Parenting styles: A guide for the science-minded

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Looking for information about parenting styles? Here you will find research based articles about

  • Authoritative parents, who encourage kids to be responsible, to think for themselves, and to consider the reasons for rules

  • Authoritarian parents, who expect their orders to be obeyed without question and who rely on punishment--or the threat of punishment--to control their kids

  • Permissive parents, who are responsive and warm (a good thing) but also reluctant to enforce rules (a bad thing)
  • Uninvolved parents, who offer their children little emotional support and fail to enforce standards of conduct

As I explain in the articles above, authoritative parenting is associated with the best child outcomes. Uninvolved parenting is linked with the worst.

For more information, see also these reviews of

And here--below--is an overview of the four basic parenting styles: What researchers mean when they talk about parenting style, and how different styles seem to affect children.

What do researchers mean when they talk about "parenting style"?

Parents influence their children through specific practices, like encouraging them to play outdoors, or helping them with their homework.

But parenting is more than a set of specific practices. What about the overall approach that parents take to guiding, controlling, and socializing their kids? The attitudes that parents have about their children, and the resulting emotional climate that creates?

It's this general pattern--this emotional climate--that researchers refer to as "parenting style" (Darling and Steinberg 1993). And research suggests that parenting styles have important effects on the ways that children develop.

The four styles

The most popular ideas about parenting style stem from the work of Diane Baumrind. In the 1960s, Baumrind was interested in the different ways that parents attempted to control or socialize their kids.

She noted that the very idea of parental control--of adults acting as authority figures--had fallen into disrepute.

Maybe that's because people were equating "control" with blind obedience, harsh punishments, and domineering, manipulative behavior (Baumrind 1966).

To avoid perils of authoritarianism, many parents tried the opposite approach. They put very few demands on their children, avoiding any sort of parental control at all.

To Baumrind, these were choices between two extremes.

Wasn’t there a compromise? A moderate approach that fosters self-discipline, responsibility, and independence?

So Baumrind proposed three distinct parenting styles:

  • Authoritarian parenting, which emphasizes blind obedience, stern discipline, and controlling children through punishments--which may include the withdrawal of parental affection
  • Permissive parenting, which is characterized by emotional warmth and a reluctance to enforce rules, and
  • Authoritative parenting, a more balanced approach in which parents expect kids to meet certain behavioral standards, but also encourage their children to think for themselves and to develop a sense of autonomy.

Later, researchers added a fourth style, uninvolved parenting (Maccoby and Martin 1983).

Uninvolved parents are like permissive parents in their failure to enforce standards. But unlike permissive parents, uninvolved parents are not nurturing and warm. They provided kids with food and shelter, but not much else.

Another way to think about it: Parenting differences in a nutshell

In addition to adding a new category to Baumrind's original scheme, researchers have re-stated her definitions in terms of two dimensions—"responsiveness" and "demandingness."

  1. Responsiveness is "the extent to which parents intentionally foster individuality, self-regulation, and self-assertion by being attuned, supportive, and acquiescent to children’s special needs and demands" (Baumrind 1991).
  2. Demandingness refers to "the claims parents make on children to become integrated into the family whole, by their maturity demands, supervision, disciplinary efforts and willingness to confront the child who disobeys" (Baumrind 1991).

Both of these qualities are desirable, hence authoritative parenting--which is both responsive and demanding--is considered the optimal style.

Other styles are missing one or both qualities. Authoritarian parenting is demanding but not responsive. Permissive parenting is responsive but not demanding. And uninvolved parenting is neither demanding nor responsive.

Do people really sort neatly into one of these categories? Isn't it possible for a parent to combine more than one style, or fail to fit into this scheme altogether?

I think the answer is pretty clear: This scheme is very useful, but like any attempt to categorize human behavior, it has its limitations.

First, there are the usual cultural caveats. Baumrind developed her system for understanding parents in the United States.

Moreover, her subjects were mostly white and middle class. While researchers have had success applying the categories to other cultural groups, we can't assume they will fit everywhere.

Second, even when the categories fit the culture, there is going to be blurring at the edges.

As noted above, the authoritative parenting style was first conceived as a kind of middle ground between permissiveness and authoritarianism. And when we speak of someone being "responsive," or "demanding," these are relative terms.

So the four basic parenting styles represent a continuum. Some parents might straddle the line between authoritarianism and authoritativeness. Other parents might find themselves on the border between authoritativeness and permissiveness.

Where do we draw the lines? That can vary from one study to the next.

When researchers classify parents, they usually measure and score levels of responsiveness and demandingness.

Then they decide how high or low a score must be to meet the criteria for a given parenting style. Often, researchers choose their cutoffs by "grading on a curve"--looking over the distribution of scores for the entire pool of study participants.

For example, researchers frequently define a parent as "permissive" if her score for "responsiveness" falls in the upper third of the distribution and her score for "demandingness" falls in the lower third of the distribution.

If the distribution changes from one study to the next -- because the pool of study participants differs -- the same score could result in a different classification.

Then there is the problem of how behavior gets measured. How do researchers decide if a parent is more or less responsive? More or less demanding?

Often, researchers make judgments based on questionnaires. Parents are asked to rate how much they agree (or disagree) with statements like

"I set strict, well-established rules for my child."

This statement is meant to measure the dimension of demandingness, but different parents might interpret it in different ways.

For example, a parent reading this statement might search her mind and immediately think in terms of aggressive, anti-social behavior. She knows that her child understands that aggression won't be tolerated, so she ticks the box in the questionnaire that says "I strongly agree."

But what if that same parent searches her mind and comes up with a different set of images?

Maybe the wording of this statement makes her think of her mother-in-law's strict rules about using the right fork, putting away all toys immediately after using them, and never going outside without shoes on?

Our parent doesn't happen to think any of those things are important, so she judges herself to be less strict. She rates herself as being is less agreement with the statement. Depending on what happens to come to mind at any moment, her answer differs.

So a certain amount of fuzziness is built into the process. The same individual might be classified differently depending on how she compares with other parents in the study, and on how she interprets the wording of her questionnaire.

What does it matter? Do parenting styles affect child outcomes?

When it comes to child outcomes, it's hard to pinpoint causation. How can we know if it was parenting that made the difference, and not some other factor?

Ideally, we would need to conduct controlled experiments -- randomly assigning parents to use a particular parenting style, and measuring long-term outcomes.

But ethical and practical considerations rule this out, so we're left with other types of evidence. Researchers look for correlations between parenting and child outcomes, and then try to control for other factors (like socioeconomic status) using statistical analysis.

Researchers can also hone in on causation by tracking child development over time, and looking for evidence of change. For instance, if kids tend to become more anti-social over the years -- even after controlling for their initial behavior problems -- that's stronger evidence that a particular parenting style is at least partly to blame.

What, then, have we learned from these sort of studies?

  • Kids from authoritative families are usually well-behaved and successful at school. They tend to be emotionally healthy, resourceful, and socially-adept.
  • Kids from authoritarian families are more likely to increase aggressive or defiant behavior over time. They are also more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, or poor self-esteem.
  • Compared with kids from authoritarian families, children with permissive parents may be less likely to experience behavior problems. They might also have fewer emotional problems. But these kids tend to have more troubles than children raised by authoritative parents, and they may achieve less in school.
  • Kids from uninvolved families are the worst off in all respects. Most juvenile offenders have uninvolved parents (Steinberg 2001).

Cultural differences

Although Baumrind's ideas have been applied in places as varied as Brazil, China, Scandinavia, Mediterranean Europe, and Turkey (Martinez et al 2007; Zhange et al 2017; Turkel and Teser 2009; Olivari et al 2015), the four basic styles don't always map onto local parenting methods.


In a study of Korean-American parenting, researchers found that over 75% of the sample population didn't fit into any of the standard categories (Kim and Rohner 2002).

And Ruth Chao argues that the authoritarian parenting style—as defined by Western psychologists—doesn't have an exact counterpart in traditional Chinese child-rearing (Chao 1994).

Perhaps such cultural differences can explain why different studies report different results.

For instance, in the United States, researchers usually confirm that children with permissive parents tend to have poorer outcomes than do kids with authoritative parents. But this pattern may not hold elsewhere. 

A study of Spanish adolescents found that kids from permissive homes were as well-behaved and well-adjusted as were kids from authoritative homes. And an international study reported that permissive parenting outcomes were as good as authoritative outcomes -- and sometimes they were even better (Calafat et al 2014).

But there is notable consistency when it comes to comparing authoritative parenting to authoritarian parenting. Across cultures, authoritative parenting is consistently linked with better child outcomes.

In a recent, international meta-analysis of 428 published studies, researchers found that authoritative parenting is associated with at least one positive outcome in every region of the world. By contrast, authoritarian parenting is associated with at least one negative child outcome (Pinquart and Kauser 2017).

Why is authoritative parenting so often linked with successful kids?

Maybe it's because authoritative parenting is associated with a package of individual practices that are, on balance, more likely to produce independent, achievement-minded, socially-responsible, well-adjusted people.

And maybe it depends--at least in part--on what the rest of the community is doing.

When schools are run along authoritative principles, kids from authoritative families may have an easier time meeting their teacher's expectations (Pellerin 2004).

It's also likely that your child's peer groups have an influence. As Laurence Steinberg and his colleagues have argued, peer pressure can weaken the beneficial effects of the authoritative parenting style (Steinberg et al 1992).

What if two parents disagree, and adopt different parenting styles?

Some people wonder about consistency. If, for example, one parent insists on being permissive, should the other conform? Or are kids better off having at least one authoritative parent?

Anne Fletcher and colleagues asked this question in a study of American high school students. They found that teens were generally better off having at least one authoritative parent--even if the other parent was permissive or authoritarian (Fletcher et al 1999). So in this case, having an authoritative parent was more important than having parents present a united front.

So does parenting style explain everything? What about other influences -- like peers? What about the child's temperament or personality?

image by lunar caustic / flickr CC

A parent's style is important. But it's just one influence of many.

For example, a study tracking the behavior of Swedish adolescents found that authoritative parenting was linked with less frequent use of alcohol. But kids were also influenced by peers, their previous involvement in delinquent behavior, and the availability of alcohol (Berge et al 2016).

It's also clear that genetics, prenatal conditions, and temperament play a major role in child development. But why are these factors so powerful? In part, it's because they shape the way we respond to children.

For instance, consider a baby with a difficult, excitable temperament. For reasons that have nothing to do with the parenting he has received as an infant, he is especially impulsive and prone to temper tantrums.

But as he gets older, his parents find it hard-going. His behavior isn't fun to deal with. It puts them in a bad mood, and they soon find that most of their interactions are negative. They might double down and become more punitive and authoritarian. Or, when that fails, they might feel helpless, and give up trying to enforce standards.

Either way, the child's temperament has influenced the way the parents behave. They might have intended to practice authoritative parenting, but their child's temperament nudged them off track. It isn't just the parents that influence the kids. The kids also influence the parents.

We can see evidence for this two-way influence in a study that tracked about 500 adolescent girls for a year (Huh et al 2006).

At the beginning of the study, the researchers measured the girls' externalizing behavior problems (e.g., picking fights and engaging in acts of defiance). They also asked girls about the way their parents attempted to monitor them and enforce rules. At the end of the study, researchers repeated their measurements.

The results?

Initially low levels of parental control didn't have a significant effect on a girl's subsequent development of externalizing behavior problems.

But initially high levels of misconduct were a significant predictor of decreasing parental control over time (Huh et al 2006).

In other words, parents were more likely to give up--stop trying to control their kids--if their kids were more aggressive or difficult to begin with.

As the authors note, this doesn't mean that parents with more difficult kids should give up. But it suggests that some kids are intrinsically more difficult to handle, and their behavior problems may push parents into bad habits.

To help such families, counselors need to address the behavior of both parents and kids (Huh et al 2006). And parents need advice tailored to their child's temperament.

For more information, see these tips for handling disruptive behavior problems.


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