There’s no shortage of parenting styles but what exactly is ‘commando parenting’?
If you look up the controversial parenting style “commando parenting,” you’ll turn up a few quotes from Dr. Phil circa the early 2000s. Outdated as those search results are, they’re also misleading in the sense that commando parenting is trending right now. More parents are getting curious about it and as such, commando parenting is seeing a sort of resurgence.
Parade reached out to Dr. Jessica Stern, a developmental psychologist at the University of Virginia, who teaches child development, parenting and parent-child relationships.
“As with most forms of extreme parenting, so-called ‘commando’ parenting focuses all the attention on a single aspect of raising a child: managing ‘bad’ behavior,” Dr. Stern explains. “This is another way of saying parents are keen to control their children, through whatever means necessary. It ignores the fact that children are human beings with their own minds, preferences, desires and emotions,” Dr. Stern adds.
What is commando parenting?
When it comes to commando parenting, there are a few consistent phrases that keep popping up: entitled, getting your child to do anything, and perhaps most notably of all, whatever means necessary.
All three perfectly encapsulate the main idea of commando parenting: in parenting, there is a goal, a goal that must be accomplished—no matter what.
“Commando parenting is a strategy originally proposed by Dr. Phil (back in 2004-2005) for dealing with children’s unwanted or ‘entitled’ behavior using an extreme form of behaviorism,” Dr. Stern explains. “The commando parenting mentality is to ‘do whatever it takes,’ ‘never back down,’ and get kids to change their behavior ‘by whatever means necessary.'”
It’s defined by one core concept: stripping a child’s room. A commando parent strips the child’s room of everything but the essentials; each “extra” item must be earned back through good behavior.
“Commando parenting refers to a parenting style characterized by strict control and strict enforcement of rules and expectations,” Michelle Giordano, community counselor and outreach specialist at Live Another Day, tells Parade. “A parent takes everything out of the child’s room. Take everything they cherish and enjoy away—this includes all trinkets, amusement and games. Take everything out of their bedroom but a mattress, a blanket and a pillow.”
Giordano adds, “This approach often involves a high degree of structure, micromanagement, and an emphasis on achievement, obedience and compliance.”
In order to understand commando parenting’s origins, consider the bigger picture.
“Commando parenting is the latest in a long line of parenting fads that recommend extreme forms of discipline,” Dr. Stern tells Parade. “In the early 1900s, John Watson infamously advised parents to foster independence in their young children this way: ‘Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit on your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good night. Shake hands with them in the morning.'”
Fast forward to 2023, and that’s hardly the recommended parenting practice of today’s modern generation.
“Decades of research in the field of child development has shown that Watson was dead wrong. Children need social interaction—including touch—for everything from healthy physical growth to good social skills,” Dr. Stern explains.
Watson’s words left an impact and in their wake, a slew of parenting styles formed—some more detached than others.
Commando parenting pros
– Consistent rewards and punishments equate to understanding expectations
“There are some benefits of behavioral strategies, such as using rewards and punishments to shape children’s behavior, and consistency is key,” Dr. Stern says. “Taking away privileges when kids misbehave can be effective if it’s paired with understanding and reasoning with your child.”
Giordano adds, “By rewarding good behavior, commando parents can reinforce the importance of rules and expectations and help children to internalize these values.”
– Establishes boundaries and provides structure
“[One pro] of commando parenting is clear boundaries,” Giordano explains. “It provides clear boundaries and expectations, which help children establish a sense of stability.”
– Privileges are earned back
“Having children ‘earn’ back privileges through positive behavior can also be effective,” Dr. Stern says, “But note that a child should never have to ‘earn’ your love as a parent.”
Giordano agrees, adding, “Commando parents may use positive reinforcement, such as praise, recognition and rewards, to encourage children to follow rules and exhibit good behavior.”
– Fosters discipline through responsibility
“Commando parenting helps instill discipline and responsibility to children,” Giordano adds. “By rewarding good behavior, commando parents can encourage children to comply with rules and expectations, and to avoid negative or rule-breaking behavior.”
Commando parenting cons
– Can negatively impact relationships
“Children raised in this type of environment may feel that they’re not allowed to make mistakes or express themselves freely, which can negatively impact their sense of self and their ability to form healthy relationships,” Giordano explains.
– Can lower self-esteem and cause mental health issues
“The concerns with commando parenting include the potential for high levels of stress and anxiety in children, as well as the potential for harm to their self-esteem and sense of autonomy,” Giordano explains.
Dr. Stern adds, “Extreme punishment (for example, harsh physical discipline) has also been linked to mental health problems later in life, including substance use, anxiety and depression.”
– Promotes secretive behavior and a catch-me-if-you-can mentality
“Kids do what their parents want when they’re watching, but don’t internalize the message and often revert to old patterns when the rewards stop coming, or when no one’s there to ‘catch’ the bad behavior,” Giordano explains.
– Does not hone emotional skillset and reflects a dynamic built on power
“[Kids] don’t just learn the lesson you tell them (‘if you don’t do your homework, I’m taking away all the toys from your room’), they learn HOW adults behave,” Dr. Stern says. “When you discipline, you are modeling how to negotiate power, manage emotion, resolve conflict and be in a relationship.”
Dr. Stern adds, “Commando parenting models using power to control another person, inflicting emotional pain on others when you’re upset, resolving conflict through force rather than negotiation, and sacrificing good relationships to do ‘whatever it takes’ to get your way. Don’t be surprised if your child imitates the behavior they experience from you—with their siblings and with peers at school.”
Is commando parenting effective?
It depends on how you define “effective.”
Dr. Stern explains, “Importantly, there is no scientific basis for commando parenting, no evidence base to show that it works, and zero endorsements of these practices by most pediatricians, psychologists and child development professionals.”
While different parenting styles work for some and not others, commando parenting undoubtedly comes with its own set of potential risks.