Authoritarian parenting: How does it affect the kids?

© 2010-2013 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

The authoritarian parenting style is about being strict and stern.

Is it the best way to raise kids?

Most studies say no.

Kids from authoritarian families may be relatively well-behaved. But they also tend to be less resourceful, have poorer social skills, and lower self esteem. Compared with kids from authoritative households, kids exposed to authoritarian discipline may also achieve less at school.

Here is an overview of the research.

What happens to kids who are raised by authoritarian parents?

Authoritarianism versus the alternatives

Researchers recognize at least three alternatives to authoritarian parenting:

Permissive parents are emotionally warm, but reluctant to enforce rules or standards of conduct.

Uninvolved parents are like permissive parents, but they lack warmth

Authoritative parents, like authoritarian parents, set limits and enforce standards. But unlike authoritarian parents, authoritative parents are very responsive or nurturing. In addition, authoritative parents encourage their kids to ask questions, and they explain the rationale behind the rules. Authoritative parents are also less likely to control kids through the induction of shame, guilt, or the withdrawal of love.

How does authoritarianism measure up?


Kids from authoritarian families are relatively well-behaved.

Overall, studies report that kids from authoritarian families get into less trouble than kids from permissive or uninvolved families.

This is true for drug and alcohol use, and it seems to be the case for other risky behaviors, like driving without a seat belt (Ginsburg et al 2004).

It’s also true for “externalizing behavior problems”--i.e., disruptive, aggressive, or anti-social behavior (e.g., Lamborn et al 1991; Sternberg et al 1996; Sternberg et al 2006; Williams et al 2009).

But we should keep two things in mind:

1. Kids from authoritarian families may not be as well-behaved as kids from authoritative families. Studies suggest, for instance, that kids exposed to authoritarian parenting show less advanced moral reasoning and self-regulation (see below).

2. Many studies reporting links between behavior problems and parenting style depend on self-reports, meaning that they measure behavior problems by asking the kids to report on their own misdeeds.

It seems to me that kids raised by authoritarian parents might be especially reluctant to confess wrongdoing to authority figures--even if those authority figures are researchers who promise to keep their answers confidential. So perhaps we should be skeptical about studies that rely on self-reports.

Self-reports suggest that kids from authoritarian families are about as well-behaved as kids from authoritative families. But when researchers have used other ways of measuring misbehavior, they have gotten different results.

For example, a study of African-American preschoolers found that authoritative caregivers--not authoritarian caregivers--were the least likely to report externalizing behavior problems in their children (Querido et al 2002).

Another study tracked American kids of different ethnicities for four years--from the ages of 9 to 13. At several points in time, researchers asked teachers to rate the kids’ tendencies for social and physical aggression. The results suggested that authoritarianism might contribute to child aggression:

Compared with kids from authoritative families, kids with authoritarian mothers became more aggressive over time (Underwood et al 2009).

Kids from authoritarian families are less resourceful and less socially-adept

This generalization appears to apply across a variety of cultures. Kids from authoritarian families may find it more difficult to fend for themselves and make friends.

Examples?

• The United States. Widely-cited studies of American adolescents have reported that teens with authoritarian parents were the least likely to feel socially accepted by their peers. They were also rated as less self-reliant (Lamborn et al 1991; Steinberg et al 1992; Steinberg et al 1994).

• China. One study of 2nd graders in Beijing found that kids from authoritarian families were rated as less socially competent by their teachers. They were also more aggressive and less likely to be accepted by their peers (Chen et al 1997). Other Chinese research has linked the punitive aspects of authoritarianism with poorer social functioning (Zhou et al 2004).

• Cyprus. When researchers questioned 231 young adolescents about their cultural values and experiences with peers, they found that kids from authoritarian homes were more likely to have experienced bullying -- both as victims and perpetrators (Georgiou et al 2013).

• Turkey. In a study of Turkish high school students, kids from authoritarian families were rated as less resourceful than kids from authoritarian or permissive parents (Turkel and Tzer 2008).

• South America and Spain. Researchers in Latin cultures report that authoritarian parents are more likely to have kids with low social competence (Martinez et al 2007; Garcia and Gracia 2009).

• The Netherlands. In Dutch studies, kids with authoritarian parents were rated as less helpful and less popular by their teachers and classmates. They were also rated as less mature in their reasoning about moral issues (Dekovic and Jannsens 1992; Jannsens and Dekovic 1997).

Kids from authoritarian families are more likely to suffer from emotional problems...at least in some populations

Does authoritarian parenting put kids at greater risk of anxiety, low self-esteem, and depression?

Maybe yes.

For example, a survey of middle-aged Americans found that people who remembered authoritarian childhoods were more likely to report depressive symptoms and poor psychological adjustment (Rothrauff et al 2009).

This was true for all ethnic groups, but the effect was strongest among European Americans.

Other research agrees:

• Studies of Spanish and Brazilian adolescents have reported that teens from authoritarian homes had lower self-esteem than did teens from authoritative or permissive families (Martinez and Garcia 2007; Martinez and Garcia 2008).

• German researchers found that teens with authoritarian parents were more likely to suffer from trait anxiety. They were also more likely to experience depersonalization--the feeling of watching oneself act without being in control of one’s actions (Wolfradt et al 2003).

• And research in China suggests that kids with harsh parents have more trouble regulating their emotions (Chang 2003; Wang et al 2006).

But the authoritarian parenting style isn’t always linked with emotional problems. Studies of contemporary American adolescents have failed to find emotional differences between kids from authoritarian, authoritative, and permissive homes (Lamborn et al 1991; Steinberg et al 2006).

And research on adolescents in the Middle East have also failed to find a link between authoritarian caregiving and psychological problems like depression (Dwairy 2004; Dwairy and Menshar 2006).

Why the inconsistencies?

I suspect the effects of authoritarianism depend on how harsh, cold, or punitive the parent is.

For instance, some research suggests that corporal punishment is linked with higher rates of depression and anxiety among children.

It also seems likely that culture plays a role. If kids perceive authoritarian parenting as normal and mainstream, they may be less distressed by it.

What about school?

Experimental research suggests that authoritarian approaches interfere with learning

In a fascinating study of kindergarteners, Melissa Kamins and Carol Dweck have shown that a common tactic of authoritarian caregiving--shaming a child for poor performance--can make kids perform more poorly on problem-solving tasks (Kamins and Dweck 1999).

In addition, experiments suggest that people learn better from positive feedback than from negative feedback, and this may be especially true for kids (Schmittmann et al 2006; van Duijvenvoorde et al 2008).

Other studies report correlations between authoritarianism and lower school achievement.

For example, a study of adolescents in the San Francisco Bay Area found that the authoritarian parenting style was linked with lower school grades for all ethnic groups (Dornbusch et al 1987). These findings are supported by other, similar studies (Steinberg et al 1989; Steinberg et al 1992).

Counter evidence: Are the effects less harmful when parents are less educated? Or live in disadvantaged neighborhoods? Or Chinese?

Some studies of kids from lower socioeconomic groups have failed to show any difference in academic performances between authoritative and authoritarian families (Lamborn et al 1996; Steinberg et al 2009).

It’s even been suggested that kids with relatively less-educated parents do better in school when they are from authoritarian homes (Leung et al 1998).

There is also controversy about the effects of authoritarian caregiving in Chinese families.

On the one hand, authoritarianism has been linked with poorer school performance in Beijing (Chen et al 1997) and Taiwan (Pong et al 2010).

On the other hand, studies of Hong Kong Chinese (Leung et al 1998) and of Chinese immigrants to North America (Chao 2001) have linked authoritarian parenting with higher school achievement.

Why the discrepancies?

Researchers have suggested several possibilities.

• Perhaps kids living in dangerous, disadvantaged neighborhoods are less likely to run afoul of authority figures—in and out of school—when they are taught unquestioning obedience.

• Maybe peer pressure swamps the effects of parenting. Some peer groups support school achievement. Others discourage it. One study of U.S. school students found that Asian Americans tended to have peer groups that encouraged scholarship, and they performed well at school even when their parents were authoritarian. African Americans tended to have peer groups that rejected good students. These kids did more poorly in school even when their parents were authoritative and highly-educated (Steinberg et al 1992).

• Authoritarian parenting may have different meanings in different cultures. Ruth Chao has argued that the Chinese version of authoritarian parenting is fundamentally different. Unlike Western authoritarian parents, Chinese authoritarian parents have closer relationships to their kids, and closeness is a predictor of higher school achievement (Chao 2001).

But I’m a bit skeptical about the idea that authoritarian parenting could make some kids into better students. The experimental research is compelling. Moreover, achievement in math, science, and many other academic fields depends on critical thinking—something that authoritarian parenting seems to discourage.

Indeed, there is evidence that schools run along authoritarian principles produce inferior students. In a study comparing American high schools, Lisa Pellerin found that authoritative schools got the best results. Authoritarian schools had the worst rates of dropouts (Pellerin 2004).

And morality?

Authoritarian parents might see themselves as champions of morality. But, as noted above, studies suggest that kids with authoritarian parents are actually less advanced when it comes to self-regulation and moral reasoning (Dekovic and Jannsens 1992; Jannsens and Dekovic 1997; Karreman et al 2006; Piotrowski et al 2013).

Moreover, kids from authoritarian families may be more likely to “tune out” their parents as they get older.

For instance, when researchers tracked American middle and high school studies over 18 months, they found that kids who identified their parents as more authoritarian were more likely to reject their parents as legitimate authority figures. They were also more likely to engage in delinquency over time (Trinker et al 2012).

And in a study of American undergraduates, researchers asked students who they consulted when they had to make moral decisions. Undergraduates with authoritative parents were the most likely to say they would talk with their parents.

Students with authoritarian parents--like students from permissive families--were more likely to reference their peers (Bednar et al 2003).

More information

For more information about the four basic parenting styles, check out "Parenting styles: A guide for the science-minded."

For a more information about the ways that researchers define and identify authoritarian parents, see "The authoritarian parenting style: Definitions, research, and cultural differences."

And if you're interested in Chinese child-rearing, see my article, Traditional Chinese parenting: What research says about Chinese kids and why they succeed



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