Parenting styles evolve with our times. Historically, parenting approaches were adult-centered. In ancient Greece and Rome, childhood ended by approximately the age of six. After that, children were viewed as adults (Cunningham, 2005). During the Renaissance period, children were often seen wearing adult-like clothing and were treated as mini-adults. Life was centered around the “Renaissance man” an individual who was cultured and an expert in many different subject areas, like the arts and sciences (Bigner and Gerhardt, 2014). Thus, parenting (and life) was adult-centered.
The historical context of parenting provides a starting point for how parenting styles and practices have shifted in the United States. During Colonial times, the Puritan beliefs shaped the way Americans viewed the needs of their children. The term Puritan means “against pleasure” and thus, “play” was considered sinful (Mintz, 2006). During this time, they wanted to raise obedient children and thus, parents provided religious training to children by teaching them to memorize scriptures. This approach was also adult-centered. It was also a uni-directional approach, with parents having significant power over their children. Today, this parenting style would be called authoritarian.
In the Nineteenth century, there was a shift towards thinking about what children may need to grow and develop. During the industrial revolution, many fathers who were the primary disciplinarians in the household went away to work in manufacturing jobs. With this, there was a shift towards environmentalism or this idea that children were born as blank slates and the environment was central to their development. Mother’s played a more central role in becoming role models for their children and providing them with a range of experiences to develop their children to the fullest potential. Early Developmentalism also emerged; this was a movement that stemmed from Europe and advocated early education for children based on their unique, individual developmental needs.
With more knowledge about how children learn and develop, there was conflicting research on what works best for children. While some researchers advocated for more permissive styles (e.g., Freud, Spock) where the child must be understood and needs must be met, others (e.g., Watson) advocated for a behaviorist approach which advocated for a child’s impulses to be controlled in order to raise obedient children. Hence, the pendulum was swinging between adult-centered and child-centered approaches.
Today, parents try to meet the needs of their children through a bi-directional approach. They take the child’s age, interests, temperament and developmental needs into consideration when parenting. Parents have to learn to be more flexible with this approach because a “one-size-fits-all” approach does not work. There is more verbal give and take between adults and children. Parents are learning and practicing how to maintain structure and nurture. They listen and negotiate with their child—but they also tell their child when a compromise cannot be made. This is similar to the authoritative parenting style and research has found that this approach has the best academic, social, and emotional outcomes for children.
By Amita Roy Shah, Ed.D.
Bigner, J. & Gerhardt, C. (2014). Parent-child relations: An introduction to parenting. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Merrill Prentice-Hall.
Cunningham, H. (2005). Children and childhood in western society since 1500. New York: Pearson Longman.
Mintz, S. (2006). Huck’s raft: A history of American childhood. Boston: Harvard University Press.