomy and self-control (which these authors so successfully championed) is of course what all parents and psychologists—including Baumrind—are hoping for from maturing kids. Is she really saying one must control them and punish them into becoming autonomous? Sounds a bit like the ultimate oxymoron to us!

Baumrind seems to say we must control them and punish them into becoming autonomous!
Baumrind seems to say we must control them and punish them into becoming autonomous!

Let’s get real here: Children often behave well because of the self-control they have evolved, with the help of wise, supportive parents. Parental control is often, especially with older kids, simply irrelevant. And reciprocity is anything but parental control via successful manipulation. It is mutual cooperation and kids wisely accepting a win-win lifestyle as superior to a win-lose, power- or control-based one. Baumrind seems to have a serious mental block about self-control!

Lewis points to children maturing to possess an internal locus of control (being “at cause”) in the most cooperative authoritative families as a much more likely explanation for their children’s exceptional competence than parental firm control. So when respect for kids’ decisions, using reason and induction rather than force, and encouragement of give and take give good results, it has nothing to do with parents controlling anyone, and plenty to do with good, democratic, P.E.T.-like parenting. As Lewis says: “There is a need for a new look at a widely accepted [by many developmental psychologists] notion that parental firm control promotes effective socialization.” Amen.

For other study results involving the comparison of authoritative parenting and other types of parenting styles, search for these authors in our “Search this site” box: Gauvain, Baumrind, Maccoby, Lewis, Aunola, Brassington, Hill, Larzelere, Shucksmith, Chao, Ramsey, Strage, Peterson, Fletcher, Gray, Steinberg, Lamborn, Society for the Advancement of Education, Johnson Publishing Company Inc., Berg, Snowden, McIntyre, and Slicker.

Then see these books: (and the references in the back) Gordon’s Discipline That Works and Alvy’s Parent Training Today. Then see our comments on books and/or articles by these authors: Lakoff, Gould, Pugh, Critzer, Popkin, Dinkmeyer, Gordon, Faber, Dreikurs, Solter, Prinz, Kvols, and Nelsen, keeping in mind that this is just the first author listed—many works have more authors and these are listed as well in each of our reviews.

Finally, check out the real courses (begin with Internet searches) that teach various forms of authoritative and democratic parenting, like P.E.T., STEP, Attachment Parenting, Nonviolent Communication, Winning Family Lifeskills, Positive Parenting, Positive Discipline, Redirecting Children’s Behavior, the Ginott method (see our review on the Faber and Mazlish book Liberated Parents Liberated Children), Dreikur’s democratic parenting (see our comments on his Happy Children book), Loving Discipline, Connection Parenting, and Active Parenting.