Every parent has been there:
“I’m not going to bed and you can’t make me!”
“I don’t want to wear the blue shirt, I want the green one!”
“This is yucky. I’m not eating it!”
Testing boundaries is a normal part of child development, and it’s crucial if a child is to individuate from his or her parents. But for moms and dads it can also be terribly frustrating, and it can cause us to become trapped in pointless power struggles with our kids.
Conventional wisdom holds that the parents are the bosses of the household. It’s our job to make the rules, and it’s our kids’ job to follow them. But what happens when that wisdom just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny? It may be a sign that it’s time for you to try a different parenting style.
What Are Parenting Styles?
In the 1960s, United States developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind theorized that there was a strong correlation between parenting style and children’s behavior. Based on her observations, she identified four different parenting styles: authoritarian, permissive (also known as indulgent), neglectful, and authoritative (also known as democratic).
Each parenting style is categorized based on a two-dimensional model of parental behavior, and each has a set of associated outcomes. In the following section, we’ll explore each of them in more depth.
1. Authoritarian Parenting
The authoritarian parenting style could also be called “because I said so” parenting due to its emphasis on the parent’s position as a figure of authority who is not to be questioned or challenged. This type of parenting is characterized by stern discipline, low responsiveness to the child’s needs, low levels of nurturing, and frequent use of punishment to control the child’s behavior.
The rules in authoritarian households are often arbitrary and rarely explained to the children in age-appropriate ways. Rather, the children are expected to simply know and obey them. When a child does not comply, the parents assume they are being deliberately disobedient or incompetent, both of which are unacceptable.
Parents who employ the authoritarian style with their children are also much likelier to yell in anger, berate their kids, and withhold love when misbehavior occurs. This is frequently justified as “tough love.”
Associated outcomes of authoritarian parenting include insecurity, lower confidence, lower levels of happiness and independence, poorer academic performance, higher levels of behavioral problems, poorer social skills, and a higher predisposition to developing addictive behaviors later in life.
2. Permissive Parenting
This parenting style is characterized by fewer rules, a reluctance to enforce boundaries, greater attentiveness to the child’s needs, and higher levels of nurturing. However, as authoritarian parents say “no” too frequently and are inflexible toward their children, parents who lean toward the permissive style seem incapable of saying “no” and tend to indulge their children to a destructive degree.
Permissive parents are likelier to treat their children more like friends than kids, demanding little responsibility (such as participation in household chores, or requirements that all homework be completed before screen time can occur) and allowing the children age-inappropriate levels of independence. Children of indulgent parents are allowed freedom over decision making inconsistent with their maturity, and they are rarely expected to help others.
Indulgent parents are also likelier to use food, toys, and gifts to bribe their children into behaving themselves. Consequently, children accustomed to permissiveness are likelier to be obese, to have lower levels of empathy, to experience more interpersonal problems in their relationships, and to have behavior problems including impulsivity and aggression. They also frequently struggle academically since their parents instill them with little sense of discipline.
3. Neglectful Parenting
Also known as uninvolved parenting, this style is commonly associated with parents who are themselves struggling with mental illness, addiction, and trauma. It is the most “hands-off” of the four parenting styles, and it is associated with a host of poor outcomes.
Like indulgent parents, neglectful parents enforce a few rules and boundaries, but unlike indulgent parents they are also highly inattentive to their children’s needs. The children of neglectful parents are left to raise themselves for the most part. In the best-case scenario, they are materially provided for and have adequate shelter, clothing, and food, but little else.
Children of neglectful parents tend to struggle with self-control, discipline, and emotional regulation, and they’re likelier to develop depression and other mental health concerns later in life.
4. Authoritative Parenting
Of the four styles of parenting, an authoritative or democratic parenting style is associated with the highest number of positive outcomes. Democratic parenting is characterized by high expectations for children, but also high levels of warmth and nurturing. In other words, demandingness of their children is balanced by attentiveness to their child’s material and emotional needs. Children are expected to exhibit age-appropriate levels of discipline and observance of rules, but they are also given the support they need to do so with consistency.
Democratic parents listen to their children and are attuned to their needs. They allow their children to enjoy appropriate levels of autonomy, and when their authority is challenged they reason with their children rather than invoking their parental power to end the conversation. They set clearly defined rules and enforce boundaries with consistency, and they employ the positive discipline associated with the authoritative style rather than punishment.
Above all, democratic parents earn rather than demand their children’s respect. This is correlated with higher levels of academic success, higher self-confidence, better mental health, lower rates of addiction and substance abuse, and more satisfying relationships.
Why Choose Democratic Parenting?
Parenting isn’t a one-size-fits-all endeavor, and each of the four styles discussed here comes with its own set of advantages and disadvantages. Parents of stubborn or strong-willed children may feel passionately that their kids benefit more from a more rigid style of parenting. Likewise, indulgent parenting may feel that their laxity about household rules is what allows them to maintain a strong bond with their children.
However, these positions are contradicted by the abundant evidence gathered by child development experts over the years. The research clearly points to democratic childrearing as the most beneficial choice due to its strong correlation with improved self-esteem, better academic outcomes, lower rates of impulsivity and violence, better interpersonal skills, and fewer mental health problems.
So what is it that makes democratic parenting our pick for the most beneficial style of parenting? And why, if it comes with so many long-term benefits, are so many parents to reluctant to employ it with their children? What are the drawbacks and disadvantages?
The advantages of maintaining a democratic household are numerous and well-documented. As children learn that their feelings and opinions are valued, they develop a sense of self-respect as well as mutual respect of their parents. Being allowed to make age-appropriate decisions helps them cultivate a sense of autonomy. Reasoning with your children through conflict helps them to see others’ points of view and to resolve disagreements kindly and fairly.
“But my child is so strong-willed!” some parents might be thinking. “The democratic style would never work on such a difficult kid.” You may be surprised to learn that in fact authoritative parenting is shown to be more beneficial for strong-willed children than the other parenting styles. The “tough love” commonly prescribed by previous generations can actually do more harm than good, according to current research.
But what about the drawbacks of an authoritative parenting style in early childhood?
What makes this style tricky is that there are fewer disadvantages for the kids than the parents. The single biggest drawback is that, simply put, parenting democratically can be incredibly hard – on the parents.
Earlier generations relied heavily on autocratic techniques that emphasized parental authority and discouraged developmentally appropriate boundary-pushing. Many parents like these will swear by their own methods because they do elicit compliance. But this parenting behavior comes at a considerable expense to their children’s mental and emotional wellbeing.
Think about it in these terms: Would you rather your child follow the rules because they understand the value of those rules and want to live up to your expectations? Or would you rather they follow the rules because they are afraid of the consequences if they don’t? When looked at in that light, most parents understand that fear and coercion are not healthy parenting practices.
That’s where democratic/authoritative parenting comes in. It removes fear and coercion from the equation and makes the parent/child relationship more reciprocal. But it can be a lot tougher to put into practice than autocratic parenting, too.
This style requires patience, persistence, and consistent application to succeed, and every parent has days when they just don’t have any emotional bandwidth left to give. Stress mounts, tempers flare, and before you know it you’re doing what you promised yourself you’d never do and yelling at your kid.
There are moments when it can feel much easier to invoke the “because I said so” principle to get your children to comply and bring the conflict to an end. But while this tactic might achieve more favorable short-term results, it’s actually setting you up for more frequent long-term conflict.
Parents who aspire to rear their children through a democratic process have to call on their patience and compassion not only with their kids, but with themselves. This can be hard for parents who didn’t have great parental role models of their own as children. It can be hard for single parents, or those taking care of multiple kids at once. It can be especially hard during those stages of your child’s development where your kid is pushing more boundaries than usual and everything seems to turn into a debate.
In cases like these, sometimes the best solution can be to give yourself a time-out from your child until you’re able to regain enough calm to address the conflict respectfully. Just as it’s sometimes important for children to take positive time-outs to relax and collect their thoughts, parents must do the same to continue interacting appropriately with their children.
Make no mistake: the democratic approach will test your patience, and it’ll push the limits of how much you think you can give your kids. But in the long run, you’ll be so much happier than you invested the effort than if you resort to an autocratic, punitive parenting style – and so will your children.
In the end, the job of a parent is to raise happy, healthy human beings, and that’s what authoritative parenting does best.
It’s important to remember that parenting isn’t a fixed construct. Even if you’re inclined toward a more autocratic or indulgent style now, that doesn’t mean you can’t change your ways.
Making the shift from your current parenting style to one that emphasizes positive discipline, communication, and equality between you and your children may seem to run counter to more traditional parenting wisdom, but it is worth it in the long run if it means healthier, happier children.