Parenting styles: A guide for the science-minded

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

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

• The evidence that kids from authoritarian families are worse off than kids from authoritative families

• Evidence that today’s permissive parents are taking an extreme approach

• The apparent effects of permissive parenting and the methods that researchers use to identify parenting styles

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 breastfeeding or spanking. 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.

Can parents combine the aspects of more than one style?

Probably.

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 might depend on the study. When researchers classify parents, they usually measure and score each person’s 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 control falls in the lower third of the distribution.

Child outcomes

Does parenting style influence child outcomes? It seems so.

Numerous studies report the same pattern:

Kids from authoritative families are well-behaved and accomplished at school. They tend to be emotionally healthy, resourceful, and socially-adept.

Kids from authoritarian families are relatively well-behaved. But their social skills tend to be inferior, and they are more likely than other kids to suffer from anxiety, depression, and poor self-esteem.

Kids from permissive families have higher self-esteem and lower rates of depression and anxiety. However, they are more likely to get involved in problem behavior (like drug use). They also tend to achieve less at 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, and Turkey (Martinez et al 2007; Chen et al 1997; Turkel and Teser 2009), the four basic parenting styles don’t always “map” onto local parenting methods.

Examples?

In a recent 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 quite “map” onto traditional Chinese practices (Chao 1994).

Perhaps such cultural differences can explain why some studies report different outcomes. For example, a recent study of Spanish adolescents found that kids from permissive homes were as well-behaved and well-adjusted as were kids from authoritative homes.

But overall, there is remarkable agreement across cultures. Authoritative parenting is consistently linked with the best child outcomes.

What if two parents disagree?

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).

How important is parenting style? Can it explain everything?

A parent's style is important. But it can't explain everything.

In theory, a parenting style is more than the sum of a parent’s specific practices. But we shouldn’t assume that’s true.

Why is authoritative parenting 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).

And what about the child's own temperament or personality?

Although some researchers claim that parenting styles are determined by the parent only, children aren’t all alike. One child may be timid, the other more aggressive or defiant. And the same parent may respond differently to different kinds of kids.

Problem behavior can elicit poor parenting

There is support for the idea that child behavior influences a parent’s style. An American study 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., fighting or treating others with cruelty). They also asked girls about the way their parents attempted to monitor them and enforce rules. At the end of the study, these variables were measured again.

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).



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References

Baumrind D. 1966. Effects of authoritative parental control on child behavior. Child Development, 37(4), 887-907.

Baumrind D. 1991. The influence of parenting style on adolescent competence and substance use. Journal of Early Adolescence 11(1): 56-95.

Chao R. 1994. Beyond parental control; authoritarian parenting style: Understanding Chinese parenting through the cultural notion of training. Child Development 45: 1111-1119.

Chen X, Dong Q, Zhou H. 1997. Authoritative and Authoritarian Parenting Practices and Social and School Performance in Chinese Children. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 21(4): 855-873.

Darling N and Steinberg L. 1993. Parenting style as context: An integrative model. Psychological Bulletin 113(3): 487-496.Garcia F and Gracia E. 2009. Is always authoritative the optimum parenting style? Evidence from Spanish families. Adolescence 44(173): 101-131.

Huh D, Tristan J, Wade E and Stice E. 2006. Does Problem Behavior Elicit Poor Parenting?: A Prospective Study of Adolescent Girls. Journal of Adolescent Research 21(2): 185-204.

Kim K and Rohner RP. 2002. Parental Warmth, Control, and Involvement in Schooling: Predicting academic achievement among Korean American adolescents. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 33(2): 127-140.

Maccoby EE and Martin JA. 1983. Socialization in the context of the family: Parent–child interaction. In P. H. Mussen (ed) and E. M. Hetherington (vol. ed.), Handbook of child psychology: Vol. 4. Socialization, personality, and social development (4th ed., pp. 1-101). New York: Wiley.

Martínez I, García JF, and Yubero S. 2007. Parenting styles and adolescents' self-esteem in Brazil. Psychol Rep. 2007 Jun;100(3 Pt 1):731-45.

Steinberg L. 2001. We know some things: Parent-adolescent relationshgips in retrospect and prospect. Journal of research on adolescence 11(1): 1-19.

Türkel YD and Tezer E. 2008. Parenting styles and learned resourcefulness of Turkish adolescents. Adolescence. 43(169):143-52.

Content last modified 9/11