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Helicopter, free-range, concierge, lighthouse: What kind of parent are you?

After all our efforts and worries, will our style of parenting have had as much impact as we might like to think on the way they turned out as adults?

“Anti-dopamine parenting” was a new one for me, as was the trilogy of “crunchy”, “silky” and “scrunchy” mums.

There is a modern obsession with dissecting and defining parenting styles in this way. Coded with attention-grabbing metaphors, some categories are rooted in social science, others more a byproduct of parental lifestyles.

In the 1960s, clinical and developmental US psychologist Diana Baumrind identified three distinct styles of parenting – authoritarian, authoritative and permissive – and studied their impact on children. It was to be another 20 years before researchers Eleanor Maccoby and John Martin added a fourth category, neglectful parenting. This quartet of parenting types is still a benchmark, despite the spawning of more colourful classifications since.

Out of the four, authoritative is regarded as the most desirable, with studies linking this type of parenting to better child outcomes. In a nutshell, authoritative parents set boundaries with a child but offer plenty of warm connection too.


Starting a family is a very idealistic thing to do and you create this little ‘mini world’

Whereas authoritarian parenting focuses on discipline and control with little consideration of emotional needs, while permissive parenting prioritises warm connection but is lax on limits, over-indulging to avoid conflict. Neglectful, sometimes called uninvolved parenting, meets a child’s basic physical needs but has little regard for socio-emotional aspects.

Psychotherapist and author Stella O’Malley believes a fifth type, “ultra responsive” parenting, should now be added. Into this category she would put those parents who respond to “every little nick in their [child’s] skin, every little hive, every little cry, every smile – it’s very, very supercharged”. It is a reflection, she suggests, of the sort of “very high tempo life” so many of us now lead.

O’Malley views the preoccupation with labelling parenting styles as part of a modern trend to categorise all types of human behaviour. This kind of self-categorising helps people to feel they are part of a group, a tribe.

The older generations in Ireland are, in the main, very solid in their identities, she says. “We were Irish or English; Catholic or Protestant; middle-class or working-class.” With these once carefully curated distinctions now redundant in a much more diverse society, “it’s really interesting that this newest generation are grasping for identities so fast”.

Starting a family is a very idealistic thing to do and you create this little “mini world”, she says. Inevitably there will be “reactionary parenting”: you want to replicate elements of your upbringing and/or definitely want to avoid the way your parents did things. While it is a noble instinct to read up on what “experts” say about parenting styles and decide what would be best for our children, ultimately, she believes, we revert to ourselves.

“I know when I first had babies I was going to be a kind of Earth Mother and we got hens,” recalls O’Malley. “I always giggle at that now. We lived in this idyllic place. But honestly I was sticking a square peg into a round hole. I am not naturally all that earthy. I thought the concept was beautiful but my own personality was too brain-oriented to be toiling the land!”

Different children need different approaches, so a parenting style cannot be adopted in a vacuum. Despite what you might think as a first-time parent, it is not all about you.

You parent your first child according to whoever’s philosophy appeals, says O’Malley, whose latest book, What Your Teen is Trying to Tell You, was published in March. “Then you think you’ve got it sussed – until the second arrives and you realise everything you knew is wrong.” With the rise in one-child families, those parents can propagate the idea that a certain type of parenting works, she says, because in their case the fallacy of that will never be put to the test.

“We have really undermined our instinctive parenting,” she argues. As a result, “there is a vibe of cluelessness ... and a general culture of denigrating parents that we all collude in”. In tandem with that undermining has come greater demands for parental responsibility.

“If the kid is bold, the presumption is to look to the parent. Thirty odd years ago, if the child was bold, well that was a bad child. It’s completely gone the other way to, ‘where is the parent we need to blame for that child?’”

Women used to have status as a mother, she says, but that is not enough any more. “Now there’s both a questioning, ‘are you any good at that mothering – and what else are you’?” If you choose to be a stay-at-home mother with no paid employment, the bar is high indeed, with the presumption that you must be doing everything “right” for your children. (Whereas stay-at-home fathers still benefit from novelty status, accounting for just six per cent of stay-at-home parents.)

Undoubtedly, a culture of judgment fuels the creation of labels – many a variation on similar themes – that are applied to parenting today. As we parents can never get it right, there is always a downside. Which one, or more, from this non-exhaustive list might apply to you?

Helicopter parenting

A widely used term for hovering over your children and teenagers, always ready to swoop in and rescue them from disappointments and painful experiences. It is a sign you are over-invested in your child’s every move and view all they do as a reflection of you as their parent.

Downside: Denying children the opportunity to learn by making mistakes is likely to stunt cognitive and emotional development.

Drone parenting

An extreme version of helicopter parenting, where supervision and interference is more of the silent kind. The child will be unaware of strings you pull for them through “networking” with parents and relevant professionals; the teenager will not know you are spying on their mobile phone interactions. And the flipside of this term is the likelihood of “droning” on about your wonderful child at every opportunity.

Downside: You cannot cover your child’s back forever and their unpreparedness for life’s battles leaves them at higher risk of mental health issues.

Lawnmower/Bulldozer/Snowplough parenting

Different names for the same compulsion to rush to remove obstacles from a child’s path towards “success”. It might be taking on the teacher or sports coach who does not seem to recognise a child’s talents, or even just writing a “sick” note to excuse undone homework.

Downside: Children do not get the chance to develop healthy expectations about challenges they face.

Free-range parenting

Allowing children out in the neighbourhood unsupervised was just “parenting” up to a generation ago. Now it needs a title to distinguish it from the more cooped up, over-protective childhoods that have become the norm. By definition it enables a more active childhood. Children’s independence, self-confidence and social skills are bolstered as they explore and solve problems without adult interference.

Downside: Perception of outdoor risks to children has certainly increased sharply, if not in reality. However, as fewer parents take this approach, safety in numbers is diminished.

If you like your analogies to come from other species in the animal kingdom there are plenty to choose from:

Tiger parenting

Pushing a child to succeed with a combination of psychological control and punitive measures. With parents convinced they know best, an individual child’s preferences are railroaded in the rigorous pursuit of excellence, be it academic and/or sporting. Outperforming peers is expected and praise is strictly rationed.

Downside: Anxiety and depression among those children who fail to meet parental expectations.

Dolphin parenting

A friendlier, more intuitive and flexible style practised by parents who are typically both playful and intelligent in their approach. Hence the likening of it to the popular sea creature by Harvard-educated psychiatrist Dr Shimi Kang in her book, The Dolphin Way. It uses role modelling and guiding to help children develop internal control and self-motivation. Encouraging playful exploration and a sense of community are part of the philosophy, along with balanced respect for rules of behaviour.

Downside: Too much flexibility can unnerve children who need boundaries to feel secure.

Elephant parenting

Nurturing, protecting and consoling are high on the agenda here. Emotional sensitivity and whatever makes the child happy trumps striving for achievements. It’s about building a child’s self-confidence with gentle nudging.

Downside: Too much shielding from life’s hard knocks can result in children who struggle with problem-solving.

Koala parenting

Another name for the concept of “attachment parenting” developed by Dr William Sears and his wife Martha Sears, who published a book on it in 2001. Initially, it involves keeping your baby close to facilitate consistent responses to their cues, through baby-wearing, long-term breastfeeding and co-sleeping. Strong child-parent emotional bonds are a platform for later independence and healthy relationships.

Downside: can be relentless for the parent (read, mother, let’s face it) and bed-sharing with a baby comes with safety warnings

Jellyfish parenting

You know this one isn’t going to be good. With no backbone and all at sea when it comes to boundaries and consequences, this is permissive parenting by another name.

Downside: Likely to result in unhappy children struggling with authority, self-regulation and low self-esteem.

Lighthouse parenting

One for parenting of teenagers advocated by paediatrician Dr Kenneth Ginsburg, who likes to focus on enjoying rather than just surviving this stage. Be a stable force on the shoreline as your offspring navigate the teenage years. Let them ride the waves, but shine from on high to guide them around the most dangerous rocks. Also keep your beam on the person they will become, rather than focusing on short-term activities and behaviours.

Downside: Lofty expectations may be overwhelming for some children, while others may crave more hands-on involvement.

Gentle parenting

British author Sarah Ockwell-Smith’s, The Gentle Parenting Book, advocated an approach where the focus is on empathy, understanding, respect and healthy boundaries. The outcome should be happier, more confident children who are well-equipped for relationships. It is not a case of ditching discipline, but rather taking age-appropriate measures when there is a lesson to be learned.

Downside: You need enough patience and empathy to respond consistently to a child’s “feelings” rather than ever just reacting to behaviour.

Crunchy/silky/scrunchy parenting

The fact that these adjectives are firmly attached to “mom” in the crowdsourced, online Urban Dictionary indicates this trio is still very much a North American classification. Crunchy moms are at the extreme end of “natural parenting”, where commendable, sustainable practices such as eating only organic food, preferably vegan, long-term breastfeeding and using cloth nappies, come wrapped in pseudoscience and opposition to childhood vaccinations and mainstream medicine.

At the other end of the spectrum, the “silky” mom is happy to avail of science, medicine, and technology, from the pain relief in hospital births, to the convenience of formula, disposable nappies, fast food and electronic devices to entertain children.

The “scrunchy mom” balances life midway between those two. She seeks out wooden toys but it’s disposable nappies all the way; she makes an effort with home-cooked meals but is not averse to a family takeaway.

Anti-dopamine parenting

A rather misleading title for making a concerted effort to reduce or redirect children’s cravings for screens and sweets. Dopamine is a vital neurotransmitter involved in many bodily functions. Spikes of this chemical messenger reward and motivate behaviour, increasing the desire for more.

It’s the addictive “hits” of instant gratification offered by electronic devices and sugary foods, rather than more positive surges associated with, say, exercise, that this approach zones in on. “Out of sight, out of mind” is one guiding principle (but that means putting your smartphone away too).

Downside: Over-zealous implementation can cut off a teenager from peer interaction and shared experiences.

Concierge parenting

In reflecting on my own parenting beyond the 18-year threshold, I reached for this metaphor before doing an online search, whereupon I discovered that, of course, there was nothing original about the thought. (Coincidentally, a week later, Roisin Ingle in her column identified with this tendency to be on the lookout and standby 24/7 as she parents two teenagers.) I was taking a benign view of being available to offer information/advice to young adults when asked and still meeting the occasional request for “Mum’s taxi”. Whereas the very extreme form of this parenting trend is said to be exemplified by the US scandal of parents bribing exclusive colleges to admit their children.

Downside: Being on hand to fulfil every request is detrimental to children and exhausting for parents.

Good enough parenting

Paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott had it right when he first came up with the term “good enough mother” – (well, fathers were less in the spotlight in 1953). Seventy year later, it is reassuring to remind ourselves that most children basically just need well-intentioned, half-competent parents who show them wholehearted love.

Downside: The self-questioning, is my version of “good enough” really good enough?

After all our efforts and worries over children, will our style of parenting have had as much impact as we might like to think on the way they turned out as adults?

“Isn’t that the million-dollar question,” agrees O’Malley. “None of us will ever know.” She is fond of the expression “just bring yourself to the party”, and believes that is all we can do with parenting. “If you are yourself, that should be good enough. If you try to be somebody different, you will mangle it and bring in an inauthentic relationship into your most precious relationships.”

Sheila Wayman

Sheila Wayman

Sheila Wayman, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, family and parenting