No matter how much parents agree on how they’re going to parent their children, how they discipline their kids will, at times, differ. And dad and mum discipline will always have wildly different effects on children.
Researchers have long struggled to understand the differences between dad and mum discipline. However, there’s a growing body of scientific literature that suggest that they differ in unpredictable ways.
So far, what current research we have right now reveals that young kids are more immediately influenced by their mothers. However, as they grow older, their father’s discipline starts eclipsing the mother’s, affecting their social and sexual behaviour.
The complexity of dad and mum discipline
Tracking the effects of dad and mum discipline is complicated.
“‘Wait till your father comes home’ does not carry that sense of foreboding as it did in generations past,” Luke Tse, a psychologist studying fathers said in an interview.
“The traditional father as the head of the home does not carry the weight of acceptance or practice as it once did.”
These days, fathers are more likely to be the lenient and permissive ones. Why? Because they prefer to have fun with their kids while leaving all the serious and unpleasant discipline to the mum.
Elizabeth Crary, author and parent educator, says she doesn’t believe that gender-specific styles of parenting exist.
“I think parents often generalise — men are that way; women are that way — out of personal experience rather than wide experience,” she says.
Crary adds that a person’s temperament and disposition is a bigger factor on parenting style than gender.
“If a parent is very persistent, it’s easier to hold limits. If a parent is very sensitive to a child’s emotion, it’s harder,” she says.
Even parents are affected by dad and mum discipline
Parent educator Candyce Lund Bollinger says parents often miss the fact that how they themselves were parented influences their own parenting style.
“It has to do with what happened in your family of origin, the family you grew up with,” she says. “If you really disliked having a disciplinarian dad, you might completely reverse and not have boundaries at all.”
One mother from Seattle, Portia Gray, says her husband likes to be the more disciplinarian one. Since he works from home, it’s him that their kids mostly see.
“He disciplines more like a dictatorship. I discipline with a ‘let’s see what works’ approach,” she says.
Sometimes her husband even imposes unrealistic penalties to discipline their children, she says. “I want to discipline them, but I want them to feel they can work their way out of it. It’s a ‘you respect me, I respect you’ approach.”
To mitigate her husband’s dictatorial approach, she relates to her husband the unconditional love that her own father gave her, and urges her husband to do the same with their 12-year-old daughter.
“I tell him, ‘You need to just adore her; make her feel like the most special person in the world,’” she says.
How dad and mum discipline works on teens
Though disciplining children was more clear-cut when kids were younger, things get more complex once they reach their preteens.
It’s also at this time that the consequences of their actions can be bigger, which also calls for a different approach in discipline.
Bollinger says having different parenting styles isn’t a bad thing, at least not necessarily.
“I don’t encourage the united front. I don’t think parents need to be on the same page all the time,” she says. “When they go out into the world, there will be differences in values and rules, and they need to learn how to adapt to those differences.”
The problem with dad and mum discipline
Bollinger distills the issue of different parenting styles to one problem: when one parent becomes resentful of the other for being either too rigid or too lenient.
The issue becomes even more divisive when one parents over-disciplines and the other under-disciplines to compensate, or vice versa. She often advises that the stricter parent back off sometimes and allow the other parent to take charge of discipline.
Parent educator Crary urges parents to recognise their strengths and weaknesses when it comes to parenting. Parents should take these into account, as this may have an impact on how effective their parenting style is.
“Men, in general, are more willing to let children take risks than women are,” she says. “I would defer to my husband on that because I know that about myself.”
Shifting attitudes to dad and mum parenting
Tse said that science is still trying to catch up with the shift in cultural expectations of fathers. In the past, there was a pretty dominant attitude among fathers to be distant, detached, afraid of emotions, or just aggressive (yelling, hitting, etc). But this is no longer an acceptable attitude as far as modern fatherhood is concerned.
Part of this view of fathers as detached and aloof began when research on dads in the ‘60s focused on absent dads than present ones. Research also assumed that fathers who stayed were too preoccupied with their responsibilities as providers.
Strangely enough, engaged and present fathers only caught the eye of researchers in the ‘90s, during a time when divorce rates were on the rise.
In one study in 1992, results showed that when mothers used harsher, coercive, and power-assertive forms of discipline, their kids become more aggressive and generally less popular among their peers. Meanwhile, when fathers do this, the kids remain the same, showing that this attitude is expected of fathers.
However, in 2006, a study of Chinese parents found that parents acting alone in terms of discipline have less impact than mothers and fathers disciplining together. This combined impact has a greater chance of either making their kids’ anti-social behaviour worse — or diminishing it.
Harsh discipline causes antisocial behavior
Erin Holmes, a professor and family fatherhood researcher at Brigham Young University, explains that harsh discipline from either parents is linked to an increased risk of antisocial behaviour.
Studies conducted by developmental psychologist Danielle DelPriore revealed that extremely strict dads raise daughters who tend to engage in risky sexual behaviour as teenagers. They also tend to spend time with peers who do the same and are distant with their parents.
“Although we did not explicitly ask about these behaviours in a disciplinary context,” DelPriore says, “one would imagine that fathers who engaged in these types of behaviours were probably more harsh or coercive disciplinarians.”
Rejection as a weapon
Interestingly enough, the findings showed no such impact from maternal rejection. And there’s no difference between boys and girls either. These findings challenge the widely held belief before that dad discipline mostly affects boys, and mum discipline mostly affects daughters.
“Rejection from fathers contributes to adolescent wariness in social situations in ways that other family relationships do not,” says study co-author Hio Wa Mak, doctoral student of human development and family studies at Penn State. “It seems that there are different processes by which mothers’ and fathers’ parenting impacts adolescents’ social adjustment.”
The difference between dad and mum discipline
Psychologist Tina Payne Bryson observed from her clinical practice the notable difference between dad and mum discipline.
A mother tends to discipline their kids because they care about their social relationship with their child. This is why mothers tend to take their child’s misbehaviour personally. In response, their kids fall apart or are more emotionally unstable as a result, because they were trained from childhood to react more emotionally.
Meanwhile, “Dads tend to discipline because they want their children to grow up to do well in the world and not get denied opportunities because they’re not well behaved,” Bryson says.
To put it simply, mums discipline because they’re more concerned about their relationship with their children. Meanwhile, dads discipline because they’re more concerned with how their kids will grow up in the future. At least, this is what Bryson observed.
A lot to learn from caring fathers
These studies only show how much of an impact a father’s discipline has on their children. Of course, it’s worth noting that researchers agree on how the role of fathers is changing in today’s social climate. This shift in cultural expectations and behaviours will surely give us different results from this day forward.
Tse says that there’s a lot to learn from recent generations of caring and engaged fathers.
“Fathers who have deemed their own experiences while growing up as harsh have reacted to them and soften their approach to their children,” Tse adds.
Discipline needs mindful work
Parents need to remember that parenting requires work — mindful work, that does away with shortcuts because it’s easier or because they’re tired. It takes years to work through parenting conflicts and reach a compromise.
Though it’s challenging, parents should work out values that they share and intend to pass on to their kids. This way, they can get a sense of what they want their child to be like in five or 10 years. Once they figure out their goals together, they can see how they can support those values over time.
Crary says, “I tell them, ‘You don’t have to agree on everything, but you need to respect the other one’s decision.’ People are all different. Parents don’t have to parent the same way, but they do have to parent with the same goals.”
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