Parenting Styles: an SDT Informed Perspective

In my previous posts I have elaborated on SDT and how it provides insights as to the relation between motivation and personality and to the supportive contexts that satisfy basic needs and thus lead to well-being.

To recap, SDT, as extended by me, posits that there are four basic psychological needs that need to be satisfied for all human beings for them to be happy and flourishing. These needs are needs for autonomy or to be able to own and make one’s own choices; needs for competence or to be able to successfully excel at tasks; needs for relatedness or to be securely and intimately tied to others; and need for meaningfulness or to be able to create and bask in meaning and purpose.

SDT also posits that socio cultural contexts and situations are differentially related to well-being as they are differentiated in terms of how supportive or thwarting of basic needs they are. Today I wish to apply this lens to parenting and showcase how early (and ongoing) parent child interactions have different implications for current and future well-being of the child.

At the outset, I want to clarify that while my approach is inspired and steeped in SDT, it deviates considerably from the standard SDT model.

Standard SDT literature on parenting posits that if the parents are autonomy supportive, provide structure and are involved, then they are doing the right thing as this will lead to satisfactions of the basic psychological needs of the child and thus lead to healthy outcomes. the figure below shows what one means by these conditions of autonomy support, structure and involvement.

Parenting supports (from Coursera)

Let us start with involvement. And let us look at both good and bad parenting. I consider this to be about the Relatedness need. The input variable from parents is warmth or affection and the output variable is attachment with the parent. A good parent showers love, affection, care and warmth unconditionally; or in other words provides Unconditional Positive Regard (UCR) – this I posit leads to secure attachment in the child. However, some parents make their love and warmth contingent on outcomes; that is called Parenting Conditional Regard (PCR) and this I believe leads to insecure attachment. This is further of two types: a negative PCR where affection is primarily withdrawn in case the outcome is not desired, leading to avoidant attachment or deficient model of other. The other is positive PCR where affection is excessively endowed in case the outcome is desired, leading to dependent/anxious attachment or deficient model of self. While the good parent considers his/ her child unique, the bad parent either considers the child as having contingent worth or at the other extreme to be special and above everyone else. This parenting dimension is all about being available to the child when he needs and may be labeled emotional help by the parent.

Let us now look at autonomy support. This is clearly about the Autonomy need. The input variable from parents is socialization by either persuading or coercing and the output variable is internalization of rules and regulations. A good parent takes perspective of his/ her child, provides choices and offers rationale – all with an aim to influence and persuade without any overt or covert coercion; this leads to internalization of values and motives leading to autonomous motivation. In simple words, as the child ‘buys in’ rather than is forced to do something, he is more likely to feel an ‘origin’ and not a ‘pawn’. However, some parents try to control and coerce their child to behave in a particular way; this leads to controlled forms of motivation/ self regulation in the child. When rewards or showering of incentives is used to control the child it may lead to external regulation, while when punishments or withdrawal of incentives is used to control the child, then it may lead to introjected self regulation. While a good parent likes to negotiate with the child, a bad parent either threatens or bribes the child. This parenting dimension is all about shaping the child’s behavior by providing some motivational structure.

Consider next structure. This is about Competence. The input variable from parents is Just Enough Help/ scaffolding in the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) and the output variable I believe is the child’s mindset and sense of self efficacy. A good parent provides Just Enough Help or scaffolding in the ZPD so that the child is adequately challenged and his ability is able to meet the expectations; this leads to a grounded sense of self efficacy and possibly growth mindset, as the child is able to see how he is making progress with adequate support. However, some parents are not cognizant of/ insensitive to the ZPD and either push their children above the ZPD or are content with performance that is sub ZPD. This leads to problems with self efficacy and a fixed mindset. Those who try to stretch their child’s ability and set high expectations– and push their children to achieve those high expectations that are beyond their (current) abilities, may lead the child to develop a superiority complex and a fixed mindset characterized by impression management. On the other hand, those who do not challenge and support their child enough may give rise to children that suffer from inferiority complex or fixed mindset characterized by self-handicapping. While a good parent is available when needed, a bad parent is either helicoptering or putting too much pressure. To me this parenting dimension is all about providing instrumental help to the child in the right amount.

Lastly, let us also take a look at the need for Meaningfulness. The input variable this time is parents feedback about the child’s self and the output variable is the child’s internal self-guides. A good parent provides realistic feedback to child about his/ her abilities, etc in a non evaluative and informational format. This leads to the development of an actual self guide that is accurate and based on facts. Some parents however provide either sugar coated or needlessly bitter evaluative feedback to the child and this may lead to the development of discrepant self guides that are fictional and not in touch with reality. The parent who praises excessively and is say strengths based and focuses on what is present/ possible about the child will lead to the development of an ‘ideal’ self guide in the child. The parent who is excessively critical and deficit based and focuses on what is lacking/ needed in the child, will lead to the development of an ‘ought’ self guide in the child. While a good parent leads to realistic and in touch with self concepts, a bad parent leads to out of touch self concepts that don’t feel authentic.

That brings us to the end of my thesis that a good parent is warmly affectionate, non evaluative and informational when providing feedback, uses reason to influence and persuade rather than coerce and sets reasonable expectations for the child and supports him/ her is his/ her journey.

A note before we leave: all of us are good parents and bad parents at times; while I have used the terms ‘good’ and ‘bad’ parents above my intention is to draw attention to our impact when we are acting as a good / bad parent and hopefully influence more and more parents to use better parenting techniques than they may be using or relying on currently.

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