Goldilocks Theory of Parenting

Goldilocks Theory of Parenting

Helicopters, Snowplows, Tiger Moms and Goldilocks

Lots of news is being shared since the information broke about parents paying to get their kids in select colleges. As a retired high school principal, friends would ask me, ‘is this true?” My response was, “Well, Duh.” I have had parents ask me to change grades, ignore drug and alcohol infractions, let the kid play even though he was involved in hazing a teammate, contributing to fundraisers for changing teachers, and the list goes on. My all-time favorite was when a parent called me to ask if I thought it was OK to let her daughter spend prom night in a hotel room with her boyfriend. After I started to breathe again I said something like, “are you out of your mind?”

The bulk of this post was addressed in a prior New Rule: Give ‘em “L” 3.

“Children are the purpose of life. We were once children and someone cared for us. Now it is our time to care.” a Cree elder

In some of my former schools, I offered a class to the parents of our students. I called it “The Goldilocks Theory of Parenting.” The first ppt slide was a brick wall. High consequences, no choices, and no flexibility. Doesn’t work very well with today’s children and, from my experience, leads to bigger problems down the road. Once the child experiences some freedom, they do not honor boundaries very well.

My second ppt slide is a slab of Jello. Lots of choices, very few boundaries, and hardly any consequences. This also leads to an unrealistic view of the world. Colleges and universities are spending more time with parents than ever before. Some colleges have personnel who deal only with parent request. Parents want to talk to instructors and professors challenging grades and assignments. Really?

My third slide, before I get into some of the information below, is Goldilocks. Not too hard. Not too soft. Just right. The original work by Brimrind (1967) is extremely valuable. She says parents need a blend of Boundaries, Choices, and Consequences.

When parenting, the authoritarian parent (brick wall) gives boundaries and consequences but no or very little choices. So how does a child learn to make good choices?

When parenting, the permissive (Jello) gives lots of choices, hardly any boundaries or consequences. When I talk to students they want to know the boundaries and consequences of their choices. They feel safer when they know the expectations.

Finally, the third slide is Goldilocks. Brimrind calls this the Authoritative parent. That term is too close to authoritarian for me, so I call it Goldilocks. There are choices, boundaries, and consequences. Kids and parents need all three. It makes for a safer environment.

The following are resources to help parents navigate the difficulty of raising a child in these uncertain times.

How can we help parents increase their skills? With experience in urban, suburban, and rural schools, I know that in each culture parents are doing the best they can. As the stress of life continues to increase, that stress is passed on to their children. There are many parents that are doing fine. However, there is an increasing number of parents who are having difficulty balancing their own life and being the support system they want to be for their own children.

One source for parents and something that can be a topic for parent groups is the 7 Worse Things that Good Parents Do by Friel & Friel (1999). Make sure you assume the positive intention of the parents. Parents want the best for their kids. By wanting to make things easier for them, we sometimes err on the side of too much help rather than Goldilocks. The following are Seven of the Worst Parenting Errors:
• Baby your child
• Put your marriage last
• Push your child into too many activities
• Ignore your emotional or spiritual life
• Be your child’s best friend
• Fail to give your child structure
• Expect your child to fulfill your dreams
There are suggestions for each one of these in the book. Yes, we want the best. Sometimes getting the short-term solutions might not be the best way as teaching self-directed skills for the long-term. Of course, we want the problems to stretch kids skills, not break them. Strong support from the immediate caregiver is extremely important.
“Everyone’s involvement is needed to reclaim America’s children.” David Walsh

Another source I found valuable for parents is Lythcott-Haims (2016) How To Raise An Adult – Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success. Here is the author’s checklist for a more independent, 18-year-old and what she calls crutches, which keeps kids more dependent.
• An eighteen-year-old must be able to talk to strangers – faculty, deans, advisers, landlords, store clerks, human resource managers, coworkers, etc. —in the real world. The crutch: We teach kids not to talk to strangers instead of teaching the more nuanced skill of how to discern the few bad strangers from the mostly good ones.
• An eighteen-year-old must be able to find his way around campus, the town in which her summer internship is located, or the city where he is working or studying abroad. The crutch: We drive or accompany our children everywhere, even when a bus, their bicycle, or their own feet could get them there.
• An eighteen-year-old must be able to manage his assignments, workload, and deadlines. The crutch: We remind kids when their homework is due and when to do it.
• An eighteen-year-old must be able to contribute to the running of a household. The crutch: We don’t ask them to help much around the house because the check listed childhood leaves little time in the day for anything aside from academic and extracurricular work
• An eighteen-year-old must be able to handle interpersonal problems. The crutch: We step in to solve misunderstandings and soothe hurt feelings for them.
• An eighteen-year-old must be able to cope with ups and downs of courses
and workloads, college-level work, competition, tough teachers, bosses, and others. The crutch: We step in when things get hard, finish the task, extend the deadline, and talk to the adults;
• An eighteen-year-old must be able to earn and manage money. The crutch: They don’t hold part-time jobs; they receive money from us for whatever they want or need;
• An eighteen-year-old must be able to take risks. The crutch: We’ve laid out their entire path for them and have avoided all pitfalls or prevented all stumbles for them.

There are many other good sources for school personnel and parents. I more I might recommend is Try and Make Me (2002) by Levy & O’Hanlon. This book has very practical tips for dealing with more obstinate kids. Parenting is getting more and more complex, life for parents is getting more stressful, and parents need support too. What I do know from my experience is when the school, parents, and student are working toward the same goal, learning accelerates.

Let’s pull it together, collaborate, and communicate for our kids and country.


Baumrind, D. (1967). Child care practices anteceding three patterns of preschool behavior. Genetic Psychology Monographs, 75 (1), 43-88.

Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity. New York: Crown

Friel, J. & Friel, L. (1999). The 7 worst things (good) parents do. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc.

Lythcott-Haims, Julie. (2016). How To Raise An Adult – Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success. New York: Harry Holt & Company.

Walsh, D. Selling Out America’s Children. Minneapolis: Fairview, 1994.


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