The first thing I noticed about American boys and girls when we emigrated from Iraq through Greece, is how much freedom they had. We were shocked to see that girls in the fourth grade shaved their legs and wore make-up. Boys and girls held hands. Elementary school crushes, although a natural part of growing up, were never acted upon back in Greece and Iraq. Here, they were given full vent—and so the cycle of uniting and breaking up began very early. Children from an early age learned that relationships don't last. One week you like one guy and he's your boyfriend, but two weeks later you find someone else. This cycle continued through junior high, high school, and beyond.

The refrain, endlessly repeated by my parents, “This is not our way,” became a clanging cymbal in my ears. I didn't care about “our way.” I cared about fitting in with these American kids. My mother's response to the question, “Can I wear makeup and shave my legs?” was something to the effect of: “Are you out of your mind?! Little girls aren't supposed to act like grown women!”

It wasn't long after that when I started using the school bathroom for leg shaving and sloppy makeup application. I washed off the makeup before my parents came home from work. The shaved legs, however, were a predicament; I needed to hide them at home but show them off at school. I'm still not sure how I turned into such a little deceiver. The naïve Luma of Iraq and Greece was gone. It wasn't long after coming to America that I learned to be two different Lumas: the good Iraqi girl at home, and the American girl at school. In truth, I was neither. I didn't know who I was.

Not until I became a mother myself did I realize that my own mother and father were not the only parents one would label as “strict” or “austere.” I also learned that not every child of austere parenting became a rebellious kid.

Is forbidding a grammar school child from “dating,” or prohibiting a girl of nine, 10, or 11 from putting on a full face of makeup objectively austere parenting? I believe not.

Austere parenting has a bad reputation in our culture and is misunderstood. Strict house rules (by that I mean limit-setting) are conflated with harsh parental demeanor, and while there may be a correlation in our experience, it doesn't have to be that way. It is not house rules—which may be stricter than the surrounding culture—that drive children toward rebellion; it is the attitude in which those rules are applied in the home.

ResearchGate conducted an interview with researcher Rochelle Hentges about her new study on harsh parenting that was published journal, Child Development. Refreshingly, Dr. Hentges describes harsh parenting not as strict house rules but as “acts of verbal or physical aggression, such as yelling, name-calling, shoving, or threatening the child.” It is these acts which moved children—the study was of seventh graders ages 12 to 13—to become more peer-oriented, transferring their affections and source of identity from their parents to their friends.

The study applied evolutionary life history theory to data taken over a period of nine years, with Wave 1 conducted when the children were in seventh grade (age) and Wave 6 ending three years after the participating students' expected high school graduation. The authors used a developmental cascade model showing the link between harsh parenting and low educational attainment by early adulthood. They hypothesized that (a) harsh parenting in seventh grade will lead to extreme peer orientation; (b) extreme peer orientation will, in turn, lead to early sexual behavior in female adolescents and greater delinquent behavior in male adolescents; and (c) all of this will then lead to low educational attainment three years post high school.

The results of the nine-year study confirmed their hypothesis. They report that when parented harshly up to seventh grade, children became extremely peer-oriented by eighth grade. Female students engaged in early sexual activity, and male students showed delinquency. Both male and female students in these situations evinced low educational attainments at higher rates. Hentges and Wang, therefore, concluded that harsh parenting in seventh grade led to extreme peer orientation in eighth grade, which led to low educational attainment three years post high school.

There seems to be a direct cause and effect between parent disapproval and seeking peer approval. Harsh parenting may make the parents look like the enemy, pushing children to view their peers as those who care about them. Once the parents are seen as the enemy in the eyes of the child, the child has no qualms disregarding parental authority and disobeying house and school rules. All this makes sense and fits the notions, experience and/or stereotypes many of us already have regarding the children of harsh parenting. The valuable distinction to make here, and one I hope is not lost, is that distinction between “austere” or “strict,” vs. “harsh.”

In our American culture, where liberty is conflated with licentiousness, strictness is too often conflated with harshness. In the context of my Iraqi culture, neither strict nor harsh parenting causally leads to low economic attainment, but there is a commonly understood wariness in the culture about the hazards of licentiousness. As a result, Iraqi culture embraces strict parenting as a means to avoid such hazards.

Hentges and Wang concede that although their study was economically and racially diverse, it was limited to a single geographic location, and they caution against generalizing to other samples. We can assume that family structure varied in the sample, but unfortunately, it was not accounted for in the study results. Although the study is valuable and representative for the American cultural context, it certainly is not universal, since in many cultures, the line between parenting and educational attainment is measured differently, and moreover there are other valuable outcomes besides “educational attainment.”

Also, lost in the study is a sense of agency in the parents. They and their methods are either “harsh” or not harsh, and in the end, all we can do is formulate our own vague prescription: “don't be harsh.” Yet we suspect that this would mean being lax, leading to an increase in risky behavior in already troubled children. As a parent, I would love to see an exploration of what the parents in the study are thinking, how some respond to an increasing peer-dependence of their children by increased harshness, and how others avoid the pitfalls of “cops and robbers” parenting.

I was a child of harsh and strict parenting, and I have struggled as a mother to not parent the same way. Most of us who rebel against harsh parents are not necessarily rebelling against the strict rules. The cure for harsh parenting, therefore, isn't permissiveness, which is what I discovered as I matured and eventually became a mother. We who rebel, rebel against unkindness. When I was a child, I wanted to be loved, respected, and valued, like everyone else. But as Justin Coulson discussed in his recent IFS article, “Raising Children to Love, Not Fear,” many parents truly believe that the only way to get children to obey is through fear, which is why they often act out in harshness. My parents loved me dearly, but having themselves been raised in a culture of shame and fear, harsh parenting was the only way they knew how to parent.

At the heart of good parenting are characteristics like love, respect, and tenderness. The rules of the home are not what make or break childrearing; more so, it is the spirit in which parents implement those rules that makes the difference. The antidote to harsh parenting is not permissiveness but love.

Luma Simms is an Associate Fellow at The Philos Project. This article was originally published by Family Studies and is republished here with permission.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is a New Zealand journalist with a special interest in family issues. She began her working life as a secondary school teacher but always fancied the life of the scribe. Too late, she...