Authoritative vs. Authoritarian Discipline - Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My three-year-old is starting preschool next week and while I did do some shopping around and asking for friends’ recommendations, I’m not 100% thrilled with one thing about the school.

We visited last spring and came to a Family Orientation last week. The teachers seem to be stuck in the past with their attitude toward discipline. This happens when a child doesn’t immediately comply with a teacher’s request. The teacher typically focuses on the lack of doing “what I said” and will criticize the child for that alone instead of helping her learn to do whatever needs to be done, or to have any choice, in that moment. I thought authoritarian discipline was a thing of the past. Will my three years’ of guiding my daughter, based on her needs and not mine, be cancelled out with 2 ½ hours each school day of “Do what the teacher says”?

Raising a Modern Day Child

Dear RMDC,

You are referring to the work of Diana Baumrind in the early 1960’s looking at parents’ styles of discipline and the corresponding effects on a child’s behavior. Her observations of parents and their preschoolers captured a moment in history as our culture was transitioning from the traditional view of unquestioned authority to an era of civil rights, women’s rights, the American Disabilities Act, and other movements to allow previously ignored needs to be heard. Baumrind’s distinction between Authoritarian (adult-oriented) and Authoritative (child-oriented) styles is still used today in parenting education. Preschool teachers, too, should have come across training in discipline methods based on knowledge of child development and children’s needs as the most effective way to help a child become self-disciplined. Continued research has found that the authoritative approach not only helps children make good decisions about their behavior but also builds self-esteem, fosters school achievement, and reduces the perils of adolescence - juvenile delinquency, drug abuse, and depression.

Meeting a Child’s Needs
You should assume that your daughter’s teachers may not consider whether she’s tired, hungry, nervous, sad, trying to make a friend, or coming down with an earache. Any unmet need can cause a child to do something the teacher disapproves of or to object to a teacher’s request. Therefore do the very best you can to be sure your daughter is well-rested, well-fed, and otherwise all put together before dropping her off. Your sensitivity and responsiveness to your daughter’s emotions while she is with you will also help her to be “put together” during her time at school. Be sure to support her friendships from school with play dates. Some misbehaviors are simply to gain the acceptance of a playmate, despite coincidentally getting negative attention from a teacher.

If something is off, try alerting the teacher in the morning – i.e. “She may be a little distracted today – we got a puppy over the weekend!” Or “She was very disappointed that her new friend from school had to cancel their play date Saturday afternoon because of a sudden ear infection. If she starts to act sluggish and whiny herself, give me a call and I’ll come back to get her. I know you don’t want this to spread around!” Hopefully with your comments you can draw the teacher’s attention to the needs of her class of children, and away from her own need for obedience.

Reasons for Rules
A hallmark of Authoritative Discipline is that it helps the child focus on behavior itself – not on the adult’s awareness of an infraction of a rule that was made by the adult. It is important to share the reasons behind the rules so a child can agreeably follow them, and eventually make them, in her own best interest. Usually preschool teachers enforce the rule of “ask another child before you take the toy he’s using” even though it’s usually after an infraction rather than coaching a child to be successful to begin with. At home, practice asking for a turn with each other to show your daughter how it works. Better still, stay close during her play dates to coach the two friends at that Teachable Moment. It’s not easy to give up something you are enjoying, so be sure to address the children’s feelings during your practices. A two-minute timer on your cell phone can announce when the toy gets passed back. The benefit of learning the rule of asking for a turn is that other children will want to play with a child who follows it – which will quickly reinforce their motivation to keep following it. As you become aware of other school rules, be sure to discuss the reasons behind them with your daughter. For example, “we walk indoors” because the furniture and floor are hard and would hurt if we hit them or fall. “Indoor voices” are used because loud noises bounce off the walls and hurt our ears indoors. Also, use your out-of-school time for lots of outdoor play so she gets in all the running and shrieking a three-year-old needs to have!

Making Good, and Timely, Decisions
When children are given the reasons behind each rule they learn to make good decisions in the absence of adult oversight. If your out-loud decision is to “Let’s button up because it’s cold outside” and “Ooh I’m too warm with this hat on; I’m taking it off” your daughter will learn to pay attention to the weather and to dress for it. Unfortunately, an Authoritarian teacher may dictate that your daughter put on every item “your mother sent you in” despite a 10 degree increase in the outdoor temperature since arrival time. (I recall Authoritarian teachers in my children’s elementary school saying this at the end of a mid-autumn day as they made children bundle up in 70 degree afternoon temperatures!) Take advantage of volunteer opportunities in the school to learn the teachers’ expectations and behaviors on these and other matters. You can use this first-hand knowledge to walk your daughter in with her scarf on, but tell her you’ll take it back out to the car with you since it will soon warm up outside.

Before you start scrambling for an opening in another preschool, see if there are ways you can use your Authoritative parenting to guide your daughter’s success where she is. Maybe some of it will rub off on the school!

Dr. Debbie

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What do you think? Email your comments or questions to Dr. Debbie at editor[at]chesapeakefamily.com.