Barbara Coloroso in her delightful and insightful book, “Kids are Worth It” talks about three styles of parenting: Jellyfish parenting, Brick-wall parenting and Backbone parenting. Another version of this grouping is permissive, authoritarian and assertive parenting.
Whatever words we use, the questions are much the same: Which sort of parent am I now? Which sort of parent would I like to be? And, if I want to change, how do I get there?
The Jellyfish Parent
If we are a Jellyfish parent our main desire is to keep our children happy. We try to work out what will keep our child happy and we work hard to avoid meltdowns, tantrums and sadness. We rack our brains to give our children lots of choices, desperately hoping that one of the choices will be the right one and that the crisis of unhappiness and sadness will be avoided.
If we have upset or annoyed our child with a perfectly reasonable parenting request, we apologize and try to make amends. We hope that, by being kind, considerate and accommodating, our child will follow this model and also display kindness, consideration and the sort of flexibility that makes it easy for our child to be a fully functioning family member.
Every now and again, when our reasonableness is being ignored, defied and rejected, we may wind up losing our temper. We are then horrified that we have been driven to these extremes and rush to set the world right for our demanding child, all the while apologizing and explaining.
If you and your child are both fairly peace-loving, it is possible to be a jellyfish parent for quite some time without coming to grief. If, however, you are peace loving and your child is very strong-willed, you may find yourself raising, what I choose to call, “a little emperor.”
You know you have “a little emperor” when they give the instructions and you do your best to comply. Another clue that you are raising “a little emperor” is when your child feels free to dictate which parent may offer services. “You may wipe my bottom. Sorry. You do not get that privilege.”
This dictating of which parent may read stories, dress them, get them out of the bath, drive them to their next activity, is a very good guide to show us is we are jellyfish parenting.
Is there any problem with meeting our child’s wants as well as their needs and keeping the household smooth and peaceful? The problem that I see, is that our responsibility in raising our children is that they should tolerate the ordinary frustrations of fitting in to a family as practice for fitting in to the world around them.
It isn’t good for a child to be running a family. They may have the power, but they lack the wisdom and experience to do a good job. Four or fourteen is simply too young to be running a family.
Very often, the jellyfish parent is concerned about the reserve, shyness and unwillingness of their child to assess new situations and readily join in. Our child may well appear to be insecure in any new situation where they have not yet mastered how to be totally in control.
The Brick-wall Parent
If we are a Brick-wall Parent, we are going to make sure that our children are very compliant. We expect them to do as they are told, preferably to the first instruction. We are great at thinking up consequences and we always follow thorough, no matter how hard it is for us or for anyone else in the family. We are consistent and we believe that it is our job to teach our child that we mean what we say. We tend to be very confident in our decisions.
We are often very concerned that it is a tough world out there and our children need to learn how to “Get over themselves.” We have little tolerance for tantrums and wobblies and see them as lack of moral fibre or attention-seeking behaviour. We tend to view our children as infinitely malleable according to their parents’ will.
We have high standards of conduct for ourselves and we intend to raise our children the same way.
If we have a peace-loving child, they will generally do as we say and avoid any conflict. If we have a strong-willed child, there undoubtedly will be clashes but we will make sure that we prevail. We are concerned about our sensitive children and fear that their sensitivity will make life difficult for them in their adult lives. We tend to see it as our job to help them overcome their sensitivity and toughen up a bit.
The boundaries that we set are good for our children and there is no doubt that it is possible to raise very compliant children. But what happens if they have a different opinion from their brick-wall parent? Very often they will lie or be devious in other ways to make sure that they don’t get caught when they exercise their own will.
I am concerned that our aim in raising our children is not just to raise a disciplined child. It is important that we go further than that and raise a self-disciplined young adult capable of making good choices. From the age of three, we need to be offering our children limited choices so that they get the experience of committing to one choice, leaving the other and reflecting on that decision.
When the Jellyfish and the Brick-wall parent together
When one parent likes to keep their children happy and the other likes to keep them under strict control, a lot of tension ensues.
The Brick-wall parent feels they are only trying to set some boundaries and the Jellyfish parent feels that the Brick-wall parent is being too tough.
The Jellyfish parent feels they are only trying to keep the child happy and the Brick-wall parents thinks that they are inconsistent and always giving in.
What is the way out of this dilemma?
The Backbone Parent
I think the term “Backbone parent” is a lovely description. Our backbone does two things for us. It supports us and, at the same time, is flexible enough so that we can move smoothly.
Similarly, the Backbone Parent combines two important characteristics. They are capable of supporting their children’s feeling while at the same time putting in reasonable boundaries around inappropriate behaviour.
A backbone parent makes sure that their child does as he is told while at the same time leaving room for their child to make “safe” mistakes that they can learn from.
Instead of searching for a suitable punishment or consequence in order to force a child to comply (Brick-wall Parenting) or giving up and just letting the child do whatever they fancy just for the sake of peace (Jellyfish Parenting), the Backbone Parent will tell the child what is expected and quietly and calmly ensure that nothing else happens until that is done.
The Backbone Parent understands that the child may get upset or angry, but these are normal emotions that a strong-willed or a sensitive child will display when their ideas are different from their parents. The Backbone Parent can choose to use a cuddle to support the child’s feelings or a Time Out to give their child time and space to work through their feelings.
Once the child has worked through their feelings and decided to do things the parents’ way, Backbone Parents can instantly welcome a child back into the family and not refer to the incident again, lecture or hold a grudge. Rather, the Backbone Parent has sufficient respect for their child’s capability that they can let their child learn whatever lesson they need to from the experience.
How to become a Skilled Backbone Parent
In the parenting section of this website, there are lots of articles about how to support our children’s feelings, how to put boundaries around inappropriate behaviour and how to decide which one to use when. Parenting – the Big Picture, Obedient Children, Parenting Teens, Sibling Rivalry II, Time Out, Toddler Tantrums are all articles that can help us see our way clear to being Backbone Parents.
Our best guide is to check our feelings. If we look at a particular behaviour and think “Poor little thing”, our best bet is to support our children’s feelings.
If we look at a particular behaviour and think “You little stinker” – even if “the little stinker” is taller than you – then the best approach is to use some form of Time Out or Emotional Distance.
If we are not sure which way to jump, it is better to offer support (“Are you a big boy who needs a cuddle?”) If our offer is declined with a “No, go away, I hate you” it really isn’t so hard to put emotional distance between us and them.
The strength of Backbone Parenting
If you are a Jellyfish Parent or a Brick-wall Parent, consider up-skilling to Backbone Parenting.
If blessed with two Backbone Parents, pulling in the same direction, the positive possibilities are limitless.
If you are parenting on your own, be assured that the power of one Backbone Parent is definitely more than enough to raise a child into healthy, independent young adulthood.