Why being a mean, loving parent matters

Without a doubt parenting is confusing, challenging, exhausting, fabulous, delightful and amazing, and often all these things on any given day.

The incredible amount of information at our fingertips often makes it more difficult to be the parent we hoped we’d be.

We can get lost in the struggle to know how to be ‘good enough’ parents who will allow our precious cherubs to grow up to be happy, healthy, strong, kind and resilient.

As I am now a parent of four wonderful grown men who are all in loving, committed relationships and who are one by one becoming parents themselves, I have been thinking about what the key to being good enough as a parent really is.

Babies are technically born without emotional and social awareness, and they need consistent loving care to learn how to be decent human beings.

This endless journey of teaching and guiding is what parents need to focus on after basic needs have been met.

Gradually the last century’s preferred style of punitive parenting — shaming and punishing kids when they do what we don’t want — as a way to improve human behaviour is now seen as ineffective long-term.

That doesn’t mean we have to instead be a soft touch whose children rule the roost.

Why do parents need to be mean sometimes?

Parents are meant to be the ‘alpha’ people in the house. This means our kids need to know we are the ones who keep healthy boundaries and structures and we will be their main protectors if the need arises.

For those who have highly spirited, strong willed ‘rooster’ children this means there will often be times you have to be ‘mean’ – where children lose privileges or need to do things to show they have to make things right and be accountable for their actions.

Without these ‘mean’ moments little roosters can become narcissistic, overly competitive, mean and power hungry.

It can help if you have many conversations about the three main family rules:

  1. Try not to hurt yourself.
  2. Try not to hurt others.
  3. Try not to hurt/damage property or the environment.

Being ‘mean’ also includes having children do regular chores, speak politely and use manners. Research shows that modelling how we want our children to behave works much better than telling them how to behave (ouch!).

Making children accountable for poor choices, rather than for being ‘bad’ or ‘naughty’, can sometimes make you feel mean.

If your child steals something, for example, you could tell them it’s wrong and then leave it at that, because returning the item to the store publicly could be embarrassing.

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However the act of being ‘mean’ in an alpha, responsible way will definitely have a greater impact and they will possibly say they hate you for making them return the item, apologise and be accountable.

The long-term benefits are enormous on developing a moral code and a conscience. P.S. They don’t hate you for long.

Being mean also means that sometimes when children are unable to practise self-regulation – when they hit, bite, push or fight – we may need to remove them from that situation quietly, firmly and confidently, and let them know we are not going to let them hurt others. They do get better at self-regulation as they mature.

Why being loving and deeply connected matters so much

Our primary need as humans is attachment or deep connectedness and when we have that from our parents or primary carers we can then feel safe and secure to focus on growing, exploring, being happy and becoming competent.

When children feel loved – especially unconditionally – they are motivated by love and affection and this means they try harder to make better choices. I favour lots of small heart connections more often to build this strong sense of being loved.

When kids muck up they are more likely to respond to non-threatening and caring teaching and guidance if they feel loved and connected, rather than through punitive punishment.

This of course requires us to manage our own reactions and to sometimes see behaviour not as naughty but through their eyes, and possibly as a celebration of how clever they are.

Essentially being a mean and loving parent is what authoritative parenting is all about. Too much mean is authoritarian, the ‘my way or the highway’ approach. Not enough mean is more submissive, where kids are not given guidance and structure and so they can feel confused and often struggle working to social norms later in life.

Of course it is so much more fun being a loving parent than being mean because we love our children so much – we never want to cause them discomfort.

However children need parents, not ‘besties’. My adult sons take great delight in telling me about my ‘mean’ moments – one complained at my 50th birthday that I was a tough mum at times. His worst punishment was he wasn’t allowed dessert for two weeks for a repeated misdemeanour – he was 20 at the time.

I wonder how he sees this punishment now he has become a daddy?

This article was originally published at Essential Kids.