How to Discipline a Toddler Without Hitting Part 3: Understanding the Need for Control with Baumrind Parenting Styles

Children will not remember you for the material things you provided but for the feeling that you cherished them.
-Richard L. Evans 

Parenting is akin to Goldilocks and the three little bears. At first Goldilocks tries the porridge that is too cold. This is the parent who is strict and unyielding, treating the child with superiority. Then Goldilocks eats the porridge that is too hot, like the parent who is very warm and loving with their child but has no boundaries. Last Goldilocks eats the warm porridge that is just right.  Such is the parent who comfortably finds the balance between being demanding while responsive and accepting.

Baumrind Parenting Styles

As mentioned briefly in Part 1, the goal in parenting is to be authoritative (high warmth, high structure) rather than permissive (high warmth, low structure). The last two parenting styles according to Diana Baumrind’s theory are uninvolved and authoritarian. Parents who are authoritarian are opposite of permissive. They are stern, cold, inflexible, and rely on techniques of “tough love” and “my way or the highway.” Children do not get a chance to share their thoughts and feelings or their side of the story when misbehavior arises. Parents may rely on harsh physical punishments such as excessive spanking.

Drawbacks of an Authoritarian Parenting Style

Though these children may be obedient in front of the punishing parents, this type of parenting style comes with a host of negative drawbacks, many of which parents can likely guess after reading my post on why I stopped punishing my kids.  Baumrind (1971, p. 2) found children raised by authoritarian parents were described as “discontent, withdrawn, and distrustful.”  These parents tend to focus so much on their children obeying authority at any cost, that it leaves the kids feeling trapped and angry. In fact it often leads to becoming the bully (Baldry & Farrington, 2000). They act out the aggression that has been modeled , preying on those perceived as weaker, and are more likely to be convicted of a criminal offense in adolescence (Farrington & Hawkins, 1991).

The children of authoritarian parents have lower self-esteem (Martinez & Garcia, 2008), a lower level of moral reasoning (Boyes & Allen, 1993), and poorer academic achievement (Dornbusch et al., 1987).  I find the lower levels of moral reasoning particularly interesting. I often hear people say something along the lines of, “Pain is the only thing toddlers understand,” when in actuality, they are learning to handle conflict with aggression. They learn how to avoid punishment, rather than some higher ethical understanding.

Psychological Reactance

How does it feel when a boss or coworker has said explicitly not to do something without any sort of explanation? For me, I immediately want to do it. Say someone is in a spacious white room with a big red button in the middle with the words, “Do Not Push” in big bold black letters. What is the person thinking about? Likely, I wonder what that big red button does. What would really happen if I pushed it? This “big red button” syndrome is called psychological reactance, the idea that once something is strictly forbidden, it becomes more enticing. The layman’s term reverse psychology is sometimes used to describe this. When someone’s freedom feels threatened, they are motivated to regain a sense of control.

When children feel their freedom is being threatened, they want to do the opposite of what parents are asking. An experiment with kindergarteners described in The Art of Choosing illustrates this beautifully:

An experimenter in a white lab coat showed the children 6 toys. … [including] a battery-powered robot named Robbie. …He asked the children to rate the toys from favorite to least favorite and Robbie turned out to be the overall winner.  Next, he told them he was going to leave the room, and while he was gone, they could play with any of the toys except Robbie. He strongly warned some of the children against playing with Robbie by saying, “I will be very upset and very annoyed with you, and I’ll have to do something about it.” To the other children he said only, “I will be a bit annoyed with you.” While the experimenter was away, the children who had been threatened with anger gazed at Robbie but didn’t go near him. The children who had received a milder threat obeyed the experimenter, but they got much closer to Robbie…. A week later, another experimenter asked these same children to once again rate the six toys. The mildly threatened children, who had found it so difficult to resist Robbie, weren’t as interested in him as they had been before. But the other children, who had been threatened more severely, wanted more than ever to play with Robbie. … We can imagine these children thinking, … “He’s not the boss of me!” … The mildly threatened children almost gave in to their urges, but their hesitation itself indicates that they believed they had a choice.

Autonomy Versus Shame and Doubt

Feeling a sense of control is important in all ages. According to Erik Erikson, it starts around age two when children enter what he called the stage of autonomy versus shame and doubt. Once children have begun to recognize that they’re their own person, with thoughts and feelings outside of their caretaker, they want to showcase their independence. This is a common time to hear, “Mine!” and “Let me do it” and “I did it all by myself!” These are all normal displays of their desire for freedom and control.

As children reach adolescence, that desire for autonomy is stronger than ever. Imagine the teenage daughter who is strictly forbidden from seeing her boyfriend with no ifs, ands, or buts. Her feelings and frustrations are quickly dismissed.  Is she thinking, “Shucks my parents are right, my boyfriend is a loser. I better move on and make better decisions with my life?” It’s more likely she’s thinking what the kindergarteners from the strict condition in the study were, “He’s not the boss of me!” She’ll likely avoid her parents, not the boyfriend. Where she once told her parents her whereabouts, now she might start sneaking out of the house and becoming less open and honest.

The Need for Control is Universal

Not only do we see this desire for choice and freedom in toddlers and teenagers, but throughout the lifespan. For example, in a study done by Ellen Langer and Judith Rodin, nursing home residents were assigned to one of two groups. One floor of residents were told of the many decisions they can make, with an emphasis that their happiness was in their own control. The residents were told they should decide how they want the furniture arranged, whether to visit with friends in their room or the rooms of their friends, which night to watch a movie, and whether they wanted a plant to take care of on their own. Residents on the next floor were told it was the responsibility of the nursing home staff to help residents be happy. They were told they received a plant that the nurses would take care of and informed on which day they could watch a movie.

The two groups had similar experiences, but how they experienced them were profoundly different. The first were given a sense of control and independence that the second group lacked. The result:

Patients in the comparison group were given a communication stressing the staff’s desire to make them happy and were otherwise treated in the sympathetic manner characteristic of this high-quality nursing home. Despite the care provided for these people, 71% were rated as having become more debilitated over a period of time as short as 3 weeks. In contrast with this group, 93% of the people who were encouraged to make decisions for themselves, given decisions to make, and given responsibility for something outside of themselves, actually showed overall improvement. (p. 197)

Nurses rated residence in the choice condition as happier, more active, more alert, and more involved. This necessity for self-determination is lifelong.

Offering Choices in Parenting

Authoritarian parenting takes away a child’s sense of choice. If parents do not want a rebellious, disrespectful child, they can give their child a sense of autonomy. Notice I did not say full-on autonomy. A sense of autonomy means offering them choices. Parents might be tempted to say, “Get in the car this instance or I’m going to spank your bum!” which would lead to resistance from anyone if they were talked to that way. Rather parents can try something like, “It’s time to get in the car. Would you like to bring a book or a stuffed animal with us?” Notice this is clear in saying, “It’s time to get in the car.” I didn’t say, “Are you ready to go?” or “Would you like to get in the car now?” This immediately leads to “no” and then you’re stuck again trying to force them against their will.

The choices offered should be two that are both acceptable to the parent. It is unhelpful to rephrase a threat into a choice such as stating calmly, “Would you rather go to bed or get spanked? You decide.” When there is a clear obvious option it undermines the toddler’s sense of control.

Give Warnings Before Conflict Arises

I hate when I’m in the flow of organizing or writing and exploring an idea when my daughter pulls at my arm and demands that I immediately get her a drink of milk. Just as no child likes to leave the park, say goodbye to a friend, or put the blocks at library story time down the moment a parent demands it.  Rather than parents forcing their daughter to immediately interrupt her play at their word, they can try, “One more minute, then you need to clean up”. One great resource we use is Daniel Tiger’s song which goes, “it’s almost time to stop, so choose one more thing to do. That was fun, but now it’s done.”

State Something to Look Forward To

Resistance is eased when parents give their child something to look forward to as they leave friends and swing sets behind or before bed.  Researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi advised people to have things to look forward to the next day to help reach the state of flow. Flow is “when you’re fully immersed in a specific task with a seemingly inexhaustible amount of focus.” All sense of time passing is lost. My daughter puts up much less of a fuss with even a simple, “In the morning we’ll go play,” even though this seems obvious to me (what else do 2-year-olds do?).

Make it Fun

A child will resist less when a parent turns a demand into a game. This can be combined with other ideas such as, “Do you want to go to the car like a kangaroo or a snake?” Rather than, “Quick, quick! You’re making us late!” try, “let’s be fast like a cheetah!” Dance while getting dressed, make funny faces while eating vegetables, shoot baskets while putting away clothes. Using songs, imagination, and creativity rather than a command will help the child feel he has a choice and be more willing to comply.

Offering choices, giving warnings, stating things to look forward to, and making commands fun are simple ways to balance warmth and structure. Parents still have demands for their child, but it is done with warmth. It is done with an understanding that their child is a normal human being who doesn’t like being bossed around just because he’s a kid.

In part 4, I give bonus ways to strike this balance with an emphasis on fostering emotional intelligence.


Continue the series by selecting an image below.