The authoritarian parenting style:

Definitions, research, and cultural differences

drill sergeant USMC

© 2010-2016 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

The authoritarian parenting style: Little nurturing, lots of psychological control

They have similar names, "authoritarian" and "authoritative" parenting. And both styles of parenting set high standards of conduct.

But there are important differences. As I explain elsewhere, authoritative parents are more responsive and nurturing towards their kids. And authoritarian parents?

We might think of boot camp, with the parent as drill sergeant. A drill sergeant insists on unquestioning obedience. He punishes autonomy. His purpose is to “break" the will, so he can reshape people according to an absolute standard.

He’s not a warm, fuzzy kind of guy, and he’s not going to inspire feelings of intimacy. But when his system works, he can boast about one thing: His recruits tend to obey.

Admittedly, the analogy is cartoonish. But is it far from the mark? Not by much.

How psychologists define the authoritarian parenting style

Susan Wesley

When psychologist Diane Baumrind first proposed her definition of authoritarian parenting, she cited the 18th century views of Puritan Susannah Wesley--not military training techniques. But the ideas were pretty much the same (Baumrind 1966).

According to Baumrind, authoritarian parents:

  • Don’t encourage verbal give-and-take.
  • Are “obedience- and status-oriented, and expect their orders to be obeyed without question."
  • Tend to control their children through shaming, the withdrawal of love, or other punishments.
  • Don’t usually attempt to explain the reasons for rules.

Other researchers have restated Baumrind’s definition in terms of two factors:

1. Warmth, also known as “responsiveness." This quality is defined as “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. Control, also known as “demandingness." This 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).

Authoritative parents show high levels of warmth and control. Authoritarian parents how high levels of control, but only low levels of warmth. Does the difference matter?

Research suggests that the best-adjusted, best-behaved, most resourceful, and highest-achieving kids have authoritative--not authoritarian--parents. In fact, for some outcomes, children with authoritarian parents aren't just second to those raised in authoritative homes. They're also perform more poorly than kids with permissive parents, caregivers who show warmth but don't enforce rules (Calafat et al 2014). For more information, see this article about the effects of the authoritarian parenting style.

But here let's focus on definitions. How do researchers decide who is authoritative and who is authoritative?

How researchers identify authoritarian parents

Sometimes researchers assign kids and parents a task—like a puzzle to solve—and watch to see how they interact. For example, a study in the Netherlands measured how often parents showed approval, took over the task, or made disapproving comments (Janssens and Deokovic 1997).

But in many studies, researchers use questionnaires to identify parents as authoritarian (e.g., Lamborn et al 1991; Garcia and Gracia 2009).

Typically, parents (or kids) are asked to rate with a four point scale ( 1= “almost never true", 4 = “almost always true") their agreement or disagreement with statements about their family relationships.

For instance, parents are MORE likely to be identified as authoritarian if they strongly AGREE with statements like:

  • When I ask my child to do something, and he asks why, I say something like “because I said so," or “because I want you to do it."
  • I punish my child by withholding expressions of affection
  • I explode in anger towards my child
  • I yell or shout when child misbehaves

Parents are LESS likely to be identified as authoritarian if they strongly AGREE with statements like:

  • I talk to my kids about our plans and I listen to what my children have to say
  • I try to help and comfort my child when he is upset
  • My child feels she can come to me when she has a problem

What about partial agreement—if, for example, you sometimes yell at your child when he misbehaves?

A parent’s classification doesn’t depend on one or two questions. It’s your overall scores in two areas--warmth and control--that matters.

Typically, researchers look at the distribution of scores for their entire sample and set cutoffs for deciding who is authoritarian. For example, researchers often define a parent as "authoritarian" if her score for warmth falls in the lower third of the distribution and her score for control falls in the upper third of the distribution.

In other words, researchers often “grade" their questionnaires on a “curve," which means that the authoritarian parenting style is treated as a relative concept.

Whether or not your parenting is classified as “authoritarian" may depend—at least in part--on the population you are compared with.

Other ways of being “authoritarian?"

As noted above, Baumrind’s model of authoritarian parenting style was based, in part, on the religious views of an 18th century Puritan. Does this model fit all types of parents—even parents from non-Western backgrounds?

Perhaps not.

The Baumrind definition suggests a rather distant, cold relationship between parent and child.

And for European-Americans, that may be the case. One cross-cultural study found that European-American kids who reported feeling less close to their parents were more likely to come from authoritarian homes (Chao 2000).

But in other populations, kids may interpret the authoritarian approach as a sign that adults care about them.

For instance, a preschool teacher recounts how she scolded some Haitian-American kids for crossing a parking lot without her. Then she said, “I don’t want you to go alone. Why do I want you to wait for me, do you know?"

“Yes," a child answered, “because you like us" (Ballenger 1992).

Something similar may apply to traditional Chinese families. Psychologist Ruth Chao has proposed a cultural variant of authoritarian parenting, “chiao shun," which she translates as “training."

According to Chao, chaio shun emphasizes harmonious family relationships—not the domination of the child.

In a study of Chinese immigrants to the United States, Chao found that first-generation immigrants felt as close to their parents as did European-Americans.

And for the immigrant kids there was no correlation between the authoritarian parenting style and relationship closeness. Kids who reported feeling less close to their parents were not more likely to have authoritarian parents (Chao 2000).

Such research suggests that the authoritarian parenting style may have different effects depending on the cultural context. But can we conclude that authoritarian parenting is the best parenting style for certain groups?

I’m doubtful. There is cross-cultural evidence suggesting that kids--even kids living in Beijing, China--seem to be better off when their parents are authoritative, not authoritarian.

For the details, see my article about the effects of the authoritarian parenting style on kids.

In addition, check out my article, "Traditional Chinese parenting: What research says about Chinese kids and why they succeed."

There I review claims that authoritarianism is somehow beneficial for Chinese kids, and I offer alternative explanations for the academic achievements of many Chinese-Americans.

More information: Putting the authoritarian parenting style in context

For more information about other parenting styles, check out this evidence-based guide.

References: The authoritarian parenting style

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.

Calafat A, García F, Juan M, Becoña E, Fernández-Hermida JR. 2014. Which parenting style is more protective against adolescent substance use? Evidence within the European context. Drug Alcohol Depend. 138:185-92

Chao R. 2001. Extending research on the consequences of parenting style for Chinese Americans and European Americans. Child Development 72: 1832-1843.

Janssens JMAM and Dekovic M. 1997. Child Rearing, Prosocial Moral Reasoning, and Prosocial Behaviour. International Journal of Behavioral Development 20(3): 509-527.

Garcia F and Gracia E. 2009. Is always authoritative the optimum parenting style? Evidence from Spanish families. Adolescence 44(173): 101-131.

Lamborn SD, Mants NS, Steinberg L, and Dornbusch SM. 1991. Patterns of competence and adjustment among adolescents from authoritative, authoritarian, indulgent, and neglectful families. Child Development 62: 1049-1065.

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.

Content last modified 1/16

image of drill sergeant by Corporal Shawn M. Toussaint USMC
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