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How Your Parenting Style Can Help You Discover the Most Important Factors in Raising Children

As parents, we are continually reminded of the treasures that God has placed in our lives. Parenting is the highest privilege or occupation a person can have. What an honor it is to be the guardian of another life from conception to adulthood! It also carries with it, however, some awesome responsibilities.

One responsibility is found in Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it.” Unfortunately, many parents have misinterpreted this verse. Instead of discovering the God-given “bent” of each child and adapting their training accordingly, many well-meaning parents have attempted to force their child into a particular mold.

That would be like taking the branch of an oak tree and trying to make it grow in another direction. Unless the branch's unique bent is understood, it can be damaged or even destroyed. Just like the tree branch, children have been created with a natural bent. As parents, if we attempt to bend our children without looking at their natural personality–the results can be tragic.

As loving parents, how do we adapt our parenting “to the way they should go,” without breaking our child's natural branches? The secret can be found in something that happened to our family.

One day, while driving in northern California, our family became very tired and irritable. After a family vote we decided to stretch our legs. Up the road a few miles, we found a beautiful river that had a special surprise.

As my brother and I (Greg) were exploring the river, we discovered that moss had formed over the rocks, creating a very slick river bottom. What was even more amazing was that the water had carved out a natural slide. However, there was one minor problem. As you slid down, unless you landed into a small pool, you were in danger of going over a waterfall.

After several practice runs we determined that you could slide about ten yards and still make it into the landing pool. We were having a relaxing time until dad showed up. Watching us slide down the river, he felt this would make a great picture. Having never met a camera that I didn't like, I enthusiastically volunteered to go first. However, somehow dad talked me into starting at the very top. Looking down at the steep slide, I realized that it would be difficult to stop in the landing pool. As he attempted to persuade me, dad said something that would eventually cause me much pain. “Trust me. You'll do fine. If you don't hit the pool, I'll stop you!”

As he got into position, I pushed off and went racing down the river. Suddenly, I hit a bump and flew off course. Instantly I passed my father–who was still trying to take the picture–and headed straight for the waterfall.

As I went over the falls, I tried to push off to keep my balance. Unfortunately, I kicked too hard and landed flat on my back. SLAPPPP! The sound of my back flop echoed throughout the canyon. As I struggled toward the river bank my father's words, “Trust me…I'll stop you” haunted me. When he appeared at the top of the falls, I started to scream at him, but quickly stopped. As my mother raced down the trail, the scene was like watching a mother bear rear up to attack the person who had wounded her cub. Through this experience, it was sensitive mom who was shaken up the most. In fact, this was one time in her life when if she could have reached dad, there's no telling what she would have done to him!


The secret of training up a child in the way he should go is actually represented by this story. As parents, we first need to understand our parenting style before we can train up our children according to their unique bent. The way in which my father talked me into going down the water slide reflected his easy-going, fun loving parenting style. On the other hand, my mother's parenting style had a dramatic effect on her response to our impulsive behavior. What's important is that you will react to your child's behavior, thoughts and feelings according to a natural, God-given parenting style. If you want to maximize your parenting, then you need to understand how to balance your strengths and weaknesses.

As we examine four parenting styles, it's important not only to examine the kind of parents we are and would like to be, but also to evaluate our lives in light of how we were parented


This first type of parent is like a person who was at the party of a wealthy Texan. At one point during the evening, the rich Texan offered anyone a million dollars or his daughters hand in marriage if they could swim across a pool filled with piranhas. All of a sudden a loud splash rang out and someone frantically swam across the pool. The person barely made it to the other side before getting eaten alive. “Unbelievable,” shouted the Texan. “What would you like–the money or my daughter's hand?” “Neither,” the young man barely was able to answer. “I just want the name of the person who pushed me in!”

Like the young swimmer, the “rules” parent is decisive, purposeful and great at conquering nearly any challenge. As with the other parenting styles, however, if their strengths get pushed out of balance, those traits can become their greatest weaknesses. These parents are born leaders and feel more comfortable if they're the ones calling the shots. They tend to be self-motivated and feel strongly that life is a series of problems they need to solve or challenges they need to meet now. They are also able to make quick decisions. Unfortunately, the decision might be made with or without facts, and often without asking the family for advice. For the “rules” parent, meaningful communication usually equals short sentences, sticking to the point. Their natural desire for efficient conversation must be balanced with the time needed to generate relational communication. That means listening closely and with acceptance, not jumping in with a lecture or solution.

“Rules” parents need to learn that relaxation is needed to recharge their emotional batteries. Times of relaxation can also provide an opportunity to spend leisurely time with their family. Furthermore, they need to remember not to elevate projects or things ahead of people. Their intensity, if pushed out of balance, may give the appearance that they are mad at others, even if they aren't. They can also be so strong that they win every verbal battle yet end up losing the war for their family's hearts. These parents usually demand unquestioned allegiance and expect others to follow their orders immediately. Every family needs the strengths of a “rules” parent but they also need sensitivity, unconditional love and acceptance.


As my (Gary's) youngest son Michael becomes a father, his natural parenting bent will be toward this second style. At his high school graduation, Michael gave an unforgettable speech about how he had enjoyed spending time with his mother and me. At one point in the talk he told the audience that, “My dad used to take me swimming at a river when I was young. The hardest part, however, was getting out of the burlap bag!”

Like Michael, the easy-going parent enjoys doing things the fun way. The water slide incident, unfortunately is only one example of how all the Smalley men fit into this category. Easy-going parents are great at motivating the family into action. They usually tend to focus on the future and are incredibly optimistic. These parents enjoy being around others and they have a deep need to be liked by everyone. Mix in their impulsive, creative tendencies with their love of excitement and adventure–and you've got the perfect recipe for a vulnerability towards peer pressure.

Easy-going parents tend to avoid confrontation at all costs. If their natural strengths are pushed out of balance the easy-going parent may lose the respect of their family and friends. They need to make sure that they build strong friendships with their children to help them deal with peer pressure later on. They must remember that their family is more important than the number or friends they have or how well they're liked. Finally, although it's easy to be soft on people, it's not so easy to be hard on problems. Limits and discipline when kept in balance are needed in the lives of our children. Therefore, the dangers of being a people pleaser should be kept in mind amidst the fun, energy and excitement easy-going parents create.


Recently we heard a story about this third type of parent and her six year old daughter. One day while the mother was taking a shower, her daughter started banging on the door and screaming, “Mommy, I want my bike out of the garage!” Softly she answered, “I'm not dried off yet…you need to wait. I'll be out in a minute.”

“No!” demanded the child, “I want it now!”

Finally like many “little rules” parents she gave in. Still dripping wet, she put on her housecoat and went out into the garage. Having forgotten that the garage door wasn't working properly, her housecoat caught the door as it went up. The speed and strength at which the door lifted her robe resulted in pinning her arms above her head. She twisted and pulled at the housecoat, but quickly realized that she was trapped and completely exposed. Fortunately for her, no one was watching. After an intense struggle, she finally tore her robe and ran back into the house before the neighborhood children left for school.

Like this mother, the “little rules” parent wants to please others. They tend to be warm, supporting people, but weak in establishing and enforcing rules and limits for their children. These parents tend to be loyal and compassionate. They have a strong need for close relationships and friendships. They often react to sudden changes and hold stubbornly to what they feel is right. This was the type of parent that I (Gary) had. My mother was especially loving and accepting of me. But as far as I can remember, there were very few rules in our home. She usually gave in to my demands. Even when I was in trouble, she would not spank or discipline me. My mother said she never spanked because her first child died of blood poisoning and she had spanked her two weeks before she died. She made my father promise to never spank any one of their five remaining children.

One of the major reasons why some parents are too permissive is an inner fear that they may damage their children if they are too strict. That fear of confronting their children may actually produce the very things they fear. Over-permissiveness can cause a child to sense that he is in the driver's seat and can play the parent accordingly. Likewise, a child might develop a feeling of insecurity, like leaning against a wall that appears to be firm, but falls over. Finally, a child may learn that because standards are not firm, he can manipulate around the rules.


This fourth type of parent is like the young boy at church who was looking at the pictures of former senior pastors. The new pastor walked up to him and told him that these are the pictures of the men who have died in the service of the Lord. Looking rather upset the young boy asked, “Was that the nine o'clock or the eleven o'clock service?”

Like this young boy, the “lets do it right” parent tends to view things in a very literal manner. They make much effort to see that things are done right. They live by the motto: “If it's worth doing, it's worth doing right.” They also take the time by slowing down to make careful decisions. They thrive on being able to use their problem solving skills to deal with family problems. But it's important to learn that most of the time their families want them to listen and understand instead of trying to solve the problem. These parents appear reserved, cautious and controlled when it comes to displaying emotions and affection. It's not that these parents have a difficult time loving their families. Their commitment can be just as strong as the other styles. However, they often have difficulty communicating that warmth to their family.

Since this type of parent wants things done right, they can get so wrapped up in the results of a project that they fail to see how dramatically they affect their family. They need to make sure the details don't become so important that they miss the people behind them. “Lets do it right” parents tend to turn anger inward. Some need to learn that it's all right to fail and that it's healthy to call for help when they're struggling. Finally, they may need to guard against assuming that their family will see the same problem or in the same manner as they do.


The purpose for understanding our natural parenting bent is so that it can help us balance the hard and soft sides of love. What do we mean by “hard” and “soft” love, and why is this important to understand and communicate both of them to our children? Think back to the last time you held a rose. Can you picture the beautiful color and smell the wonderful aroma? Can you visualize the soft, velvety petals begging to be touched? When God created the rose, He knew that the very softness that makes a rose beautiful would also leave it easy prey to those who want to destroy its splendor. This is why, along with the softness, God also provided the hardness of thorns. They don't detract from the rose's beauty but preserve, protect and enhance it.

The hardside and softside of a rose can also be seen in relationships. Hardside love is doing what's best for our children regardless of the cost. Held in balance, it's the ability to be consistent, to discipline, to protect, to challenge and to correct. Like the thorns on a rose, hardside is essential but it's also incomplete by itself. A rose also needs beautiful petals–which is the softside. Softside love is a tenderness that grows to be the same color as unconditional love. When held in balance, softside love manifests characteristics like compassion, sensitivity, patience and understanding.

It is extremely important to be balanced in the way we love our family–especially our children. Providing only one side of love can cause real problems in a family. As we learn to be balanced, it will help us give our children two very important things.


The key to becoming a balanced parent is by realizing that we all have a natural parenting bent, and we seem to function from one or two different styles. The reason it's so important to learn our natural tendencies is to see what happens when our natural strengths get pushed out of balance, and the possible effects upon our children.

As Christian parents, trying to fulfill our responsibilities outlined in Proverbs 22:6 can be very difficult. In order to help in this process, we have found that by becoming balanced we can learn how to give our children two extremely important things:

1. A commitment to love each child in a warm, affectionate, and supportive way.

2. Establishing clearly defined and understood rules in the home, limits that the children know they cannot violate without some consequence.

A parent who is balanced in all four parenting styles usually have clearly defined rules, limits, and standards for living. They take time to train their children to understand these limits–like why we don't carve love notes on the neighbor's tree–and give clear warnings when a child has transgressed an established limit. They also give support by expressing physical affection and spending personal time listening to each child. They are flexible, willing to listen to all the facts if a limit has been violated.


As we attempt to become balanced parents, the first step is to remain aware of your natural parenting tendencies. For example, when relating to your family, is it easy for you to be hard on problems but easy to be hard on your children as well? Or do you rarely move beyond the softside, unwilling to confront your child or take the lead? Do you hesitate to act, even when you know you should be firm and others need you to be strong? For the parent who desires a balance between the hard and soft sides of love, we encourage you to sit down with your family and make a very important list. Take a sheet of paper and divide it in half. On one side of the paper mark “Strengths” and on the other side mark “Weaknesses.” First, make a list of all your natural strengths. For example, the “easy going” parent may list such things as enthusiastic, energetic, visionary, fun-loving, enjoys change, and optimistic to name a few.

The next step is to understand that our greatest parenting weaknesses are usually our strengths being pushed to an extreme. For example, lets say that a young boy is supposed to make his bed before leaving for school. If it doesn't get done, the “little rules” parent whose ability to listen closely and carefully can become a weakness if the parent's listening and patience can keep her from asking the hard question or confronting the problem. Likewise, the “lets do it right” parent, who has a natural strength of being a critical thinker, if unbalanced, may come down too hard on the child and crush his spirit.

Once the “Strengths” list is complete, have your family help you list some of your parenting weaknesses. For example, the “easy going” parent's list might include things like: over bearing, impatient, day dreamer, too flippant and not serious enough, lacks follow-through, and doesn't see details. Notice how these weaknesses are simply variations or opposites of his strengths. Another helpful thing to do would be to list possible ways that your strengths–if pushed to an extreme–could become weaknesses or potential problems.

The reason for creating lists like these is to become aware of how your strengths can become weaknesses if pushed out of balance. We encourage you to ask your family for specific ways that will help you move your weaknesses back into balance. Periodically review the list to gauge how you're doing in your attempt to become a balanced, Christ-like parent.

Remember, Jesus had always been soft with people, yet hard on their problems. A very specific biblical instruction for parenting will be reflected as we learn to balance the four parenting styles. It stresses two important ways that parents must take care of their children. First, they must discipline their children (See Proverbs 13:24), which partly means setting clearly defined limits in the home. Second, they must follow the greatest instruction in Scripture–to love one another (See Matthew 22:37-39). By doing these two things you will be training up your child in the way he should go, so as he grows up, he won't need to turn away from it.


The above article was written from material in Gary Smalley & John Trent's book, The Two Sides Of Love and Gary Smalley's book, The Key To Your Child's Heart. Refer to these two books for more information on parenting styles and other related topics.

Greg Smalley, PsyD
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Dr. Smalley previously served as the director of Marriage Ministries for The Center for Healthy Relationships. He is the author or co-author of twelve books concerning marriages and families, and currently serves as the executive director of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family.

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