What is Fear-Based Parenting, and am I using it?

Fear-based parenting is supposedly becoming an outdated style of raising kids. In this style, parents manage their children primarily through intimidation, criticism, disapproval, and punishments. When people think of fear-based parenting, I think they primarily zero in on parenting tactics that are abusive, or borderline abusive. Spanking, slapping a child in the face, grabbing forcefully, yelling, derogatory name-calling, humiliating, and shaming.

If you are reading this and think, I don’t utilize fear-based parenting, you might want to stop and think about it a bit. While the name “fear-based parenting” sounds like something you would never do (oh, the horror), the basics of fear-based parenting are being taught, encouraged, and utilized throughout our society.

For example, at a recent well-visit appointment for my toddler, I received a flyer from my pediatrician about helping my toddler navigate the next year. One of the suggestions in the flyer was to help communicate to the toddler when she did things the right way or the wrong way but scowling or frowning at the child when she didn’t do the right thing.

The point of the scowl or frown I believe is to let the child know that her actions were unacceptable. That I disapproved. But if “disapproval” is one of the tenants of fear-based parenting, I’m guilty of it. I frown at my kids when they do ridiculous things that they shouldn’t. Not only that, but when they do something wrong, I point it out, and I talk to them about it. Could this be construed as criticism?

Another really common tactic used by parents is with stubborn young children who refuse to come when called, who balk at getting into the car (or out of it), or who refuse to follow mom out of the grocery store. To encourage the child to follow along, many moms (including myself) will start to walk away, calling “Bye! See you later! We are leaving!” In doing so, we call to the surface the greatest fear of a young child–to be without one of her parents or trusted caregivers. Not realizing that you would NEVER leave them at Target, they come running.

As for intimidation, I might also be guilty of using that too. In recent years, one of my children LOVES to push limits. It’s his thing. I have frequently employed the response “go ahead, do it and see what happens.” While I am not getting into his face, yelling, or doing anything abuse, I’m calling his bluff with the candor of an adult.

Finally, most “punishments” such as time-outs or grounding are a tool of fear-based parenting. We manage the child’s behavior with the threat (or fear) of the punishment happening, even if the punishment itself isn’t violent or abusive. (Take your toy away, you are grounded, no television, etc).

While spanking is now on the outer age of what is socially acceptable, timeouts, grounding, and taking toys away are commonly used and acceptable “consequences” of bad behavior.

So what do I do instead?

I’ve vowed not to spank, hit, humiliate, or shame my children. But if I can’t motivate my children to follow the rules with the threat of the loss of something they like, what can I do instead?

The answer is not simple. There is not just ONE tactic that you can use instead of fear-based manipulation. Instead, I think we have to look at management of our children in a more holistic manner. If our child refuses to get out of the car at the preschool dropoff, we need to look beyond what is happening in the car. We need to look at why he might be acting that way, and how to take care of the cause, not just get him to get out of the car so he can get to school.

The problem is that most parents are busy. Like, too busy. By the time the child has the meltdown in the car, or the tantrum at the store, the cause of both of these events is probably something long passed. We don’t have time to unpack the entire day (or even week) to try and get to the root of the problem. We’ve got work to do, a house to clean, other children to take care of, a spouse who needs us too.

Regardless of our schedules, we need to realize that if we don’t make time to make changes to the way we see our children and the way we react to them, the problems aren’t going to get better. We won’t be able to stop using our old arsenal of punishments, even if they are gentle and mostly acceptable punishments.

Understanding your child is the key to parenting with love instead of fear

One of the first things we have to realize is that young children don’t manipulate us. The act most of the time without deep thought. Everything is on impulse. Their brains just aren’t formed enough to make and execute a diabolical plan.

Yet we treat them like they do and they can. A big part of getting over the use of fear-based parenting skills is the acceptance of the fact that a child is just a child. And we are grown ups. We don’t have to take anything or everything they do or say as a personal affront. We also don’t have to take everything that they do so seriously. If a child bites another child, we have to recognize that the bite was an impulse, not a well-thought out and reasoned action. And respond accordingly.

I have seen many parents just FREAK out when they see their child take a toy, or even hit another child. Like yelling, “no” at the top of their lungs, jerking the child out of the sandbox, spanking them. I saw a mother lose her mind the other day when her 18 month old son stepped into a puddle wearing what were apparently his good shoes.

Why do we do this to ourselves?

Hitting is a normal social interaction for babies and toddlers. They begin to hit even though they are never shown the behavior by other children or adults. Many parents see this behavior and panic. My child is going to be a bully! A toddler who hits is not a psychopath. He’s a little kid who is still learning the rules of his world. If we react strongly to hitting, we may even be modeling behavior we don’t want him to emulate. We don’t want our kids to hit. Yet we spank them. We don’t want kids to yell. Yet we yell at them. We don’t want kids to grab their peers. Yet we grab them. Yes, you should respond to a toddler who hits. But grabbing him, slapping him, spanking him, yelling–these parenting tactics aren’t helping.

In most cases, it is better to intervene when your child is hitting to protect the recipient of your toddler’s flying hands. You can talk to him calmly about hitting, and stop the behavior. If he can’t control himself and continues to try and hit another child (or you), it’s pretty clearly time to calmly and in control remove him from the situation. More likely is that your toddler or overstimulated, tired, hungry, or feeling some other feeling that drives his hands. It is better that we investigate the cause than react strongly to his actions.

The same is true for the over-the-top reaction to the child I saw who stepped into a puddle. Children LOVE puddles. Toddlers and children who are pre-kinder age are naturally SO curious about their natural environment. My kids were with me out in front of our house, and observed the mother’s reaction to the toddler stepping into the water. Their eyes were HUGE as the mother yelled, picked up the toddler and spanked him several times, telling him that he “knew better” to stay out of the puddle in his good shoes, and that she’d already told him to stay out of the water. When the mother carried the child into the house, my kids looked at me and made some comments about how I didn’t spank them. It was almost traumatic for them to witness the event. I can’t imagine how it was for the toddler.

Children arrive on this Earth for the most part, as good little beings. When they are “bad” they are in the process of learning how the world works, how society works, and how their bodies work. But we parents take it upon ourselves to make much of this exploration a negative experience.

Now, I’m not going to say that children should bite, or that children should hit. But what I have seen as a parent is that in many cases, nothing the parent does or says has an impact upon whether the child hits less or bites less. A lot of what a young child does is exploration, and they grow out of it. Or they reach an age where they can be reasoned with and spoken to, and they can then understand why we don’t hit and bite. This is especially the case when their abilities to self-regulate catch up with their physical growth.

Let’s be clear about you really want (obedience versus cooperation)

In updating your parenting skills , let’s talk about “listening.” How many times have you talked to your child about “listening” to you?

Were you a good listener today?

You never listen to me!

Be a good listener at the store and I’ll get you that toy you want.

Let’s face it moms and dads. When we say “listen” we mean “obey.” We want them to do what we say, not just hear what we say. But the hard part about how we frame this is that we talk to the kids about listening, when we really mean following directions! Most likely, your children ARE listening to you. They just don’t obey.

One of the key components of updating your parenting skills and getting away from fear-based tactics is shifting your focus from obedience to cooperation.

Obedience is defined as submitting to another’s will. They do what you say, regardless of what they think, feel, or want themselves.

Cooperation, on the other hand, is adjusting one’s will to another’s wish. Cooperation is wanting to do what you want them to do.

Children should not be automatons, following the instructions of a parent mindlessly. They need to hear and understand what the parent wants from them. Children should also be able to talk to parents about the orders, and even disagree.

Yes, blind obedience is a lot easier. But parents are playing the long game. We don’t just want kids who follow directions immediately. We want kids to grow up into independent, self-assured, thoughtful, caring adults. But children don’t just become all of those things at midnight of their 18th birthday. They must learn how to become all those things over time, over many years of having the opportunity talk to their parents and caregivers, and to make decisions on their own.

In many cases, helicopter parents (and the snowplows and the tigers) do what they do because they feel that if they don’t do it, the children won’t do it for themselves. But if the parent commands obedience and never lets the child have a thought of his own, when will the child gain the skills he needs to succeed as an adult?

Ultimately, cooperation and respect are what we should want, not blind obedience. Part of that is accepting that children won’t always comply right away. That we’ll have to spend more time talking to them, and reasoning with them. This doesn’t mean you let them walk all over you, or accept disrespectful or hurtful behavior. But it does mean that you will have to strike a balance between the obedience you want from your child now against the judgment and reasoning you want your child to have as an adult.

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