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Why a Child’s Rude Behavior May Be Good for Development

Another approach that authoritarian parents sometimes use is psychological control. This is when parents toy with children’s sense of self and intrinsic value to get the behavior they want. It’s “a kind of control where you’re asking your kid to think the same way that you do or to feel the same way you do,” Dr. Loeb explained. A parent using psychological control might say things like “You didn’t make your bed — you’re such a bad girl” or “If you really loved me, you would go to sleep.”

One of Dr. Loeb’s recent studies, which followed kids from ages 13 to 32, found that children whose parents were psychologically controlling were less academically successful and less liked by their peers in adolescence compared with kids whose parents were not psychologically controlling. As adults, they were also less likely to be in healthy romantic relationships. Other research has linked parental psychological control with antisocial behavior and anxiety in kids.

Parents who use psychological control usually mean well — they think that controlling their kids will make them more successful — but “it kind of backfires,” Dr. Loeb said. “They end up struggling to think for themselves once they’re outside of the control of the home.”

And this is what many parents want — for kids to grow into independent thinkers who sometimes question authority and think outside the box. Ultimately, what the research suggests is that harsh, strict parenting does not sow the seeds for healthy development; it does the opposite. In the short term, sure, kids might be better behaved. In the long term, children suffer.

“We really want our kids to know themselves and trust themselves and believe in themselves — and that all gets sacrificed if parents are the be-all, end-all rulers of everything,” Dr. Hershberg said. Kids should be treated with respect and made to feel that their opinions and beliefs have worth.

This is not to say that children don’t need rules, limits or consequences — they certainly do. So-called “permissive” parenting can pose problems, too, and has been linked to child self-centeredness and poor impulse control. Dr. Loeb distinguished between unhelpful psychological control and helpful “behavioral control” — when parents set limits and expectations, such as that kids have a certain bedtime, need to clean up their room each morning or are only allowed a certain amount of screen time each day. Boundaries and rules are crucial for healthy development, she said. But parents don’t need to manipulate their children’s sense of identity or punish harshly to uphold them.

Indeed, research overwhelmingly suggests that what parents should strive for is a middle ground, “goldilocks” approach known as authoritative parenting (as opposed to “authoritarian” parenting). These parents have high expectations of their kids and set strict limits, but they are also warm and respectful with their children and sometimes willing to negotiate. Research shows that children of authoritative parents perform better in school than their peers, are more honest with their parents and are also kind and compassionate.

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