The type of approach we take to parenting has many origins: culture, family size, education, religion… The way we approach emotions in general also influences which parenting styles feel most comfortable to us.
What we know about parenting styles is derived from Diana Baumrind's 1960s research. She observed hundreds of parents and children and noticed patterns which she grouped into three general parenting categories. A fourth category was added later. We now know that these different parenting styles have predictable outcomes among children.
Baumrind defined parenting styles using two dimensions: a scale of unresponsive to responsive and a scale of undemanding to demanding. Our parenting styles fall somewhere along each of these continuums. Responsive parents respond to children in ways that are supportive to their children’s needs while encouraging individuality and self-regulation. Demanding parents require that children meet expectations formed by family, but also demand that the family provide supervision and discipline in order to encourage compliance.
Authoritarian (unresponsive and demanding): For these parents, having their children comply with their requests is of utmost importance. Parents' requests shouldn’t be questioned—only followed. When questioned, parents may reply, “Because I said so.” They may use punishment or threats of punishment to gain obedience.
Outcome: Obedient and well-behaved kids who generally rank lower on happiness, self-esteem and social competence.
Indulgent (responsive and undemanding): For these parents, the desire to be accepted and to be friends with their children trumps discipline or expectation. The avoidance of conflict often leads to diffuse limits or rules. These parents are nurturing and communicative with their children, but generally have low expectations.
Outcome: Children with good self-esteem and low rates of depression, but these children tend to have poor academic performances and are more at risk for drug use.
Neglectful (unresponsive and undemanding): These parents are uninvolved in the daily care of their children, perhaps due to their own stressors. They provide for basic needs but are not nurturing or warm. They place few demands on their children.
Outcome: These children have the poorest outcomes. They are most likely to have juvenile offenses, drug use and poor school performance. They often lack self- control and self-esteem.
Authoritative (responsive and demanding): These parents encourage high levels of independence and they enforce rules. They are warm but with high expectations. They are assertive and their discipline techniques are supportive. Questioning is encouraged though parents ultimately make the decisions.
Outcome: These children have the best outcomes. They are generally well-behaved, socially competent, happy, resourceful and emotionally mature.
Do we all fit nicely into only one of these four categories? No. When we are tired, worn out or “at the end of our ropes,” do we always parent authoritatively? No. But, in general, our parenting philosophies tend to run parallel with one or more of the above. What if one parent tends toward authoritative and the other indulgent? The child will benefit from the authoritative parenting despite the permissiveness.
Knowing what type of parenting is most effective and actually using it are two different things. As I stated, our approach to parenting is formed by deep roots. If you are a parent who would like to change your parenting style, you may consider changing your perspective about your role as a parent. For example, if you tend toward an indulgent style, your mantra may be, “My primary role is to make sure my kids know I love them.” By expanding your parenting mantra to include, “My role is to make sure my kids know how much I love them and how much I expect of them,” you will find your interactions and responses to behavior shift. Authoritarian parents might shift to authoritative by switching from, “My children need to follow the directions I give them because I know best,” to, “Although I know best, I want my children to learn to make good decisions on their own.” A shift in perspective is powerful.
Lastly, one barrier to authoritative parenting is “how you feel about feelings.” For example, with all but the authoritative style, parents may run from feelings. Authoritarian parents may not acknowledge the anger or sadness of their children, focusing instead on, “Just do what I say.” Indulgent parents don’t want to upset their children by setting limits, and neglectful parents aren’t in tune enough with what is going on to notice their children's feelings. The key here is to “sit with” feelings—both your own and your child's. By doing this, you can better parent in an authoritative way.
Parenting is hard work—worthy of a review now and then. Hang in there!
Whitney Barrell, LCSW holds a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Utah. She works as a child therapist focused on mental health issues in children and families. Find out more: www.whitneybarrellcounseling.com.