The 3 Crucial Modes of Parenting: Which Is Missing In The Way You Parent?

There are 3 paramount modes of parenting: being a Pants-wearer, a Pied Piper and a Pal.

Like a 3-legged chair needs all 3 legs, so we need all 3 aspects in the way we parent our kids.

Before I explain these terms, let me tell you how I got to understand these 3 modes.

It started with knowing how important it is to take charge of my kids, to have them under my reins. When Julie and I abdicate control of our children’s behaviour (which we unfortunately do quite often) we discover that what we tolerate in their behaviour seems to dominate.

  • When we let kids fight without intervention, they only fight more.
  • When we let them whine perpetually, they only complain more.
  • When we don’t challenge their disobedience, their defiance only gains strength.

Julie and I have read good books on the subject, and we have received great advice from friends and even a supernanny on how to ‘wear the pants’. Not contesting this wisdom, here is what Julie and I discussed:

Do us parents of smaller kids have to stay in that authoritative mode all the time?

Because that’s certainly the impression I get from many of the books I read. Surely, there is so much more to parenting than that.

Here’s where Julie and I have landed on an answer to the question:

It’s not good to stay in that authoritative mode all the time. Our gift to our kids is not to only teach them to listen to us, but also to strengthen in them a sense of both their healthy autonomy, and relational connection to us. The authoritative mode is needed often and it might be needed at any moment, but in fact there are 2 additional modes that our kids (and we) need us to be in as well.

Put together, here are the 3 modes…

Sometimes we’re PANTS-WEARERS, where we call the shots and doll out consequences when they fail to heed what we say. Here the goal is teaching them to listen to us (for their own good and for our family’s sanity).

Sometimes we’re PIED PIPERS, where we seek to influence our kids in a direction, but without direct command. Here the goal is fortifying their healthy autonomy, which will set them up to appropriately assert themselves in the future.

Sometimes we’re PALS, where we avoid leading them at all, if anything we let them direct us. Here the goal is strengthening their sense of relational connection to us, which serves as insulation from the hardships of life.

Often within any given day and certainly within any week, we need to swap between these modes of parenting.

Of course there are other modes of parenting that we sometimes find ourselves in that are not important or desired. Such as parent as PANIC-STRICKEN, when we just don’t know how we’re going to get through the next few hours, especially when our kids are emotionally explosive. But this post speaks about modes of parenting we actually want to get into, and try stay in.

Let’s explore them a bit more…

1. Parent as PANTS-WEARER

Let me suggest the times when this it is most needed that we: when they break the rules, and when it’s time to make transitions:

Rule-breaking. There should be some rules which we remind our kids of, and when they transgress, calls for our authoritative intervention. Rules such as…

  • “Don’t endanger your life.” They do when they step into the road, climb over the pool fence, pull on the kettle, hang on the outside of the tree house, and climb on to the roof.
  • “Don’t disrespect or hurt someone else.” They do when they bite, hit, scratch, push, take something from and speak rudely or aggressively to another.
  • “Don’t damage stuff purposefully.” They do when they throw a plate on the floor, write with the marker on the wall, or clamber upon the car roof.
  • “Don’t disrupt the family’s harmony.” They do when they persist in whining, complaining, screaming, demanding and nagging.

There’s just no doubt about it from my experience. If we tolerate these behaviours in our kids, these behaviours grow like weeds in our house. We must ruthlessly pull these weeds out.

Transition-making. But there are also times when they need to make some transitions, and usually there isn’t much time to spread out their co-operation: putting their clothes on, coming to the table, climbing in the car, putting their seat belts on, saying thank you to their teacher, putting the chocolate back, leaving their toy behind, coming to dinner, keeping their food on their plate, climbing in the bath, climbing out the bath, climbing into bed (geez, our kids do a lot of climbing!).

Let’s be honest, we just don’t have the time or energy to deal with kids who don’t co-operate with speed. We must insist on rapid responsiveness in our kids.

But, like I said, we shouldn’t stay in perpetual boss-mode. We need to also look for opportunities to be…

2. Parent as PIED PIPER

By this I don’t mean that we lead kids to their death like in the original tale, I mean that we learn to influence our kids in a direction, yet in a way that is indirect, non-coercive and voluntary.

Our kids need a lot of guidance. But at the same time, they enjoy autonomy as much as you and I do. Although there is a time to pull rank, if the only way we guide them is through shooting off orders, they will land up on a shrink’s couch one day, saying that their parent was a tyrant, and now they either cannot take orders from anyone at all without feeling a strong desire to rebel, or they lack the confidence to take initiative, because they failed to develop their autonomy muscle while growing up.

So the challenge in this mode of parenting is to guide our kids without over-lording them, to influence them without intimidating them. This means that every step of the way, they are using their ‘choosing’ muscles.

This mode is only possible when we have some time and margin available in our days and lives. It requires a very nuanced skill set. Let me mention just one:

The skill of catching them get it right. I am not a gardener, but I know the rule of the garden: if you want more of something, water it. It’s the same with kids. When they say please or thank you, when they do something you’re telling them to do, or when they desist from doing something wrong — say, Well done for saying thank you / listening straight away / being cheerful while you obey / sharing your snacks / keeping the lego on the table.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve become a black-belt parent at catching them doing stuff wrong, but a yellow-belt at catching them doing stuff right.

Based on 3 decades of study, Dr Alan Kazdin, director of the Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic, concludes that ‘Giving attention to undesired behaviors increases undesired behaviors, while giving attention to good behaviors increases good behaviors.’

His research shows that always catching children doing wrong and reflexively and constantly responding with nagging, reprimanding and other forms of punishment actually can ‘water’ the bad behavior! ‘A better way to get children to clean their room or do their homework,’ he summarizes the research, ‘is to model the behaviour yourself, encourage it and praise it when you see it.’

There’s a third mode…

3. Parent as PAL

Our kids need times to just chill and play with or alongside us. We need to create spaces (both in the house and in the calendar) to all have some fun, to let our collective hair down.

It might mean just lounging in the room or garden alongside my kids while they climb, dig or re-arrange furniture. Every now and then they ask me to look at what they’re doing, and say wow.

Or maybe I am more actively engaged — play fighting, kicking the ball back and forth, pushing them on the swing, splashing in the pool, building lego with them, or making hot chocolate with them.

In all this, I am trying to be non-directive, going along with their flow, even taking orders at times. (I know I am in this mode, when my kids are saying the words, ‘Again, daddy! Again, daddy!’)

There might be some chill-out times when they need a little guidance, in which case I momentarily slip into pied piper mode, or maybe there’s some conflict, in which case I calls some shots as the pant-swearer. But the goal is to get back to pal mode as soon as possible.

When my kids tell me what they love about me, they almost always refer to these times — and for the boys, it’s almost always physical bonding that they comment on. They say, ‘I love it when you play-fight with me’ or ‘My favourite thing is to swim with my dad, especially when I can stand on his shoulders.’

Ivy’s favourite thing is when we go on a daddy date, and I let her choose which coffee shop she will order her baby-chino from.

Let me recap. There are 3 modes of leading our kids we should intentionally and regularly integrate into our parenting:

  • As PANTS-WEARERS, we call the shots and doll out consequences when they fail to obey straight away. Here we teach them to listen to us.
  • As PIED PIPERS, we influence our kids in a direction, but without direct command. As we do, we fortify their healthy autonomy.
  • As PALS, we avoid leading them at all, if anything we let them direct us. So doing, we strengthen their sense of closeness to us.

We need a combination of all 3 to optimize our kids’ development, and to sustain our energy for parenting. Much like the farmer, who changes his crops, so as to not overtax just one set of nutrients from the soil, so we need to regularly change our modes — this way all 3 (Pants-wearer, Pied Piper and Pal) can flourish in their time.

This changes the way we parent. It’s quite simple really, and yet revolutionary in the way it positively affects our approach to parenting our kids every day. Not convinced? Just think of 3 ways it makes a difference to how we parent our kids:

1.It reduces the likelihood of rebellion. If we only wear the pants, we might have our kids under our control, but we’re failing to help them develop a healthy sense of autonomy (Pied Piper) as well as a relational connection to us (Pal). In this case, they will likely rebel as teenagers, because rules without relationship almost always leads to rebellion.

But even when they’re kids, if we often enough affirm their desire for autonomy (Pied Piper) and develop our friendship with our kid (Pal), they are far more likely to respond well to us in those hours and moments when we are the Pants-wearer.

2. It makes for better teaming between parents. If both parents (assuming you’re not a single parent) understand these 3 modes, it stops one spouse from having to be the bad-cop.

Too many of us parents, very often us dads, take naturally to Pied Piper and Pal, but fail to get round to Pants-wearer, in which case our spouse is forced to wear the pants. This puts strain on our marriage as well as getting our kids to play us against each other. Much better that both parents take up all 3 modes.

3. It gives us a better sense of the entire journey of parenting. Although all 3 modes are required by us until our kids become adults, various modes should be more dominant than the others.

In their earliest years, they need us to be Pants-wearers. As they move through adolescence, they need us to be Pied Pipers more, giving them more and more space for their own decision-making.

By the time they leave home, we cannot be either Pied Pipers or Pants-wearers at all — our best hope is that they want to be our Pals. (And here’s the thing: if you opted out of pants-wearing and pied-pipering in their earlier years in the name of being their pal, you have far less chance they will want to be your pal in the adult years.)

Okay, hope that helps.

And by the way, there’s some really helpful posts coming after this on the skills of being the Pants-wearer and the Pied Piper.

But for now, ask yourself:

  • Which of the 3 modes comes most naturally to me?
  • What does each of my kids need from me right now?
  • Which of the 3 modes do I need to more intentionally and regularly weave into my parenting approach?

Originally published at The Dad Dude.