Presidential parenting: Does parenting style tell us about a candidate?

Parenting 101: Trump, Cruz & Kasich edition
Parenting 101: Trump, Cruz & Kasich edition

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Parenting 101: Trump, Cruz & Kasich edition 01:19

Story highlights

  • The GOP presidential candidates appeared with their families at CNN town halls recently
  • A candidate's parenting style could signal their approach to leadership but it's not a guarantee, experts say
  • "There have been great leaders who were not great parents," says psychoanalyst Dr. Gail Saltz

Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter @kellywallacetv.

(CNN)Ted Cruz, standing beside his adorable Taylor Swift-loving daughters, tells a story about how his 5-year-old gives great hugs.

Donald Trump looks on as his eldest daughter, Ivanka, explains that her father always said there wasn't anything she couldn't do.
    And, John Kasich becomes a target of teasing by his teenage daughters for his not-exactly strong dancing and joke-telling abilities.
    Those were just a few moments from the recent town halls with the Republican presidential candidates and their families on CNN. Each candidate had an opportunity to show a more human and -- in some cases -- maybe a more likeable side than what they usually show on the debate stage.
    After watching them, one of my colleagues wondered if these intimate snapshots of a candidate's parenting style and relationship with family tell us anything about what kind of president they might be.
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    I reached out to a number of parenting experts, who were quick to note two things: First, you can't really make a judgment about someone's parenting based on carefully choreographed moments such as a televised family town hall. Second, licensed mental health professionals are very reluctant to make any judgments about anyone based strictly on observation.
    Plus, being a good parent alone does not guarantee effective leadership skills. "There have been great leaders who were not great parents as well as great parents who were less-than-stellar leaders," said Dr. Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at The New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine.
    All that said, parenting style -- and the way a candidate was parented -- can reveal some things about their approach to leadership, these parenting experts say.

    Did the candidates practice 'authoritative' parenting?

    Psychologists categorize parenting by four styles: authoritative, uninvolved/neglectful, permissive and authoritarian, said licensed clinical psychologist Joe Taravella. Uninvolved/neglectful is viewed as one of the most harmful parenting styles. Permissive parenting is also viewed as less effective because parents tend to be too lenient, and raise children who grow up with little self-discipline and self-control, said Taravella, who is also clinical assistant professor at the NYU School of Medicine.
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    Authoritarian parenting is the "my way or the highway" approach, where a strict parent relies on punishment to demand obedience and leaves little space for open dialogue between parents and children.
    The most effective parenting style is believed to be authoritative, where parents place high expectations on children with understanding and support, have open communication and use positive consequences to reinforce good behavior, said Taravella.
    "Most studies find authoritative to be by far the best for the children," said Saltz, who is also a psychoanalyst at The New York Psychoanalytic Institute and author of "The Anatomy of a Secret Life." "I would say that leadership style may follow a similar route. ... Great leaders lead but also allow for disagreement and discourse and debate and may not have the last word."
    Can we tell which category Trump, Cruz, Kasich, Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders fall in, based on what we've seen and heard from them and their children on the campaign trail? Probably not. But if the candidate who ends up winning in November falls in the "authoritative" parenting category, we're all likely to be better off.
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    "This style embraces high expectations of those around them, with open lines of communication without fear of negative consequences or harsh judgments," said Taravella.
    But what about the children of the candidates themselves? Do they tell us anything about the kind of president their mother or father might be?
    "In terms of how well-behaved or intact or likable one's children are as a reflection of a good leader, that is even a farther stretch," said Saltz. "Those attributes change with developmental stage and age, how they relate to both parents, how they feel under a camera microscope and the mix of the nature and nurture they grew up in. We have had great presidents with great kids, and others with troubled kids."

    What the candidates' relationships with their own parents tell us

    What might be more telling than candidates' families or parenting styles is how the candidates describe their relationships with their own parents, said pediatrician Dr. Claudia Gold, author of the new book "The Silenced Child: From Labels, Medications and Quick-Fix Solutions to Listening, Growth and Lifelong Resilience."
    "If you have a very fraught, conflicted, unprocessed relationship with your parents, that translates into ... your relationship with your children and your overall mental health," said Gold, who is on the faculty of the University of Massachusetts Boston Infant-Parent Mental Health Program. "But if you have a kind of integrated, processed sense, even if it wasn't a happy childhood and there's extensive research on this ... that if you can describe your childhood in a way that sounds like ... you've kind of come to terms with it, then you are first of all more likely to have a healthy, secure relationship with your children and also, in general, would have a better capacity for emotional regulation and overall mental health."
    What's also important for leadership and overall mental health is having had a really strong, solid relationship with someone in your life. "It doesn't necessarily have to be the mother but some person in your life who had you in mind ... who was able to think about you," said Gold, who is also author of "Keeping Your Child in Mind: Overcoming Defiance, Tantrums, and Other Everyday Behavior Problems by Seeing the World through Your Child's Eyes."
    "If you have the experience of some person in your life growing up who was able to think about you, then you are more likely to develop this ability for emotional regulation, which is the thing you really want in our president."
    Most of the presidential candidates talk about their upbringing on the campaign trail, but, of course, we don't truly know what their relationships with their parents were like, nor do we know how those relationships will affect them should they make it to the White House.
    For the men who have made it to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, we have some sense of the way their relationships with their parents affected them as president.
    Former President Bill Clinton has written about how his stepfather was an alcoholic and abused his mother and his half-brother. "For Bill Clinton, he kind of grew up in pretty hard circumstances with his parents and he certainly attributed this to his having sympathy and a good feel for people who are struggling or who didn't have the easiest route to success," said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. "I think that was really important to him."
    Former President George W. Bush was actually parented by a president, President George H.W. Bush, and that experience definitely affected him, but so did his relationship with his mother, said Zelizer. "His father obviously loomed really large throughout his life as this kind of model figure of who he wanted to be like and who he was competing with, and his mother was a very stern figure, kind of pushing back against some of his wilder impulses and I think this is a little bit of his mentality in the White House."
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    In his best-selling memoir "Dreams from My Father," President Barack Obama wrote about growing up as the son of a black African father and a white American mother, and how his father left the family and moved to Kenya after their divorce. Obama was just a toddler.
    "Everything he described in that book, I think, in his mind, is part of his global understanding of the world," said Zelizer. "He literally comes with a family that is not located anywhere in particular and obviously the things he's written about his father, like Clinton, kind of result in a certain amount of sympathy that he's had for those who are struggling and don't have things easy. "
    It's hard to draw a direct line between a president's biographical experiences and what they do, but it's always an issue, said Zelizer. Presidents are human, like all of us, he said. Relationships early on are formative and can shape how a person conducts their professional business.
    But, parents aren't everything, he cautioned: "A million things happen ... besides your family that also influence it."
    Do you think parenting style tells us anything about a presidential candidate? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter @kellywallacetv.