Parenting Styles

What Parents Need To Know About Authoritative Parenting

It sounds regressive. It may be the single most effective parenting style.

Originally Published: 
A young girl being led by the hand across the street in demonstration of authoritative leadership

Parenting styles are less about how you identify and more about how parents actually interact with and influence the development and outcomes of their kids. Although some parents associate themselves with media-propagated terms like free range and tiger parenting, in reality, there are only four parenting styles backed by psychology: Authoritarian parenting, authoritative parenting, permissive parenting, and neglectful parenting. And of those four, only authoritative parenting appears to result in consistently good outcomes for kids.

What Is Authoritative Parenting?

One of the parenting styles commonly used in psychology today, authoritative parenting is based on work from the 1960s by University of California at Berkley psychologist Diana Baumrind. Her model categorizes parenting into three different styles: authoritarian, permissive, and authoritative. In the early 1980’s, social psychologists Maccoby and Martin expanded on Baumrind’s model by viewing styles through the lenses of demandingness and responsiveness.

In this expanded model, a neglectful parent shows both low responsiveness to a child’s needs and demands very little — they may not enforce rules or give much consideration to a child’s needs. Permissive parents cater to the needs of their child (they’re highly responsive) but demand very little. Authoritarian parents demand a great deal from their kids, but don’t consider their child’s needs and often pair expectations with the threat of punishment. Authoritative parents, however, appear to hit a Goldilocks zone. They expect a lot of their kids, but also consider the specific needs of each of their children.

These should not to be confused with the “parenting styles” that make headlines — like helicopter parenting, tiger parenting and attachment parenting. Those styles of parenting are built from cultural moments. They are styles coined and propagated mainly by media. For the most part they can be ignored, partly because they are rarely backed by research and partly because they slot pretty nicely into the academic parenting styles Baumrind observed in her studies.

Incidentally, while her work was grounded in academic research, it’s worth noting that Baumrind’s insights came almost exclusively from observations of white parents connected to Berkley. That said researchers since have expanded her studies into more diverse communities (as Baumrind did later in her career) and found that her psychological styles do remain fairly consistent in terms of outcomes.

Why Authoritative Parenting Works

According to the American Psychological Association, authoritative parents are “nurturing, responsive, and supportive, yet set firm limits for their children.” Even if they don’t always accept their child’s viewpoint, they listen and focus on explaining rules, discussing, and reasoning to influence their kid’s behavior.

“Frequent, positive discussion, healthy boundaries, and consistent rules prevent confusion and discord,” explains Dr. Leela R. Magavi, M.D., a Johns Hopkins-trained child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist and Regional Medical Director for Community Psychiatry at MindPath Care Centers. “Utilizing a more authoritative approach helps children feel appreciated, autonomous and empowered longitudinally. They tend to become adults who are more grounded, independent, motivated, and compassionate.”

Those long-term benefits are built on the daily lessons children learn about the importance of hard work, while at the same time enjoying elements of independence and play. “It helps dissipate all-or-nothing thinking as children recognize that their parents can have expectations and intermittently be displeased, but still love them unconditionally,” says Magavi.

How to Adopt an Authoritative Parenting Style

The idea of raising independent and compassionate kids is appealing may be just appealing enough to interrogate their own parenting style. That kind of introspection may reveal swings too far toward the heavy-handedness of authoritarianism or, conversely, the free-for-all of permissive parenting — a third style cataloged by Baumrind defined by a laissez-faire parental attitude that has equally poor outcomes for kids.

Magavi encourages parents to self-evaluate but also set reasonable goals and expectations for themselves. “This may be challenging,” she explains, “but such introspection could be helpful in recognizing and reiterating the fact that perfection is not a necessity to raise well-rounded and compassionate children.”

As you consider how you want your parenting style to evolve, remember that the discussions and conversation that defines authoritative parenting hinge on you modeling a family culture more than creating new rules. Want a child who is grounded, present and compassionate? Showing them how to do that is even more important than telling them what to do.“

For example, if a parent rushes through dinner, a child is more likely to gulp rather than chew. Parents who browse through e-mails while spending time with family often find it difficult to request children to decrease their screen time,” Magavi says. “I remind parents to model behavior they would like their children to exhibit.”

At its core, communication is the foundation of your parenting style. So you may find the help of a therapist beneficial as you move away from the do-as-I-say-or-else paradigm of authoritarianism or the “who cares?” vibe of permissive parenting. Magavi advises parents to begin releasing emotions in a private journal that they can then process with a therapist.

“Many individuals note significant benefit subsequent to meeting with a therapist even after a few sessions,” she explains. “Additionally, pediatric psychologists and psychiatrists can assist parents in transitioning their parenting style, while concurrently bolstering parents’ self-esteem and self-compassion.”

How to Help Kids Transition to Authoritative Parenting

Doing the work to grow emotionally and improve as a parent is worth the time and effort. But progress isn’t always linear, and it can take some time for your kids to adjust. Change, even good change, can be hard. When kids start experiencing things different from what is typical, they can experience anxiety that manifests itself in behaviors that parents may find challenging.

“Transitioning to another style of parenting may lead to transient clinginess, regression of behavior or emotional outbursts depending on the child’s temperament and the family dynamics,” says Magavi. “Parents who were formerly permissive may find that their children are not taking them seriously, and it may take time for their children to conceptualize and follow through on rules and routines.”

She advises parents to practice daily self-compassion and remind themselves that perfectionistic parenting could cause their children to perceive every shortcoming as a failure, which may lead to longstanding self-esteem concerns. After all, the goal isn’t to become a perfect parent but to improve as a parent. And maintaining a focus on what’s going on in your own journey and that of your family can provide the context needed to maintain that mindset.

“I advise parents to decrease time spent on social media to avoid comparing themselves with other parents,” Magavi explains. “On social media, everyone looks like a perfect parent. Reframing thinking and identifying the good and bad in each individual and behavior helps decrease catastrophizing and rumination.”

At the end of the day, it’s tough to maintain the sense of mindfulness and presence necessary for authoritative parenting if you’re too focused on everyone else. And it can be very freeing to remember that your primary focus simply needs to be on you and your kids.

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