Parenting Styles: Big Daddy

Most parents do not use a singular parenting style, but combine a variety of techniques, spanning the spectrum of authoritarian, permissive, and authoritative styles. In the 1999 film Big Daddy, the title character played by Adam Sandler immediately strikes the viewer as kind of a ‘big kid,’ an overgrown thirty-two-year-old adolescent likely to use a permissive style with the five-year-old child he unexpectedly acquires. This tendency of Sonny Kofax to be permissive is almost immediately underlined when he allows the young boy to choose his own clothing, no matter how inappropriate or outrageous, and agrees to go along with the boy’s whim call himself ‘Frankenstein’ rather than his real name, that of Julian Sandler’s Sonny more often parents by example — but rather than encourage Julian by setting a good example, he often encourages the child by ‘bad’ examples. For example, when the two of them are not allowed to use a restaurant restroom, he instructs the child that the two of them have to use the wall of the restaurant alley in revenge. It is Sonny, not Julian who takes the initiative in this action.

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However, this type of authoritative style can be used in a positive fashion “to be warm and exert firm control” (Cook & Cook 2005, p. 452). A parent dining at a restaurant who wants his or her child to eat vegetables can order vegetables with his or her own dinner. By eating the vegetables and appearing to enjoy them, the parent has more credibility when the child is asked to at least try one bite. This combination of firm guidance that still allows for choice is one reason, psychologists believe, that children raised with an authoritative style of parenting tend to be more successful in school and work. The style fosters personal responsibility and autonomy as well as encourages self-regulation and the instillation of positive values (Cook & Cook 2005, p. 453).

In contrast, permissive parents only act as indulgent ‘friends’ to their children, or discipline with a verbal ‘slap on the wrist.’ They may even condone or ignore their child’s drug abuse, as when Sonny says to Julian: Man, this Yoo-Hoo is good…Know what’s even better? Smokin’ dope.” Of course it could be argued that Julian does not understand what Sonny is saying, but many would argue that by taking such a lax attitude, when Julian does begin to understand (and he will, perhaps sooner than his parent anticipates) the ground has been laid for permissive parental attitudes towards real bad behavior. Even if parents in real life do not make such extreme statements as those used in Big Daddy for comic effect, simply by joking about drugs and promiscuity in a ‘friendly’ and lighthearted manner can send the wrong message to adolescents.

But Sandler also does provide some positive examples of parenting in an authoritative fashion — when it looks like he will lose custody of Julian, he uses a bedtime story to indicate that they will see one another again. This creates a sense of security and warmth that can ease the child’s sense of anxiety. Thus Sonny is not entirely a failure as a parent — and it could even be added that some permissive aspects of parenting, like allowing the child to choose his or her own clothing, can have positive results if done in a controlled fashion.

Sonny’s authoritarian turns, however, are less successful, and are more evidence of his difficulties with the inevitable stresses and downsides to parenting than carefully though-out rules and discipline, like the hard line he takes to the boy’s bed-wetting. An authoritarian style, which ‘lays down the law’, can feel unresponsive from the child’s perspective, even when what the parent says is correct. Harsh and punitive methods that do not acknowledge the child’s point-of-view can make the child feel hostile, angry, and afraid. Imagine a child who is taught that ‘hitting your sister is wrong’ verbally but is spanked by an authoritarian parent — this sends a mixed message that leaves the child feeling frustrated and confused (Cook & Cook 2005, 456). A less extreme example might be that of a parent who tells their child to eat his or her vegetables, ‘because they are good for you,’ but does not eat vegetables from his or her own plate. The child can easily see through the hypocrisy of ‘do as I say, not as a I do,’ and the fact that Sonny does not use this type of authoritarian parenting behavior throughout most of the film is one reason why the film can claim that he is a successful parent, despite all of his faults.

However damaging an authoritarian style may be for the child’s development, the consensus is that the worst type of parenting style is a neglecting or rejecting home, where the child’s needs are ignored and discipline is only erratically enforced (Cook & Cook 2005, 455). This is the type of household Julian left, the reason he ‘showed up’ on Sonny’s door in the first place. A history of neglect or being rejected may be one of the reasons for Julian’s anxiety and bed-wetting, given that he grew up in a home with an anxious mother raising him as a single parent, and Julian never knew his real father (Sonny’s roommate) for all of his early years.

Authoritative styles are superior because they keep the lines of communication open between parent and child, unlike an authoritarian style, but they still provide guidance and support above and beyond what can be given by the child’s friends, unlike a permissive style of parenting. Although Sonny clearly has much to learn about good parenting, the comedy Big Daddy suggests that Sonny will be a good parent, provided he abandons some of his more childish jokes and pranks, because he seems to truly care about shaping Julian’s life and making it better.

Works cited

Big Daddy. Directed by Dennis Dugan. 1999.

Cook, J.L., & Cook, G. (2005). Child Development: Principles and Perspectives. 2nd edition.

Boston: Allyn & Bacon.