Dr. Mike,

My husband is very strict and hard on our three boys, and he is a big believer in “Commando Parenting.”  Sometimes it’s too much on our kids. The other day I found my oldest who’s 14 years old crying alone in his bedroom during the day after his dad removed his mattress, bedding, clothes, and devices for not getting straight A’s. 

Our son had to do his chores and homework to earn his things back – one at a time.  To earn back his mattress, sheets and blanket, our son had to do everything my husband said just right that day. 

Our son could be trying harder with academics, but he gets A’s and B’s, so why go “Commando” on him?  I’m very worried about our two younger children who have already told me over and over that their dad is “mean” and that they’re scared of him. 

I’ve tried to talk to my husband, but his go-to responses are, “It’s good for kids to fear their parents a little” and “It’s my job to get them ready for life. That’s why I’m hard on them.”

He also accuses me of being “too soft” with our boys, and I can be, but I also know that what my husband does is a million times worse.  It’s beginning to ruin our marriage. Help! – Distressed Mom

Dear Distressed Mom:

As you likely know, Commando Parenting is a controversial and extreme behavioral parenting approach that was first introduced in the early 2000’s.  It involves taking control of a child’s behavior with the strict enforcement of expectations and rules.

When the child manages parental expectations and follows rules well enough, the child is allowed to keep their things, however, when the child doesn’t, they lose all the important things that matter to them and then must earn them back – one item at a time.

While it’s important for our children to manage our parental expectations and follow our rules, and while punishments and consequences are sometimes necessary in the service of good parenting, Commando Parenting lacks the parent-child emotional and relational engagement, warmth and nurturing that is vital for healthy development.

Commando Parenting is very much an offshoot of what developmental psychologists have termed Authoritarian Parenting.  Authoritarian Parenting is rule bound parenting where the parents make up all the rules, which the child is expected to follow without any input, discussion or questioning.

These parents are considered to be strict and demanding with their children, and they rely on punishment or the firm hand approach when their children disobey. These parents are typically not emotionally responsive, and when a child questions a parent with this style, “Because I told you so” or “Just do what I say” are the sort of responses heard.

Generally, children from authoritarian homes tend to get in trouble less than children who are raised by permissive or uninvolved parents. However, inasmuch as obedience and respect are taught to be much more important than independence and autonomy, children from these homes tend to grow up with challenges.

Research studies have shown that children raised by authoritarian parents have higher rates of low self-esteem and can be negatively influenced by antisocial peer pressure during the teen years. These children can be more passive and can struggle more academically and socially later in life.

As a child psychologist, I have seen firsthand the damaging impact of Commando Parenting or Authoritarian Parenting on children. There are times when a parent needs to be firm and may need to take control of a situation with a child, but repeatedly and harshly shutting down a child’s behavior without emotional warmth, engagement and positive reinforcement will ultimately do more harm than good.

In my opinion, Authoritative Parenting is most often the best parenting style and approach, and this is also supported by the research on child development. Authoritative Parenting is egalitarian or democratic parenting where there are rules, but the parents are more responsive and engaged when their children ask questions.

Parents with this style take a more nurturing approach to their children over a punitive one when expectations are not met. Authoritative parents foster a supportive and relational climate that encourages their children to problem solve and think for themselves.

In these homes, rules can be discussed for the child’s increased understanding, and not just for the child’s adherence to the parents’ demands. Several research studies have shown that the authoritative parenting style is the superior parenting style.

Children from these homes tend to be well adjusted and are poised to do the best in life academically, socially and career wise. Between the main parenting approaches, these children have the highest self-esteem and the greatest confidence. They also tend to be more independent, self-assured, competent and socially responsible.

I think the first thing you should do is discuss your concerns with your husband in an open, respectful and non-judgmental way. You could start by praising your husband for the things you like about his parenting, and then lovingly move to the topic of what you don’t like.

You could also let him know that his parenting approach is driving a wedge between you, him, and his boys. I encourage you to be open to what your husband shares with you. You write that you can be a softie with your sons. Perhaps there are some changes you could make, which he would find helpful and supportive.

Parenting is difficult at times, and it can become especially difficult when we aren’t in sync with our partner. There is no reason that being firm or being loving need to be mutually exclusive ideas in parenting.

With patience, respect, and improved communication, I’m hopeful that you and your husband will get to a better place in the co-parenting of your children. If things don’t improve or worsen with your efforts over time, I recommend that you and your husband meet with a therapist who has the expertise in parenting education and guidance.

Special Needs Children
Special Needs Children

Michael Oberschneider, Psy.D. “Dr. Mike” is a clinical psychologist in private practice.
He can be reached at 703-723-2999, and is located at 44095 Pipeline Plaza, Suite 240, Ashburn