There are numerous labels applied to different types of parenting styles. Are you a “helicopter parent,” a “s-mother,” a “tiger mom,” an “indulgent” or a “free-range” parent? Do you hover and control every aspect of your child’s life or are you hands-off, allowing them to go where they like and do what they want?

These labels essentially come down to a parent’s philosophy about how much freedom or structure their child should have. Each one carries a negative connotation, signalling that too many rules and boundaries are not ideal, nor are too few.

It’s a challenging question for parents. But the answers can be found by using the ideas of competency-based parenting — which boil down to this: Children need to be contained within the limits of their capabilities.

In other words, the amount of structure should be based on your child’s competencies in four areas: knowledge, skills, self-control and judgment. Your child must have responsibilities and obligations in addition to power and freedom. When children have many responsibilities and little power, they become malcontent and rebellious. When they have too much power and freedom and too few responsibilities, they become spoiled. This lack of accountability is a recipe for disaster. Parents must have as few rules as possible — but also as many as necessary.

When deciding whether to allow your toddler to ride a tricycle unsupervised in the street, you ask yourself, “Does she have the knowledge, skills, self-control and good judgment to be safe and successful?” Of course, your answer should be, “No; toddlers require adult supervision and guidance — and almost at all times.”

Four areas of competency-based parenting

So when can a child play alone in your home, sleep at a friend’s, make their own decisions about bedtime, walk to school alone or drive a car?

The answers are based on each child’s capabilities in four areas of competency:

  • Knowledge. This refers not only to inborn intelligence, but also more importantly, to a child’s ability to process and apply information. Wounded children are like eight-cylinder cars with only four cylinders working. Deprived of early security and stability, their opportunity for learning has been impeded. Their cerebral cortex, responsible for higher mental function, has been under-used while the part of their brain that deals with survival and stress, the limbic system, has been overused. Learn more about brain development here.
  • Skills. A skill is the ability to do something well. Children with compromised attachment lack personal and social skills, such as communication, problem-solving, anger management, impulse control, stress management and delay of gratification. These are skills for living that must be learned in the context of healthy relationships; competencies modeled and taught by caring and connected role models.
  • Self-control. The ability to regulate feelings and impulses is a fundamental skill that should be learned in the early years. Children acquire self-control in a secure parent-child relationship where a healthy balance of limits and love is furnished. When this secure framework is missing, children become impulsive, impatient, demanding and emotionally overreactive.
  • Judgment. This is the ability to make healthy choices using the power of reason and an understanding of the possible consequences. There is internal dialogue (self talk) that guides the chid with secure attachment to “do the right thing.” It is difficult to exercise good judgment with an absence of self-control, social skills and sufficient information-processing abilities.

As your child goes through each stage of development, there must be a balance of responsibilities, obligations, power and freedom. As your child shows she is responsible and competent in knowledge, skills, self-control and judgment, she receives more freedom and privileges. Children who demonstrate self-direction need less parental direction and guidance. On the other hand, children who lack self-direction need more external guidance (Children with compromised attachment typically fall into this category.). If your child does not demonstrate sufficient responsibility and still has too much power and freedom, you will create an overindulged child who takes without giving.