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2.2 Parenting methods

White and Woollett (1992) identified three kinds of parenting:

  • authoritarian, where parents dictate what the children can and cannot do and children are expected to obey certain rules

  • permissive, where parents are highly indulgent, offering little guidance or control

  • authoritative, where parents set boundaries within which children are expected to develop autonomy and self-reliance.

Clearly, these descriptions of parenting methods are presented in such a manner that the authoritative approach is considered the most acceptable. But you may feel that in reality parents veer between these forms of parenting, often within the space of a few hours! Giving parents more information, opening out discussion, and offering more ideas and practical suggestions about parenting may help them to make more informed choices about their relationships with their children. There is, however, a broader, discernible consensus about what constitutes bad or inadequate parenting, and by this we mean parenting that is abusive or oppressive or fails to take reasonable action to protect a child from harm. Beyond this, great care is needed before applying such value-laden descriptions. Why do you think there is a need to be so careful about labelling some parenting as ‘bad’ or ‘inadequate’? The next activity should help you to answer this question. You may also find it useful to think about sections of earlier topics in which you explored how and why particular individuals and groups are ‘problematised’ in society.

Activity 4: ‘Problem parents’, ‘problem families’

0 hours 15 minutes

List what you see to be the dangers of labelling some parenting as ‘bad’. Try to cover as many different areas and ideas as possible, and list at least five dangers.


We hope you will be able to think of five dangers, but obviously your list may not correspond entirely with what follows.

First, there is the point already raised that, beyond some key principles, we do not have an agreed working definition of what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘good enough’ or ‘inadequate’ parenting. It is true that there are some actions which cause harm and some actions which are illegal. There are certain points at which the formal child protection system and the courts will intervene, but these are extreme cases and follow from certain identified incidents which cause children ‘significant harm’. Shared views also exist in our society, for example, that it is wrong for young children to be out on their own late at night, or left at home alone, or exposed to dangers such as crossing a road without appropriate guidance. There are, therefore, some limited, but important, norms that people are expected to subscribe to. However, because parenting behaviours are related to culture, class and context, there remains considerable room for debate and disagreement in many other areas of parenting activity.

Second, it is only too easy to move from an observed example of ‘bad’ parenting to the labelling of certain parents as ‘bad parents’. This can in turn quickly lead us into making judgemental statements about the kinds of people who tend to be ‘bad parents’ and somehow dealing with them as if they were ‘inadequate’ people.

Third, and allied to this, there is the danger of blaming people for not being ‘good’ parents, usually judged on the behaviour of their children, rather than looking at how parenting support can be offered.

Fourth, there is the danger of misinterpreting different ways of parenting as indicative of ‘poor’ parenting. This will happen particularly if we assume that our own inherited social or cultural approach to parenting is the one and only correct approach.

Fifth, there are real implications for practitioners if support services are offered in a context where people are considered to be inadequate or bad parents. People's parenting behaviour is not fixed but will vary over time. Later you will see examples of services which are sensitive to people's needs as parents. A positive feature of many services is that they conspicuously avoid conveying the idea that certain people are bad parents. Labelling people as ‘bad’ or ‘inadequate’ can reinforce a poor self-image and undermine self-confidence.

At this stage, therefore, it is possible to identify some basic principles that need to inform any evaluation of support services for enhancing parenting. Such an evaluation should not make assumptions or generalisations about what constitutes good or bad parenting (although certain legal and social expectations need to be taken into consideration). Assumptions based on a practitioner's own experiences or views of what is positive or negative should be recognised and understood. Account needs to be taken of different ways of parenting – when they are caring for their children people have different priorities, different expectations and different norms of behaviour.


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