Helicopter, Lawnmower or Free Range: Which Parenting Style Are You?

The lowdown on all the parenting buzzwords...

Parenting styles

by Alice Hall |
Published on

From tigers to helicopters and jellyfish, it seems not a day goes by when a new parenting style starts trending on social media. Quite literally, it's a jungle out there. One of the recent buzzwords to make an appearance is 'benign neglect', after Jennifer Garner told Today that's how she parents her three children, Violet, 17, Seraphina, 14, and Samuel, 11.

When asked about her parenting methods, Garner said: 'I don’t know that I have some overarching philosophy. I just think they’re such cool people and I want to hear everything, and I want to be around. But I also think it’s okay if they suffer from a little bit of benign neglect.'

All the terms, of course, can be baffling for parents to navigate. Because, among all the eggshells and lawnmowers, aren't most of us simply just trying to get by? From the morning rush to get out of the door before school to the battle at bedtime, few parents have time to think 'Oh, this situation calls for my lawnmower skills!' Plus, certain parenting scenarios will always require different approaches - so you could be a 'lawnmower parent' tidying their bedroom but a 'free range parent' in the playground. You get the gist.

'As parents we absorb messages and judgements from those around us, pushing us in different directions. There’s also a need to negotiate or compromise with our partner or other people who are involved in caregiving,' says Georgina Sturmer, certified counsellor and member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP). 'There are other demands on us that might mean that we end up parenting in a way that might not fit with our philosophy, but reflects the time and energy that we have available.'

But if you are curious to learn more about the parenting styles taking over the internet, we've asked the experts for the lowdown on each...

What are the four original parenting styles?

In the 1960s, developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind identified three main parenting styles - permissive, authoritative and authoritarian. A fourth style, uninvolved, was later added in the 1980s by Stanford researchers Eleanor Maccoby and John Martin. Although the definitions of these may vary, we've broken down a broad outline of each parenting style below...

What is permissive parenting?

Permissive parents have a lot of love, warmth and empathy in their parenting approach, but they also struggle to set boundaries for their children. So in practice, this might look like not being able to say no to a late night ice cream treat when they beg for one. Of course, as any busy parent will tell you, sometimes it's just easier to cave ('Oh you will put on your school shoes if we watch one more episode of Peppa Pig?') but permissive parenting is when there is a consistent lack of rules or timeliness in a child's daily routine.

What is authoritative parenting?

Unlike permissive parenting, authoritative parents have firm limits for their child, but are still nurturing and supportive. So, despite having clear boundaries for their children, they will always give them the support they need to meet them. An example of this is giving your child chores, but allowing them to pick which ones they do.

What is authoritarian parenting?

At the strictest end of the spectrum is authoritarian parenting, which is generally characterised by having high expectations for children and strict rule following, with little room for discussion and flexibility. Essentially, it's a 'tough love' approach, which, in the short term could positively shape a child's behaviour. However, experts have warned that, long term, this parenting style can cause poor self-esteem and cause children to rebel in the future.

What is uninvolved parenting?

Sometimes known as neglectful parenting, this style is when parents don't respond to their children's wider needs. So they may provide basic necessities like a roof over their head, food and clothes, but they remain emotionally distant, with little support and supervision.

What are the modern parenting styles?

Since Baumrind identified the four key parenting styles, a host of trendy buzzwords have popped up in recent years attempting to sum up our different approaches to raising children. From tigers to helicopters, we've broken down some of the key terms.

What is a Helicopter parent?

Helicopter parenting is one of the styles to take off on social media and even comes with attached celebrities. One of the most famous examples of helicopter parenting is 'momager' Kris Jenner, who admitted in an Instagram video 'I'm an old-fashioned helicopter mom.' Naturally, this has led to loads of parents wondering, 'How do I know if I'm a Helicopter parent?'

To understand what helicopter parenting actually is, Sturmer explains it can be helpful to think of the metaphor. 'A helicopter parent sits on that metaphorical helicopter, with a loudspeaker in their hand, ready to issue instructions and take control of their child at any given moment,' she says. Think the parent at sports day who starts coaching the teacher, or the one who is constantly overthinking their child's safety.

What are the effects of helicopter parenting?

Of course (most of the time), this comes from a good place. As Sturmer explains, it's natural for parents to want their child to be safe, happy and successful, and having an element of control over our child is a one way we know how to do this.

However, to understand the motivations behind helicopter parenting, Sturmer says we have to look at our own underlying anxieties. 'This might be based on wanting to protect our child from a repeat of our own childhood experiences or trauma or failure. Or it might be based on our own anxiety about the state of the world that our child is living in,' she says. 'Controlling our child’s life might be a way of coping with other aspects of our own life that we are struggling to control.'

The risk of this, she says, is that children may 'fail to develop their sense of autonomy and personal likes,' and put the needs of others before their own. 'Or alternatively they might rebel and challenge our authority, leading to conflict or risky behaviour,' she adds.

You can read more about Helicopter parenting here.

What is a lawnmower parent?

Again, it's all in the name. Much like a lawnmower, this type of parent will 'mow' down any obstacles that come in their parents way. Rather than hovering like a helicopter, they will actually intervene to get the best for their child. Some examples of this are completing your child's homework, attempting to solve friendship disputes and constantly removing your child from difficult situations.

While on the surface this seems caring, Sturmer explains we should be aware of the 'tipping point' where nurturing parents can become stifling ones. 'There are important life skills that we learn when we get things wrong. We learn how to resolve conflict, to apologise, to take responsibility for our actions.  A lawnmower parent might be well-meaning, but they may well be stifling their own child’s sense of resilience,' she says.

What is a tiger parent?

The concept of tiger parenting was first coined by Amy Chua, a Yale law professor and mother of two daughters, published a book about her parenting style called The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. In it, she suggested that strict parenting culture was popular in China and was superior to laid back approaches she had perceived in Western cultures. Her theory divided the internet and sparked a nationwide debate.

Since, tiger parenting - which is characterised by strictness, and pushing children to succeed academically - has entered the mainstream. Advocates of tiger parenting say that it helps children to become more motivated, productive and responsible - and there is, in many cases, certainly warmth at its core, particularly when children are highly supported. However, some children may struggle to thrive under this parenting style, and it can result in rebellion.

What are the effects of tiger parenting?

'Tiger parenting is built on the desire for our children to thrive in a society that values success,' says Sturmer. 'But the risk is that our children might learn, or decide, that the only way to gain their parent’s attention is through attainment.  When what children really need is an unconditional sense of affection and security.'

Sturmer adds that stress or burnout can result from extreme tiger parenting. 'And ultimately for parents it can be difficult too, if we conflate our own sense of success with our child’s achievements,' she says.

What is an egg shell parent?

We're all familiar with the phrase walking on egg shells, and now this has infiltrated the world of parenting. '"Eggshell parenting" is when our behaviour leaves a child feeling as if they need to walk on eggshells,' says Sturmer. The style was coined by clinical psychologist Dr. Kim Sage, whose TikToks about egg shell parenting have gained popularity.

Sturmer explains that this can manifest in a number of ways. 'We might show anger or anxiety or fear or sadness, or vacillate between different emotions. From the child’s perspective, there’s a sense of instability or insecurity, of not quite knowing how to manage our emotions or wanting to look after us,' she says.

What is a free range parent?

The egg theme continues! As the name suggests, free range parenting is the idea of offering children as much independence as possible. A key advocate of this theory is Lenore Skenazy, a writer and artist based in New York who authored the book Free Range Kids. Lenore made headlines in 2008 when she wrote about letting her nine-year-old son find his way home on the subway alone, a decision which cruelly led some people to call her 'the world's worst mum.' Whatever your views on a parents style, we're never advocates of mum-shaming.

Sturmer explains that, in many ways, free range parenting feels like a 'healthy antidote' to a world where we are used to being contactable, tracked and monitored. 'When they are offered independence, children can develop strong practical skills in problem-solving and dealing with everyday life,' she says.

However, she advises that it's important to always balance this approach with giving children the emotional support they need. 'If we leave children to be independent, when they crave the attention and security of their caregiver, it can have a negative impact too.  They might decide that they have been offered independence because we don’t care about them, or because they don’t deserve our support or nurture,' she says.

What is benign neglect?

This mode of parenting, favoured by Garner, is similar to free range parenting in that it allows children autonomy, and encourages freedom, creativity and choice. But the key difference, explains Sturmer, is that benign neglect parents have more boundaries in place. 'So if a helicopter parent is buzzing overhead, and a free range parent is nowhere to be seen, then a "benign neglect" parent is perhaps sipping a cup of coffee close by,' she says. 'They are able to intervene if really needed, but they are content to let things play out and see if their children can solve their problems on their own.'

What is the most effective parenting style?

There really is no manual for parenting - it's all about finding a style that works for you and your child. Many experts often cite an authoritarian parenting style as the preferred approach. Research published in 2012 found that children raised by authoritative parents have higher levels of self-esteem and quality of life than those raised by authoritarian or permissive parents. However, this will all depend on your own situation.

Alice Hall is staff writer at Grazia UK. She was previously a Junior Features Writer for The Daily Telegraph. At Grazia, she writes news and features about pop culture, dating, health, politics and interiors.

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