I was recently chatting with my closest childhood friend, and we were waxing nostalgic about how different our homes were growing up, and how we felt about those differences at the time. While it can clearly be said that one’s parents are a big part of forming one’s character, and that as we age, our friends become a very large influence on our values, our experiences, and how we interpret the world around us, by extension our friends’ parents can be a strong influence on us as well, either directly or indirectly.
I often saw this particular friend’s mom as a sort of second mother to me. She was divorced and had given up on the Church despite being from a Mormon family. I only found out much later that some ward leaders were extremely nasty to her, trying to convince her to “stand by her man” who was not worth standing by. She worked long grueling hours as a nurse. She was raising two daughters, one of whom was mentally slow and required some additional care. To me, she was a strong, independent woman who was done taking crap from other people, particularly men. She was confident, yet caring. She had a great sense of humor. She treated me like a daughter. She was direct, patient, and not a prude at all.
Being at their house also felt much more independent to me. She often had to work 72 hour shifts, and I’d stay over there while she was gone. We’d get up when we wanted, eat what we wanted when we wanted, and we’d do adventurous things like swinging from ropes in the barn on their property, landing in big piles of hay bales. We’d ride dirt bikes. We’d swim. We’d walk across a rusty I-beam across the stream and into the woods. Nobody knew where we were. In winter, we’d walk the three miles on the frozen creek between our houses, meeting up halfway and walking the rest together.
My friend’s view of my house (and her own) was kind of the predictable flip side of all that. At my house (with a stay at home mom and no siblings at home), it was quiet and orderly. There were always family meals on time and together at a table. My parents were industrious and capable, not stressed out like her mom often was. I never got grounded, and she felt like she always did.
Another friend of mine from Church had parents who were almost never home when I went there. Our dads were in the bishopric together. Her parents both worked long hours as educators. They seldom ate family meals together. When I was there, she and I fended for ourselves, often opting for butterscotch pudding for dinner instead of an actual meal, or slapping together sandwiches (her favorite was pickles and peanut butter). She also had MTV and cable TV which was a BIG DEAL at the time, a huge extravagance. At my house, we only had the three big networks (ABC, NBC, CBS) plus a half day of programming on Saturdays from a station in Philadelphia that showed old movies (which I grew to love, including the schlocky horror movies of prior decades like “Them!,” “Burnt Offerings,” and “Motel Hell”). She was very close to her dad, and she also called her parents by their first names, both of which were different than in my own house and felt somehow admirable. She lived in the suburbs whereas I was out in the sticks, so she had neighbors, and I envied her connection to school friends and how convenient it was to go places from her house. Her house was always a disaster, unlike my own immaculate house where everything had its place, the floors were clean, and even the multi-acre yard was orderly.
There were other friends that exposed me to completely different lifestyles and ways of parenting that were alluring and novel. I had two different friends whose families lived in apartments or townhomes, some with siblings at home, others with parents who argued, some with foster kids in the home, and many variations on how the family dynamics worked. All of these different family styles broadened my perspective on how families work, how it could be when I had my own family, and what I liked and didn’t like about their arrangements. There was no single ideal model; there were many variations that all worked in their own way.
I recently read a description of six different types of family dynamics:
Authoritarian. These households are run by “rules,” with very few if any exceptions being made. In general, kids are not consulted in decisions, even when they are affected by the rules. Honestly, I don’t really think any of my friends, not the ones who had friends come to their house anyway, had this dynamic. That’s probably because their houses were not great places to hang out.
Authoritative. In these households, there is a parent figure who is in charge, and while their word is final, they do explain decisions to the rest of the family members and demonstrate the need to obtain buy-in and treat others with respect while sticking to firm boundaries. This is kind of like the Mary Poppins model. You can make it fun, but by golly you are taking that medicine.
Competitive. These families are constantly competing with one another, between siblings, and even between parents and other family members. There is a sense of rivalry that pervades personal interactions.
Uninvolved. Even when they are present, family members are pursuing their own individual interests and may not feel present to one another in the moment.
Communal. These families are a collective, a community in which each person makes a contribution to the whole. All voices are heard and individual opinions are respected.
Alliance-based. This is like the show Survivor. Different family members band together to gain leverage over other family members, or a child and parent may ally against the other parent.
In my own experience, growing up, our family mostly felt Uninvolved. I spent a lot of time reading or working or hanging out with friends. Even when I was home, I usually had a book in my hand. My parents were quite old by the time I was born, so they were probably mentally ready to be done with this parenting nonsense, which suited me fine.
Many Church leaders share stories that reveal their own parenting styles and assumptions, and it is not always to their credit. For example, there are too many Authoritarian family stories for my taste, and it’s ultimately not a very successful parenting style. It often creates resentment, stunted emotional development in children, and eventual parental estrangement. When the person giving parental advice is a worse parent than I am, it’s hard to take their advice seriously.
There are some hallmarks of healthy family dynamics from the same article:
- Open Communication. Do family members feel encouraged to speak for themselves, or are they encouraged or forced to defer to the one person in the family whose word is law? Do other family members try to “interpret” others’ opinions to make them more acceptable?
- Emotional Support. Everyone is allowed to communicate their anxieties, fears and sorrows. They are not ashamed to share their feelings with others in the family.
- Shared Responsibility. The parents aren’t the sole authorities and decision-makers. All family members are respected and included, given opportunities to lead in the family. Their input is solicited.
- Work Balance. The family avoids the tensions that come from too many non-family commitments. Family responsibilities are shared, and nobody is so absent that they can’t contribute meaningfully.
- Expressing Interest. Family members feel that others in the family are interested in them and their lives. They discuss their days. They show up for important events.
- Support and Discipline. Parents provide structure, especially to young children, that supports their growth and well-being. Rather than punishing bad behavior to deter it, parents provide strategies to help improve behavior.
- Shared Respect. Family members work together to resolve conflicts rather than punishing those who have different opinions.
- Creating a Safe Environment. Parents set good examples, stay positive, and display affection.
While I’m not sure any of these are a 10 out of 10 in the family I created, I like to think that they are at least slightly higher than the house I grew up in, and in turn, I imagine that my parents’ results were slightly better than their own parents’ results on the whole. While trauma can be passed down through DNA, we also examine the faults of our parents and try to do better. We at least manage to change some of what we didn’t like.
As my own kids were growing up, I saw them interact with their friends’ parents and make these same types of mental comparisons. Once in Singapore, my daughter came home from a friend’s birthday party on their family yacht and said, “Hey, why don’t we have a yacht?” I had to explain that 1) the marina slip alone was $1M annually, 2) we were only in Singapore temporarily, and 3) see #1 again. But she also saw that we were more lax than many parents, giving our kids more independence, not pushing them as hard on schoolwork, letting them choose their own clothes and spend weekends with friends. Even as an adult, my daughter once observed that her friend had said, “Wow, your mom really loves you.” What I suspect she really meant was, “I wish I had a better relationship with my mom.” Whenever we meet other people’s parents, it’s always natural to compare.
Obviously, in my case, a lot of my friends’ parents were Church members (or had been), but that’s not always the case. Something I learned, though, was that regardless of what the Church was claiming was the “ideal,” it wasn’t at all universally practiced among the families I got to know. I could clearly see that there was more than one way to be a family, and more than one way to be Mormon. Perhaps there’s more homogeneity in other places, but where I was, there was a lot of variety.
- Did your friends often have different family dynamics than yours? What differences did you notice?
- How much influence did other people’s parents have on you when you were growing up?
- What family dynamics do you see the Church espousing? Are they the same ones you see as ideal?
- What’s your own style?
Thank you for the article. Yes, when I was a kid, I had run of the neighborhood and that included freedom to enter the homes of my friends — an adult had to put things in order if company was coming over, but kids weren’t company and kids saw almost everything. On reflection, yes, I did see families in differing circumstances and in differing models and in differing levels of array and disarray — different dynamics, to use OP’s word. And it seems to me that there was very little judgmentalism involved — a lot of observation, mostly silent but with some inquiry.
But it seems to me that kids today have far less freedom to roam, and that means they have far less opportunity to make observations while they roam.
Anyway, the article made me reflect, and I am glad for that.
I agree with this line that our friends become a very large influence on our values, our experiences, and how we interpret the world around us, by extension our friends’ parents can be a strong influence on us as well, either directly or indirectly.
Growing up in a very Mormon family, I feel that my family fit into the Authoritative model. In fact most all the Mormon families I grew up around I would consider to fall under the Authoritative model. We were given some agency, but most things were dictated to some extant. I wasn’t a naturally rebellious child so that worked fine, but it did mean it took some time for me to change my life in ways that didn’t fit with how I was raised.
Well, the listed “hallmarks of healthy family dynamics” (open communication, emotional support, shared responsibility, etc.) are a good way to take a quick trip down good ol’ parenting Guilt Trip Lane 🙂 I just became an empty nested last fall, so there’s been plenty of time to reflect on my parenting successes and failures over the last few months.
It seems like there are really only 2 parenting styles that might be considered good out of the list of 6 from the OP (authoritarian, authoritative, competitive, etc.), namely authoritative and communal (although the OP seems to indicate that she enjoyed having uninvolved parents, which does make some sense), so it’s probably no surprise that I would probably identify myself as utilizing a good mixture of the authoritative and communal parenting styles the majority of the time while acknowledging practicing (mostly unintentionally) a few of the other “bad” styles for a pretty small percentage of the time.
I feel like I did pretty well on the healthy family dynamics list (open communication, emotional support, shared responsibility), but I also definitely had some screw ups, both big and little, at times as well.
I would really be curious (and honestly pretty scared) to see how my children who have all just recently left the nest would describe my parenting style and how they’d score me on the healthy family dynamics list. Each one of my children certainly had a very unique personality with different strengths and weaknesses, so I feel like it would be very likely that some of them would score me much higher than others. This is just based off of how much friction there was during their high school years which is still very, very recent history. I would also be interested (and still very scared) to know how they’d rate me 10-15 years from now when they are truly on their own, starting their own families, etc.
I will say that it is a relief no longer feeling like I have to balance the authoritative versus communal aspects of parenting now that my children are “adults”. When they were younger, there were things that I just didn’t feel were negotiable (preventing them from major injury or death due to reckless behavior, not flunking out of high school, etc.), but now that that they are out of high school, I no longer feel that burden. It’s now all about just supporting them with whatever they choose, including helping them live through the consequences of any “poor” decisions they make. So far, they seem to be doing really well on their own. I like to think that has something to do with my parenting, but I think that my kids really deserve most of the credit, as they are the ones doing all the hard work.
I was raised in a competitive/ alliance-based household that was a nightmare, so my wife and I consciously choose that our parenting with younger children was authoritative and by their late teens we swung to a more communal approach. It worked great. You can teach and tell little kids (they like the structure) but teens and young adults want an interactive dialogue.
Also: Parents never stop being parents. Even with adult children, you have to be the example of encouraging morality and loving kindness.
I would appreciate it much if one of my downvoters would share why he/she downvoted my comment. I re-read it, and I cannot see what I wrote that would be offensive or triggering to anyone — I am blind to it, and I need someone to help me see. Thank you.
ji: Don’t sweat it. Random downvotes aren’t significant, and for some reason every comment here seems to have at least 1-2 regardless the comment. It could even be an accident.
@hawkgrrrl, what a great topic.
My parents were the definition of Mormon orthodox and our home was authoritarian, at least until I hit about 7th grade when everything changed. My mom and dad relied heavily on the church for direction on how to parent, which mostly meant figuring out the rank priority of all the rules to impose. The boundaries shrunk anytime a church authority, local or general, came out with a new decree. My sibs and I (when I was a young boy) can remember all of the stages we went through as a result, most lasted anywhere from a few months to a year or two before flaming out: no TV on Sundays era, get up at 6:00am for scripture study era, wear church clothes all day on Sunday era, write in your journal on Sunday for an hour era, no friends who weren’t LDS era (which cause an explosion in our home and was rescinded moments after the idea was expressed), home no later than 10pm, even once you were 16 era, no caffeinated beverages era, and on and on.
There were some benefits to the stricture. Mom made hot breakfasts every morning. She made our lunches which were bagged and on the counter for us to grab as we went out the door, and dinner was every night at 6:00pm, sharp. Sunday dinner was always nice, and always at 4:00pm. Laundry day was Tuesday–have your dirty clothes in your hamper by Monday night or it waited a week to be washed. You could set your watch to the work my mom did to be a good home manager and home economist, to have a “house of order”. Her energy and work ethic was admirable. She was also emotionally distant. So we had stability but the trade off was a lack of disclosure within our family with little emotional vulnerability allowed. Lots of subjects were taboo and never talked about, like sex.
The problem is the authoritarian, rules-based model netted negative results. I think my three older siblings suffered from this parenting style. After the sibling just ahead of me got into real trouble as a teen and more imposed rules only compounded the issues, my parents, on the advice of a close, enlightened friend, totally changed their parenting style and over the next couple of years our home transformed into a more communal model.
My younger sister and I grew up in a completely different home as a result. I don’t know if my parent’s change of parenting style is responsible for who my younger sister and I became, but it’s like we have family A (older siblings) and family B (my little sister and me). There was quite a gap (6 years) between child three and me, child four. Family A siblings didn’t attend college, are more passive and submissive. Family B siblings are spiritually independent, speak out, are more decisive and assertive, and hold multiple college degrees. While all of my siblings are close, the differences in our lives today are dramatic. Family A sibs bring this up from time to time, having noticed the dramatic change and at times have quietly expressed how they wished my mom and dad would have been different for them when they were growing up.
I think in my parent’s case, they did the best they could. But you don’t know what you don’t know, and by the time the third sibling in our family started having problems and started getting into serious trouble, my mom began to question the rules-based style she and my dad had used. My mom’s close friend she turned to loved my mom enough to be frank and honest with her about the problems of rules-based and strict parenting styles. This woman was humble yet elegant and educated (her husband was quiet, thoughtful and held a PhD). She laid out for my mom a parenting approached that replaced rules with reasoning, taught principles for personal decision making, and then how to set explicit expectations about the importance of trust and self-regulation. I think my mom worked really hard and read everything her friend gave her. (My mom told me later, a few years before my mom passed away, that she would continue learning from her friend and sought her advice until my younger sister was married–a twenty-year period).
So I was going into 7th grade when this shift in my home occurred. All of the Sunday rules were relaxed, and others were thrown out completely. My older siblings, Family A, were shocked years later to find out I drank Mountain Dew in high school, for example. (While my mom didn’t object to it, we still never had soda in our home.) Dinner table conversation slowly shifted for Family B to include my little sister and I in decision making for big and small decisions that impacted our household (example, “We can buy a newer, used car or go on vacation, but not both. What do you think we should do?”). We were also responsible for our own laundry and were assigned to prepare dinner once a week for the family; the good news is we got to pick the menu.
Some things didn’t change. There were still too many taboo subjects, like talking about romantic relationships. My sister and I were able to find other adults with whom we could talk about the pros and cons of long-term dating as a teen. My best friend was also an important escape hatch for me from grade school all through high school. He came from a part-member family and there were no rules at his house. His mom was jovial, light-hearted and spoiled us. Snacks galore, unlimited Cokes, Atari and our own TV to use. I loved spending time at his home.
Still, the change in parenting style my parents managed to negotiate was nothing short of revolutionary, even if my parents weren’t able to overcome some of their own deeply ingrained, generational prejudices and taboos. I can’t blame them for that.
Here is what I find remarkable. My mom’s devotion to the church was etched in stone. Yet changing her parenting style (my dad always followed my mom’s lead) was a step in her own development of becoming more spiritually independent, and she had to come to terms with the fact that much of the advice she had received at church about parenting wasn’t sound. The authoritarian analog the church represented produced very poor results in our home before my mom’s friend guided her to radically change her parenting style. I think that was both hard for her to come to terms with, but also incredibly liberating. It also paralleled the period in her life–by no coincidence–in which she garnered the courage to pursue a career (and this was the Ezra Taft Benson women-stay-at-home era), something she had always wanted and something that would bring her remarkable personal growth, fulfillment and happiness over the next twenty years of her life.
I inherited the legacy of my mom’s Family B parenting style and was lucky enough to marry a woman whose education in is human development and who has professional credentials in social work. I would describe our marriage as egalitarian and our parenting style as communal. It’s seemed to work well for us and our kids despite all the mistakes I’ve made as a parent over the years.
Growing up, my family dynamic leaned “uninvolved”; there were just 4 of us (2 parents, one sibling) and we all had such different interests and conflicting personalities that we mostly just tried to stay out of each other’s way. I used to be jealous of big, seemingly happy close-knit families like the kind I knew from Church. My wife grew up in such a family, and when we compared notes as adults, she reminded me that perception is not always reality; for example, she resented having no space to herself, always having other people “all up in my business 24 hours a day” as well as disliking having to help raise her younger siblings because her parents were spread too thin. And her brothers’ non-stop fighting/wrestling/rowdiness, which I didn’t experience growing up as I had no brothers.
Perhaps the most valuable lessons I learned by visiting my various friends’ homes and seeing their family dynamics at play:
1. My own family was somewhat dysfunctional
2. But many other families were even more dysfunctional than mine
One of my bishops growing up (orthodox and very authoritarian) lived in a big, fancy, immaculate house with 6 seemingly perfect stair-step children, who were kind of bratty to the rest of us but could do no wrong in their parents eyes…well, as they grew up and transitioned to adulthood one by one, nearly all of them had train-wreck life experiences brought on by their own poor choices. Things like drug addiction, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, expulsion from BYU for academic dishonesty, criminal behaviors, etc. It may be unkind, but for me it’s kind of vindicating to learn of these misfortunes, and gives me a bit of schadenfreude.