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The Parenting Spectrum

Our society embraces an underlying belief that parents need to control their children in order for them to learn how to be productive members of society. Parents having this belief system feel entitled to use fear, punishments, rewards, and other coercive methods to get their children to comply, and view the world in polarities. Parenting can appear to be an either/or proposition: if we do not use fear and punishment, then we are overly permissive.

Those looking for alternative ways of parenting discover that in fact we tend to parent along a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum is punitive parenting and at the other of the spectrum is permissive/laissez-faire parenting. I have seen myself move through many points along this spectrum. Depending on my coping skills at a particular moment, this movement can be within hours or minutes.

Before my first child, Martel, was born, I read many books and visited many websites. I came upon attachment parenting, and it seemed to be the best fit for what I wanted for our family. Although I practiced attachment parenting with Martel (now 8) and Greyson (now 3) and still do, at a fundamental level I still believed that my responsibility was to control the outcomes for the children in my life. I was clear that I would not be a parent who would hit a child, but I still found myself falling into a pattern of controlling and coercive parenting.

Even as Martel grew older, I used practices that were manipulative and coercive to try to get him to comply with my desires. This coercion had very little to do with his needs. It was all about my perception of his needs and my needs as the adult. Often I was succumbing to outside pressure to get Martel to behave in "socially acceptable" ways. I also assumed that I knew better and had the right, because of my status as the adult, to impose my will upon him, even if he clearly opposed this.

One moment I clearly remember came one day when Martel was outside, playing with his cousins on the trampoline. We had just moved back to our home town and he was learning to cope with that change, and spending time with his cousins on an almost daily basis. He was four, and would often yell and get angry with other people, of all ages. At times he would resort to hitting as his only means of communicating his frustration.

I guessed that he had low blood sugar and needed to eat at specific intervals or he would "lose it." On this particular day, I went inside while he was playing, made some food and took it out him and forced him to stop jumping on the trampoline until he ate. I can still hear his angry protests to this day. My goal was to ensure he behaved "appropriately" with his cousins.

I could name any number of coercive parenting examples in my relationship with Martel that had to do with food, with his desires for possessions I deemed inappropriate, and with media restrictions. Sadly they could fill many pages.

As I began to explore educational options for Martel, I came across ideas that challenged my coercive parenting practices. The idea of trust and letting go of control entered my mind and vocabulary as it related to Martel. I moved out of coercive parenting and began to explore what it meant to be respectful of Martel's autonomy and right to self-determination.

For example, when I began to let go of food control, Martel and I worked together with food issues. I had to facilitate his process of unlearning the idea that I was the one who knew what was right for him. I had controlled his food so extensively that his aunt told me of a time when she took him to his grandmother's house. His grandmother had goldfish crackers, and Martel's aunt asked him how many he wanted. He lacked any ability to make these decisions for himself and became so frustrated he sat in the kitchen corner and cried because I was not there to tell him how many he could have.

The process took time and I had to reinforce the message that Martel knew his body best. We talked about listening to our bodies and trusting our bodies. We talked about how what was right for one person was not necessarily right for another. In fact, I came right out and told him that I was wrong in coercing him to eat. This same process was repeated when it came to TV and other media and his desire to buy certain kinds of toys.

It could be easy, in letting go of this control, to then abandon all involvement in Martel's choices. I could buy into the idea that I should never make any suggestions about food nor offer a variety of foods for him to choose from. Rather than moving too far across the parenting spectrum and choosing to have no involvement, I have come to a balanced place where there are many different kinds of foods available and I do not make judgments about what and when he chooses to eat.

At the same time, many children have allergies or may react to certain foods or chemicals. Their reactions might be physical or behavioral. Helping a child understand the impact of her choices is an important part of providing information that supports her connection to her own body and development. This could involve helping the child avoid these foods and discussing the connection between food and the body. Eliciting from the child how she feels after eating and engaging the child in the process of deciding how to handle food sensitivities can build trust between the parent and the child when it is handled without coercion. Enlisting the support of family and friends for the child's and the parent's decision is helpful in building a community of support.

When Martel experienced severe food-related eczema, we were able to identify the food triggers. We talked together about the best ways to avoid the foods that caused him problems and came to a mutual solution of how to either keep foods out of the house or to avoid them. Because Martel was a partner in making these decisions, we did not need to coerce or control him. At times, he was still frustrated by having to avoid certain foods, but his frustration and anger were the result of a natural limitation, not the fact that I controlled what and how he ate. If Martel were so young that he was not able to talk about and understand the connection, we would avoid having foods in the house that caused him issues.

Our process continues when we find something that may seem to cause physical reactions. In fact, he can often track what types of foods he has been eating and what might be the cause. The fact that he has control over how we manage his food sensitivities and we work together means there is a high level of trust in our relationship. Martel trusts that we will not arbitrarily impose limitations on him and we take on our responsibility to work with him to address any food sensitivities.

When we are exploring new ways of being, it can be easy for the pendulum to swing too far to the other side. Letting go of control can easily move into the spectrum of parenting in which we take no responsibility for facilitating our children's growth and learning.

For example, we may come to believe that children should decide when and where to go to sleep. If the child has had a rigidly enforced bedtime, she may have lost her connection to her own body and not understand when her body is tired and needs rest. If the child is very young, she may not be able to communicate effectively when she is tired or her parents may misinterpret her communication efforts.

If we do not facilitate the process by which children learn to understand how their bodies communicate with them, we miss an opportunity to support our child's natural growth and development. If we believe that we should not be involved in this process, we may leave the child to struggle beyond what he may be developmentally capable of handling.

I have come to recognize that the individuals in our family have different needs and rhythms. My goal is to understand these different needs, and find a balance that best meets everyone's needs. Even as adults, we may often need the help of those around us to see around our own blinders. I see part of my relationship with Martel and Greyson, and partner Rob as being there when they may need me, to support and assist.

Permissive parenting can create the same kind of distance between a parent and a child as does coercive parenting. If I choose to disengage from Martel's life I lose the opportunity to partner with him as he faces new challenges in his life. My desire is to have a connected relationship in which Martel and Greyson realize their own personal power and feel my support as a partner in our lives together.

Naturally we will often have needs as individual family members that create tension. As I moved out of coercive parenting, I spent many months just catering to Martel's desires and wants. I felt as though I needed to make up for the thousands of times I had said no or controlled his decisions.

My second child, Greyson, was still a babe-in-arms. It took time and a belief that everyone's needs could be met creatively that allowed me to find some balance in our lives by the time Greyson began to assert his own autonomy. At times, this is still a struggle, but if I hold on to the idea that we can figure out together how to get our needs met, I am more likely to find the path that works best.

As we learn new ways of being with the children in our lives, we negotiate these internal changes within ourselves at the same time as we negotiate the external impact on our families. Creating connections through a balance of respect for each individual's autonomy and an understanding of the interdependence we all share can help us to facilitate our own growth and the growth of the children who share our lives.

Teresa Graham Brett, J.D., is a higher education consultant who works with social justice education programs and sustained dialogue. She has combined her passion for social change and social justice with parenting. Her work is focused on creating social change through examining and challenging how we are socialized as children. To learn more visit Teresa's website Parenting for Social Change.