Developmental psychologists have been studying parenting for around a century. It's a general topic that's received lots and lots of attention. One of the most popular and productive approaches to research on parenting has been the studies and theories around the idea of "parenting style." We've been talking a lot about parenting "techniques" or "methods" — those ideas are supposed to be much more specific than parenting style. Many methods or techniques may fall under the same parenting style umbrella. Parenting styles are supposed to describe the complex pattern of parenting; they are more approaches than specific parenting behaviours per se.
The research on parenting style is largely based on Diana Baumrind's seminal work in the area, starting in the 1960's. The styles that she identified are meant to describe variations among all sort of "normal" families — in other words, this classification system was not a way to identify clinical or seriously distressed families. The categories capture two main components of parenting: Parental warmth (or "responsiveness") and parental demandingness (or "control"). BOTH aspects are considered to be important dimensions of parenting that predict children's well-being later in life.
Most people talk about 3 styles, but there are actually 4, if you take all the possible combinations of the two dimensions:
1. Permissive Parenting: Also referred to as "indulgent" (because child psychologists can sometimes be mean with their labels). This parenting style is characterized by HIGH warmth and LOW demandingness. So, there's lots of affection and love that's expressed in the family, but there are very few rules and boundaries that are set. Limit-setting is minimal and discipline is often either unenforced or very lax.
2. Authoritarian Parenting: These parents are LOW in warmth or responsiveness (it's usually the latter — they aren't focused on responding to the child's emotional states, basically) and HIGH on demandingness. These are families who place a great deal of value on children being obedient. They set firm rules, have firm disciplinary consequences and they provide highly structured, organized and predictable home environments.
3. Authoritative Parenting: These parents are HIGH on both dimensions. They are warm and responsive to their children's emotional needs at the same time as they set clear standards for behaviour and enforce those standards with predictable discipline strategies. They are assertive with their children, but they also place high value on raising responsible, cooperative, but also self-regulated children.
4. Uninvolved Parenting: Most parents reading this blog will not fall into this category, given you're reading about PARENTING and are searching for information about your child and his or her well-being. The uninvolved parent is low on both dimensions: there is little warmth and little demandingness.
You can probably find yourself in one of these categories quite easily. The tricky part is that they're not "pure" categories in that each category can be further divided according to a third dimension: PSYCHOLOGOCIAL control. This is a really important aspect to consider, I think. It refers to control attempts that CAN BE intrusive and disruptive to the child's emotional and cognitive well-being (they aren't always, let's keep in mind). The prime parenting strategies to psychologically control children include: guilt induction, shaming and strategically withdrawing parental love. So, within each of the parenting styles, you can be high or low on psychological control as well, and that makes for a very different type of parent in each case. Classically, the big difference between Authoritative and Authoritarian parents is that the latter is much higher on psychological control — both types of parents set out clear limits and follow up with predictable consequences/discpline if those rules are not followed, but Authoritarian parents do so through strategies that induce shame and guilt while Authoritative parents more often use problem-solving, explanations and negotiation.
It's probably going to come as no surprise to hear that Authoritative Parenting has been empirically linked to better outcomes for children than the other types of parenting styles. Children and adolescents of Authoritative parents turn out more socially skilled and more skilled at the pragmatics of everyday life than kids from the other types of parents.
Also not surprising, the Uninvolved parents produced children with the most troubled outcomes; compared to the other types, these children were more socially, emotionally and academically impaired.
There are some interesting variations in these results when you consider ethnicity and cultural background differences, but in general, the Authoritative parenting style usually wins out on almost all outcomes we would care about for our children. Of course, WITHIN each category, there are lots of parenting BEHAVIOURS that are more or less effective for children's well-being. And you can probably predict by now that I will say that temperament will play some role — some children will be able to flourish under Authoritarian parents, if they're less sensitive to shame or guilt and/or if they simply were "born with" a sense of their own efficacy in the world or a less rebellious spirit. Another child in the same family may not fare as well. Also, surely parents' own personalities will have a large impact on how these parenting styles are actually manifest in day-to-day interactions with their children.
I think it's interesting to consider these dimensions of parenting as a first step, but I'm much more interested in the boundaries between the typologies and how various parenting behaviours can feel really wrong in some parenting contexts, but just right in others. For example, I think guilt can be a very effective, useful and PROSOCIAL way to influence our children's behaviour, especially as they get older than 5 or so. Too much is no doubt detrimental, but perhaps a little may be necessary to promote empathic, ethical behaviour from our children. How high would I rate myself in psychological control? Does its detrimental impact depend on the larger parenting context (the love, warmth, connection, openness in a family)? Does that control work differently at different ages? You won't be surprised to know that I think the developmental age of the child is critical to consider: As children get older, it may be optimal to move from being relatively high on demandingness/control to relatively low, ending at the end of adolescence/early 20s with an ALMOST equal balance of power. In terms of warmth, I suspect high levels of it would be important throughout development, but perhaps the way we express this warmth will be less overt as children grow up and get creeped out about us wanting to rock them to sleep just one more time… (Yes, THAT book comes to mind).
Do you think these dimensions are useful when you consider your own parenting style? What were your parents' style of parenting and do you think that influences yours? What's missing in these dimensions for you?