My 6-year-old gave me a performance evaluation of my parenting recently. I don’t mean the emotion-driven “You’re the meanest mom ever” because I said no to eating cookies for breakfast, or the exaggerated “You’re the BEST mom ever” because I packed those same cookies in her school lunch. Instead, this assessment came out of the blue during a casual conversation before bedtime.
My first grader was talking about a classmate who was serious and focused during lessons, but silly and playful during recess. “Mom, you’re like her,” my daughter concluded. “You’re a little bit fun and a little bit strict.”
For my daughter, this was a quick observation that was probably forgotten within minutes. But as parenting wins go, I consider it one of my biggest on record.
There are a million ways to raise a child. In fact, every parent who has ever existed represents his or her own way of parenting. We’re like unique, exhausted, largely clueless snowflakes.
But humans have been having kids for long enough now that we’ve got some useful data to work with when it comes to figuring out what works and what doesn’t in the big picture. And the evidence (both the anecdotal and the serious, scientific-journal kind) shows that the most successful parents share some things in common: they find a balance between warmth, attentiveness and sensitivity on one hand, and firm, reasonable control on the other. This is a style formally known as “authoritative” child rearing, and study after study has linked it to positive outcomes for kids including self-control, high self-esteem, cooperativeness, favorable school performance and more.
I strive to practice authoritative parenting but I certainly don’t have the balance perfected. I’ve had plenty of moments when I’ve lost my cool and either yelled at my kids or made unrealistic demands. I’ve also found myself on the overindulgent end of the spectrum where I’ve tried to be the fun mom who says yes to three birthday parties in one day, for example. In each of those scenarios, no one ends up happy.
But I’ve learned over the years I can still be my kids’ mom (as opposed to their friend) while taking myself less seriously and allowing for spontaneous moments of silliness and fun. I’ve also narrowed down my list of “musts” and “must nots” to include only the things that are most important to our family’s values.
Like Goldilocks, we’re all searching for the “just right” equilibrium. Our kids seek it out as much as we do. I want my children to see me as someone they can come to for support, compassion and acceptance, no matter what. That requires me to show my soft side. But I also want to prepare them to thrive in a world where disappointments, obstacles and the word “no” are facts of life. And that requires me to enforce rules and structure.
I’m constantly recalibrating my parenting choices to react to the new curveballs my kids – and the world in general – throw at me. But I try to stay true to the traits of authoritative parenting as much as possible, and to be a mom who makes my children laugh every day but also makes it clear what’s expected of them as members of our household and good global citizens. Without realizing it, in one sentence my daughter gave me confidence that I’m on the right track.