Family Focus

Three Essential Parenting Principles


Parent and Child in CarBy Craig H. Hart, ’80

Parenting with love, limits, and latitude can have far-reaching effects on children.


YOU hear the all-too familiar squealing and aren’t surprised when you find your 2-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son in a tug-of-war match over a coveted toy. It has already happened several times today, and you’re beginning to feel frustrated. How do you respond?

How parents handle such situations affects more than just the level of chaos in their home. Research has shown that parenting style can also affect children’s social development. 

Over the past 20 years, I have collaborated in studies of parents in several parts of the United States and in Australia, China, and Russia, where we have found surprising similarity in parenting styles and their effects on children’s social skills. Around the world most parental behavior can be classified into one of three general parenting styles—coercive, permissive, and authoritative. 

Our research suggests that authoritative styles are most effective in the long-term development of positive social behavior in children, and it supports what modern prophets have said. Authoritative parenting involves consistently connecting with children in a loving way, setting reasonable limits, and allowing children an appropriate measure of autonomy. Coercion and permissiveness are less-effective and often detrimental parenting patterns. Coercion involves the use of physical or psychological control to achieve desired behaviors in children. Permissive parenting overindulges children and allows them relatively free reign. 

It is important to note that, even in the same family, no two children are alike or respond exactly the same to parenting. Brigham Young wisely encouraged parents to “study their [children’s] dispositions and their temperaments, and deal with them accordingly” (Discourses of Brigham Young, ed. John A. Widtsoe [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1998], p. 207). For most children, adapting a carefully tailored balance of three authoritative parenting principles—what I call love, limits, and latitude—can teach them correct behavior and help them develop social skills. 

Love

Expressing love to children, or connecting, is the foundation of authoritative parenting. Parents lovingly connect with their children by spending playful time with them, showing affection, praising what they do well, reading to them, and assuring them of the relationship during moments of correction. 

Even when circumstances cause parents to exercise their regulatory role, they should do it in a loving way. Coercion—physical or psychological—is rarely appropriate. Coercive behavior includes abuse and excessive spanking, threats of physical aggression, shouting, manipulating, withdrawing love, shaming, guilt trips, invalidating another’s feelings, and being patronizing. While coercion often leads to immediate conformance by the child, research indicates it rarely results in a long-term solution and often leads to the child’s being more defiant, depressed, aggressive or withdrawn, and manipulative in the home and with peers. 

Modern-day prophets going back to Brigham Young have spoken out against coercive parenting and in favor of a more loving, connecting approach. President Young said, “Kind words and loving actions towards children, will subdue [children’s] uneducated nature a great deal better than . . . physical punishment” (Deseret News Weekly, Dec. 7, 1864, p. 2). President Joseph F. Smith added that parents should “use no lash and no violence” and maintained that “the man that will be angry at his boy, and try to correct him while he is in his anger, is in the greatest fault. . . . You can only correct your children . . . in kindness by love unfeigned, by persuasion, and reason” (Gospel Doctrine, 13th ed. [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1963], pp. 316–17). And President Gordon B. Hinckley called on parents to be “companionable” with their children (“Some Thoughts on Temples, Retention of Converts, and Missionary Service,” Ensign [Nov. 1997], p. 49).

Parents can create loving connections with their children by interacting with gentleness, kindness, long-suffering, and charity (see D&C 121:41; 45). When reproof is necessary, parents should follow it up with “an increase of love . . . lest [the child] should esteem [them] to be his enemy” (D&C 121:43). 

Secular research supports this approach. Children of parents who focus on loving relationships and are less coercive tend to be better at regulating their emotions and finding peaceful resolutions to problems. They are more skilled at reading social cues and developing trusting and accepting friendships with peers. 

Limits

While love is the foundation of authoritative parenting, children also need appropriate limits. What is appropriate in limit setting depends on a given child’s disposition and maturity. In that way, parenting is like riding a horse. For some children parents may need to hold the reigns tighter. Other children may require less parental steering. And with some children, holding the reigns too tightly may only lead to defiance. Knowing when to let up on the reigns and when to tighten your grip takes a lot of creativity and inspiration. 

Many limits can be implicit. For instance, children who grow up with parents who attend church each Sunday, always wear their seatbelts, and never curse may not need explicit rules about such matters. President David O. McKay counseled parents, “Children are more influenced by the sermons you act than by the sermons you preach” (in Conference Report, April 1955, p. 26). When parents do create explicit limits, it is important to distinguish mountains from molehills and not make the number of rules overwhelming. 

It is important that, when possible, parents provide reasons for rules in advance (“People are reading in the library. We can stay as long as we are quiet.”) rather than react arbitrarily to a child’s misbehavior. Rules should also have logical consequences. For example, if there is a family rule against rollerblading in the house, an appropriate consequence for breaking the rule might be that the child cannot rollerblade for a specified amount of time. Suspending driving privileges for traffic violations or calmly showing up at an adolescent’s teen party when curfew is violated are other examples. 

Parents become permissive when they don’t enforce boundaries. Calmly and consistently following through and explaining why punishments are administered are vital for helping children learn to regulate their behavior. 

Logical rewards can be appropriate consequences for keeping family rules. Complimenting children (“The lawn looks great.”), providing earned rewards (“If you finish your homework early, you can play your computer game until bedtime.”), and offering surprise rewards (“Thanks for eating your dinner each night this week. Let’s go out for ice cream.”) allow children to experience the fruits of good behavior, hard work, and obedience. 

Research suggests that children whose parents establish appropriate limits on their behavior and follow through are less likely to abuse drugs and be aggressive and delinquent and are more likely to adjust well to school. They are better at thinking through the consequences of actions and are more willing to abide by laws. They also tend to be more capable of moral reasoning and are more self-controlled. 


Latitude 

Speaking of the Saints, Joseph Smith said, “I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves” (qtd. by John Taylor, in Millennial Star, Nov. 15, 1851, p. 339). Similarly, parents need to remember that their children will not be under their direct guidance forever. Children eventually leave home and need to “govern themselves.” One way parents can prepare their children for this time is by giving them a measure of latitude, or autonomy, appropriate to their maturity. 

From the time children are toddlers, parents can let them make reasonable decisions within established boundaries. Young children can help choose what to wear. Older children can have a say in how they accomplish their chores. Teens can be allowed to make media choices so long as they fall within family guidelines. Giving children some say in decision making puts them in the “driver’s seat” and prepares them to make farther-reaching decisions later. 

Giving children latitude means negotiating and compromising on rules when appropriate. Some rules can be adjusted under certain conditions. Suppose a family rule is that children can play only after chores are done. What if the cousins stop by for a short visit? If the parents won’t budge, they may create a lot of resentment in their children. Instead, the parents and children might decide to consider that day exceptional and work out an alternate plan. Being willing to negotiate with children and compromise when flexibility is possible gives them more control over their lives and prepares them for real-world negotiation and compromise. 

Research backs up the need to allow children latitude. Children who experience an appropriate amount of autonomy tend to be better at sharing power and understanding others’ viewpoints. They have fewer disputes with their parents and are more respectful of adults in general. They better manage their activities. And in peer relationships they place more emphasis on persuasion and negotiation to get their way. 

Parenting by Righteous Principles

I often joke that I was a much better parent before I had kids. Authoritative parenting takes time, patience, creativity, faith, and inspiration. And no parent handles every situation perfectly. When we fall short as parents, we need to apologize and try to do better. 

There are no recipes for producing happy, well-adapted children, but there are principles we can follow. Using love, limits, and latitude, parents can avoid “unrighteous dominion,” leading their children “by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned” (D&C 121:39; 41).


Craig H. Hart is chair of the Marriage, Family, and Human Development Program in the School of Family Life.

MORE: References to doctrinal sources and related research articles.

 

SCHOLARLY AND DOCTRINAL REFERENCES

Many of the academic studies referred to in Craig H. Hart, “Three Essential Parenting Principles” (BYU Magazine, spring 2003, pp. 58–59), are summarized in Craig H. Hart, Lloyd D. Newell, and Susanne Frost Olsen, “Parenting Skills and Social-Communicative Competence in Childhood,” in J. O. Green and B. R. Burleson, eds., Handbook of Communication and Social Interaction Skill(Mahway, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003), pp. 753–800.

Doctrinal support can be found in Craig H. Hart and Lloyd D. Newell and Lisa L. Sine, “Proclamation-Based Principles of Parenting and Supportive Scholarship,” in David C. Dollahite, ed.,Strengthening our Families: An In-Depth Look at the Proclamation on the Family (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2000), 100–23.