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
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
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.
that’s because people were equating “control” with blind obedience,
harsh punishments, and domineering, manipulative behavior (Baumrind
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
• Permissive parenting, which is characterized by emotional warmth and a reluctance to enforce rules,
• 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).
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
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.”
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).
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?
As noted above, the authoritative parenting style
was first conceived as a kind of middle ground between permissiveness
And when we speak of someone being “responsive,” or “demanding,” these are relative terms.
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
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.
Does parenting style influence child outcomes? It seems so.
Numerous studies report the same pattern:
families are well-behaved and accomplished at school. They tend to be emotionally healthy, resourceful, and socially-adept.
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.
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.
from uninvolved families are the worst off in all respects. Most
juvenile offenders have uninvolved parents (Steinberg 2001).
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.
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
Perhaps such cultural differences can explain why some studies report different outcomes. For example,
recent study of Spanish adolescents found that kids from permissive
homes were as well-behaved and well-adjusted as were kids from
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?
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?
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
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?
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
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.
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).
other words, parents were more likely to give up--stop trying to
control their kids--if their kids were more aggressive or difficult to
As the authors note, this doesn’t mean that parents with more difficult kids should give up.
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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