Parenting Paradigm | a level system to conceptualize parenting strategies


I was in a couples therapy session guiding an enactment surrounding an argument the couple had surrounding a parenting issue over the weekend. Both parties were having a difficult time understanding (cognitively) the other person’s position – though all my work focuses on maintaining connection through encouraging emotional openness, it was clear in this instance that a pragmatic solution was also necessary. The couple needed a paradigm of parenting to reference in order to deduce if they were meeting the parenting expectations of the system. Until this was created, the couple would continue to have conflict in response to differing subjective perceptions.

The short of the story is that one partner (dad) traveled out of town for leisure for a few days and upon returning wanted to watch a sports program for a couple hours. The other partner needed some personal time and left the children with dad to go on a hike. She was upset that upon returning from his trip he didn’t dedicate more fully to parenting – He believed that he had as his partner was able to take some respite and go on a hike. They were clearly both right…

I then deduced a level system of parenting in my head to help them understand the dissonance. Dad was offering what I will call level 2 parenting while Mom was desiring him to offer level 4 or 5 parenting. Without an explicit level system they were both subjectively correct = he was parenting adequately by his definition and he was not parenting adequately by her definition.

There are two variables that could be looked at – Behavioral interactions and Emotional Involvement

Please note:

  • This is not about morals or “good and bad” parenting – all levels can be appropriate in different situations and at different developmental stages of the child.
  • Depending on the age of the child, Parents can come up with the desired “Average Level” – example if the parent oscillate between 3 and 5 then they would average level 4 parenting for the day

Level 1 parenting: Basic Safety – the most basic Basic safety in offered to the child

  • the parent makes basic efforts to ensure that the child will not die by ensuring that the environment is free from variables that would likely cause death.
  • ex. does not put the child near dangerous animals or insects, does not leave the child near dangerous environmental features such as a river or a cliff, does not leave the child susceptible to weather related hazards such as being left out in the cold rain.

Level 2 Parenting: Basic Needs Available – The basic needs of the child are made available for the child (but not directly offered or prepared for the child)

  • The parent ensures that the child has access to food, shelter, clothing, water, bathroom, hygiene needs, and appropriate body temperature.
  • Ex. The parent provides access to food in the pantry but does not prepare meals, the parent buys a toothbrush for the child but does not help in brushing teeth, or the parent provides access to clothing but does not help the child get dressed.

Level 3 Parenting: Basic Needs Provided Directly – The parent takes direct responsibility for meeting the basic needs of the child, and engages the child to ensure the need is met.

  • The Parent assists the child in successfully accessing and completing tasks related to food, shelter, clothing, water, bathroom, hygiene needs, and appropriate body temperature.
  • Ex. the parent will prepare meals for the child, the parent will assist the child in properly brushing their teeth, the parent will ensure that the child is appropriately dressed before leaving the house.

Level 4 Parenting: Engagement and Entertainment – The parent engages the child directly to facilitate shared entertainment.

  • The parent will spend quality time with the child having fun.
  • Ex. The parent will play a board game with a child, or build legos, or play house, or play sports.

Level 5 Parenting: Growth and Bonding – the Parent engages the child with the goal of facilitating the individual growth of the child or relational maintenance/development.

  • The parent engages the child in a way which intentionally increases the connection/bonding between the parent and the child. The parent engages the child to intentionally to assist them in growing a skill or trait.
  • Ex. the parent intentionally takes the child to an activity that has significant meaning or is of particular interest to the child. The parent makes themselves emotionally available to the child’s life – both the joys and the suffering. The parent instructs the child on the development of a skill that the child is eager to learn. the parent takes the child on an experience that facilitates spiritual, developmental, existential, familial etc. growth.

This helps the parents to communicate what the needs of the system are for the day

For example “Honey I really need to get some work done today so I am planning on doing some level 2 parenting (putting the kids in from of the TV) – Then tomorrow we can spend the day doing level 4 parenting (take them to the Zoo). And I was hoping that i could spend sometime at night talking with our son about how his friend is moving to another town (level 5).

Or to use the example of the couple above “Honey when you get back from your trip the kids really need some level 5 parenting from you and I will be quite exhausted so I want us to save all the level 2 parenting (TV time) for me.” or even better, “Hey honey thank you so much for watching the kids while I take some personal time – when I get back you can count on me for lots of level 5 parenting.”




William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

William Hambleton Bishop
William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

Leave a Reply