A trip to New York City makes me wonder: Are we “soft” parents?

My daughter and I flew to New York last weekend and stayed with a very close friend of mine with two kids, ages three and 18 months. Seeing our children play together for the first time carried special significance for an old friendship, yet also brought into sharp contrast our respective parenting styles. I couldn’t help but notice how differently we interacted with our kids.

My friend and her husband are blunt and direct with their kids and not timid about using the word no. I take a much gentler approach, with lots of compliments, distractions and general playfulness. Initially, I was caught off-guard by their parenting style. But as my daughter and I elbowed our way through the bustling streets of Manhattan, I found myself asking: Am I properly preparing my child for her future?

When my daughter was born four years ago, parenting was all about the positive: positive redirection, positive reinforcement – my new mom friends and I treated “no” like it was a four letter word. My husband and I fell for this approach, even asking our daughter’s caregivers to follow along. The results seemed great – my daughter cruised right along through the first couple of years of her life with relative ease.

But as she engages more with other children, and as the warm cocoon we’ve spun around her wears away, I wonder whether our gentle approach has given her the tools she needs to become a strong, assertive, successful adult.

I brought up the topic of “soft” parenting with some mom friends, and during our lively conversations a few observations hit home.

One is that we’re preparing our kids for what we know will be hyper-competitive academic and professional careers, where everyone is vying for a few slots on the debate team and honor roll. Does a soft parenting style match the road ahead of them? Someday, when their spreadsheet, presentation or report is completely off the mark, will they be ready for a tough conversation with a boss who thinks positive redirection is for the birds?

The second observation is that mention any sort of nice/not nice concerns to parents with young kids and the response is practically automatic: What about the bullies? In this age of online, uncensored and often anonymous communication, bullying is ever more present and concerning. We know it’s our job as parents to avoid having our kids become the bully. But the worry I try to brush aside, as I tell my child to share, be polite, not talk back, and generally try to stomp out an innate aggressiveness that actually seems quite healthy is: what if she’s the bullied? Will she be able to handle it?

And having seen both styles in one house last weekend, the question remains: Will my friend’s kids, who have more of a realistic taste of human communication, with all of its nuance and complexity, fare better?

-by Wendy Widom

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