I was watching an episode of the AMC show “Mad Men” earlier this week and found a perfect example of the type of parent whose discipline is weak because of his own childhood experience of discipline. The show’s main character, Donald Draper, works hard and provides well for his family, but he doesn’t interact much with his children when he is home. In one episode, his stay-at-home wife begins to resent his unwillingness to discipline their son, who clearly needs some “tweaking.”
But Don Draper simply will not express anger toward his son. While I sometimes sense an initial swell of anger boiling under the surface, he is quite adept at subduing and suppressing it. He seems to always retain the loving, supportive, and gracious father persona that he desperately wishes to be. The problem isn’t that he is all of those things; the problem is that he is only those things. When his son desperately needs a firm, angry (but in control) father, he only witnesses a caring, concerned father.
Late in the episode, Don finally does lose his temper when his son ignores his mother’s commands at the dinner table. He hurls his son’s toy across the room, shattering it into pieces. He then walks out of the room and while looking at his wife says, “There, are you happy now?” Mrs. Draper follows him upstairs and tries to convince the husband that her son needs a spanking. She even says, “You wouldn’t be the man you are without your dad spanking you.” He then admits to her, “He used to beat the #$&* out of me. The only thing that did was make me fantasize for years about murdering him.”
Here we see what I call the “parenting pendulum”. In order to avoid becoming a monster like his father, he pushes to the other extreme by becoming too permissive. His initial impulse is honorable, but he neglects one of his son’s important needs in the process.
A high percentage of the permissive parents I work with admit that they had extremely domineering, authoritarian parents. They commit to never being like their fathers and so err on the side of caution. Our work focuses on teaching the parents how neither extreme serves their children well and how an assertive, authoritative parenting style bolsters the family hierarchy, which is critical for healthy child development.
Think about your own pendulums. Where did your parents go wrong and how are you compensating for it by pushing your parenting to the opposite end of the spectrum? Consider the possibility that you can come to the middle and not have to worry about copying your parents’ mistakes. You can be in charge, firm, and in control without being an abusive, unloving control freak.