Many black children grow up fearing their parents or risk being harshly disciplined if they don’t tow the line. However, there is some proof indicating that being too strict with your children has negative repercussions, including depression, bullying and rebellion.
Dumisile Nala, National Executive Officer for Child Line, says overly strict and authoritarian child-rearing is not specific to black households.
“It’s not only the African culture, you also hear of other cultures where parents feel that if they are being feared, then things will go properly. But sometimes it is a false sense of hope that if children are fearful of you then they will do as you tell them,” she explains.
Despite many parents thinking that this way of raising children is the correct way, there are a number of pitfalls that come with raising children who are scared of you as a parent.
A study done by the University of Michigan in 2013 found that parents who used harsh words to discipline their teenagers made their behaviour worse. The study, which was published in the Child Development Journal, found that teenagers who were exposed to harsh verbal discipline were more likely to be depressed; and children whose parents yelled at them and belittled them for bad behaviour increased the chances of their kids engaging in bad behaviour such as such as misbehaving at school, lying to parents, stealing, or fighting.
Nala says parents who force their children to fear them by using harsh discipline often exacerbate the situation: “What we see then is that their behaviour goes underground. They still do those things that we don’t want them to do, but they just don’t tell us about it. Sometimes we don’t hear about them until the situations are serious or severe.”
Many children can relate to hearing their mothers scaring them with the imminent arrival of their fathers or father figures when they have done something wrong. Nala says this is counter-productive to building a solid relationship between children and their parents.
“Sometimes mothers will threaten children with their fathers, [saying] ‘Your father will come home and he will sort you out’, and in that way we create fear of fathers, that they will come home and they will sort me out – and sorting out of course means a hiding,” she explains.
Parenting.com says another danger of being too harsh with your child is that children do not learn how to regulate their own behaviour. A fear of harsh retribution makes children reluctant to take responsibility for their actions. This means that children cannot self-regulate their behaviour and, instead, wait for something outside of themselves to lead them to ‘good’ behaviour, and this can be carried out into adulthood.
Having an open respect-based relationship with your children goes a long way in ensuring that your child feels open to speak to you as a parent. Nala says when children are going through a tough time, they are more likely to consult their parent if the relationship is not fraught with anxiety.
“If there is a good relationship between parent and child, then children are able to talk to their parents when they are facing challenges or if there are things they don’t understand. Whereas if the relationship is tense or the child is fearful of their parents, then they are not able to go to them for help to they,” she says.
The secret to having a good relationship is starting while children are young because it is difficult to change once they grow up. Nala says this does not mean letting your child run amok.
“It is difficult for a parent to say, ‘I will start having a good relationship with my child when they are teenagers.’ We have to nurture those relationships right from when they are growing up. Having a relationship with your child doesn’t mean that you have to allow them to do what they want or [that] everything goes, you are still a parent and you still have the responsibility to guide them, but the relationship means being open, listening to them so that they feel that they can engage with you,” she says.