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The 3 Parenting Styles: The 2 that Don’t Work and the 1 that Does

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson


Diana Baumrind, a Berkeley California developmental psychologist working in the 1960s, developed parenting categories based on parental responsiveness and “demandingness.” She posited – and much research since has confirmed – that there must be a balance between supporting children and controlling them. Baumrind came up with three categories or styles of parenting that reflect different levels of support and control: authoritarian, permissive, and authoritative.

In a Three Bears sort of way, authoritarian parents are too hard – too controlling and offering too little support for children’s personalities. In a situation where a child is making a scene in the toy aisle at Target, the authoritarian parent might growl, “Get over here now! Be quiet! You’re acting like a baby!”

Permissive parents are too soft – bending over backwards to give children what they desire and making too few demands. In the same toy aisle situation, the permissive parent might buy the toy to shut the child up or bargain with the child, buying something smaller or offering extra dessert tonight if she will only come away now please…

But authoritative parents – those who balance control and support – are “just right.” And their children tend to be “just right” too. Study after study has demonstrated that American kids do best with authoritative parenting. They do well in school, get along nicely with other children and adults, mostly stay out of trouble, and are well-adjusted and self-disciplined. The authoritative parent in the Target toy aisle might admire the toy the child desires, letting her point out its cool features, and agree with her that, yes, it would be fun to have that someday. “But right now, we’re not buying toys. We came here to get some paper towels. Do you know where to find them in this store?”

So why don’t all parents use an authoritative parenting style? Why is this so hard?

First, it’s hard because “authoritative” – the good sort of parenting – and “authoritarian” – the less good sort – sound a lot alike. The words are very similar. Some authors clear up the confusion by renaming the good “authoritative parenting” as “respectful parenting.” Let’s do that here. I like it because respect is the key element in effective parenting.

But mostly parents struggle to use respectful parenting with their children for two reasons: they misunderstand the parenting role and they too often want a quick fix.

Raising bright, responsible kids takes a long while – at least 18 years. But our lives are lived in the moment… and right this moment we want things to go smoothly. So, depending on our own inclinations and our child’s temperament, we smooth things out at any given time by caving in to the whining and the tantruming or by screaming for it to stop. We buy a moment’s peace by being a tyrant or a pushover but we also set ourselves up for another round of the same behavior later. The respectful parent takes the time to listen to a child’s point-of-view and then explains her own position and why that is the position that will stick. Treated this way, the child learns to express his ideas civilly and to accept mom or dad’s decision with grace. The parent doesn’t just control behavior or ignore it, he teaches the behavior he wants to see.

But many of us think it’s our job to control behavior. We’ve got the parenting thing wrong. So if control comes easily to us, we try to order our kids around. We try to parent by enforcing rules with punishment and by manipulating good behavior. We’re in charge and our children are not. That’s how we act if we mistakenly think that the parent’s role is all about control.

Or, perhaps we think the parent’s role is all about control but we reject control and do everything we can to avoid being controlling. But when we deny control we leave a hole in our relationship with our kids. We have little to say. So children, without the guidance of adult control, run amok. Four- and six-year-olds are now running the family. The parent and child roles are reversed.

As Baumrind pointed out, parenting is not just about control and control is not always a bad thing. But control must always be tempered with support and respect that guide children in the ways they should go. The true role of the parent is one of teacher. To teach, one must listen, explain, and maybe even agree. Teaching is a process. It’s not a quick fix.

Effective parents have high standards for their children, standards that are appropriate to each child’s age and abilities and temperament. They have rules. But they also understand that their children are individual people with individual needs and wishes. Each child must be treated with respect. It’s not easy. But over the course of 18 years, being an effective parent pays off.


© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.