Key takeaways for caregivers
- Effective parenting involves being responsive to the child as well as exerting appropriate guidance.
- Achieving a balance between these two behavioral dimensions can be challenging and changes with the child’s development.
Introduction to Authoritative Parenting
One of the most important and enduring concepts in research on raising children is authoritative parenting. Coined in the late 1960s by the psychologist Diana Baumrind, this concept refers to a general style of or behavioral approach toward childrearing. The style is characterized by two fundamental features: exhibiting responsiveness and exerting control.
Although being responsive to children and providing discipline have long been recognized as key ingredients of effective parenting, prior to Baumrind’s work, the two dimensions were largely considered – and studied – separately. By combining the two areas into a single construct, she recognized that these characteristics need to occur together in parenting.
In her landmark monograph, Current Patterns of Parental Authority (1971), Baumrind provided evidence that children of authoritative parents tended to be more socially competent and have fewer behavioral problems than children of parents who used other childrearing styles.
Her conceptualization of what made mothers and fathers effective became highly influential and continues to be widely accepted worldwide as the ideal childrearing style. But as important and longstanding as the concept is, unanswered questions remain.
What is authoritative parenting?
By definition, an authoritative parent has two behavioral dimensions. First, the adult is very responsive to their child (sometimes referred to as warmth, supportiveness, or nurturance). This responsiveness is oriented around nurturance with the goal of promoting self-regulation and encouraging self-assertion in children, and recognizing and accepting children’s individuality (Baumrind, 1991).
The second behavioral dimension is commonly labeled guidance (sometimes also called demandingness, control, or discipline) and refers to firmly enforcing rules of socialization and behavioral standards. The parent provides structure, predictability, limits, and accountability, usually through rules. The rules are appropriate to a child’s age and reflect high behavioral expectations, such as not allowing any forms of aggression.
The rules or guidelines for behavior are not arbitrary and may be informed by the child’s input: Authoritative parents engage in open, two-way communication with their children. They explain to their children, with clear reasons, why they have established the rules and expectations and consider their children’s input in the decision-making process. A hallmark of this parenting style is respecting the child as an individual.
Authoritative parents engage in open, two-way communication with their children.
However, ultimately, the parent makes the final decisions. Although not necessarily democratic, because parents maintain ultimate authority, in authoritative parenting, parents treat their children in a benevolent way by balancing these two behavioral dimensions.
From the child’s perspective, the parent is viewed as loving, open to discussion, and respectful. But the child also recognizes that their parent follows clear and firm behavioral guidelines, maintains high expectations, and sets definitions and boundaries regarding unacceptable behavior. The child also knows there will be consequences for transgressions, whether a verbal reprimand or punishment, such as taking away a favorite toy or a privilege.
Contrasting parenting styles
Perhaps the easiest way to recognize authoritative parents is to compare them with parents who use the three contrasting childrearing styles (although Baumrind identified only two of the three): authoritarian, permissive, and uninvolved parenting.
An authoritarian (or autocratic) parent is just that – very controlling and demanding, and not very responsive. This type of parent expects immediate obedience and compliance, and does not provide explanations or take the child’s perspective into account.
Think of a Hollywood movie stereotype of a military drill sergeant who barks orders at his enlisted men and demands immediate, unquestioning compliance. In authoritarian parenting, reasons are not used to justify commands. This style is centered on the parent because the parent’s focus is on themselves and getting the child to obey, comply, and fit in.
In stark contrast to the authoritarian style is the permissive style (also called indulgent or non-directive), where the parent has few if any expectations of or limits on their child and in fact, allows the child free reign. Permissive parents do not expect mature behavior. They are very responsive and lenient, and they avoid conflict. The permissive style reflects an approach to childrearing that is centered on the child; the child is the boss and makes his or her own decisions. Dessert for dinner is okay with an extremely permissive parent.
In an influential chapter published in 1983, two psychologists, Eleanor Maccoby and John Martin, labeled Baumrind’s two central parenting dimensions as warmth and control to characterize different parenting styles. And they identified a fourth type of parenting: uninvolved.
The uninvolved parent (also called neglectful or detached) is not involved in parenting their child and consequently is neither warm nor controlling. Parents who are uninvolved may have a mental or physical health problem, be separated or divorced, lack interest in their child, be a workaholic, or live apart from their child.
Evidence for the beneficial effects of authoritative parenting
In 1966, Baumrind first described the three models of parental control. She followed that with research on preschool-aged children and their parents. Her most carefully documented study, of 146 White, middle-class preschool children and their parents in the United States (Baumrind, 1971), yielded somewhat mixed results. A close read of her research reveals that her findings are not as dramatic or clearcut as is portrayed in most textbooks.
Based on interviews with parents, questionnaires filled out by parents, and behavioral ratings of their children, she discovered that the daughters of authoritative parents (and a subsample of the boys) were more socially competent and independent, and achieved at higher levels in school, than were the children of authoritarian or permissive parents. Boys of authoritative parents were more socially responsible than sons of parents with other styles. The subtleties of Baumrind’s findings were often forgotten and the beneficial associations of authoritative parenting are overstated in most textbooks.
Prompted by these initial studies, many researchers began investigating the relation between parenting styles and children’s behavior. In virtually all cases, the studies relied on short self-report questionnaires to classify parents into a particular parenting style.
Despite taking less rigorous methodological approaches than Baumrind did in her work, the studies consistently found that authoritative parenting related positively to a variety of variables in children and adolescents. Among these variables are greater social competence, high academic performance and cognitive competence, and lower rates of emotional and behavioral problems (e.g., depression, low self-esteem, aggression) than found in children of either authoritarian or permissive parents.
Variables commonly studied in adolescents include academic performance, social psychosocial functioning, aggression, juvenile delinquency, and drug or alcohol problems. As in research with younger children, studies of adolescents have consistently found that authoritative parenting is related to better youth functioning (e.g., Lamborn et al., 1991; Steinberg et al., 1992).
Studies consistently found that authoritative parenting related positively to a variety of variables in children and adolescents.
More than 50 years after the concept of authoritative parenting first appeared, research on this style of childrearing continues. Since 2020, many studies have been published that link the style to a variety of positive characteristics. Among the findings: that authoritative parenting is related to prosocial behavior and more communication about sex-related topics; is associated with healthier diets in children; and protects against obesity, smoking and drinking, and mood disorders (e.g., depression) in children and youth.
This evidence is largely consistent both within and across cultures. For example, in the United States, authoritative parenting and academic achievement commonly co-occur, although there is some cultural variation. Similarly, despite minor regional variations, evidence from China, Russia, Pakistan, Spain, and many other countries is consistent: Authoritative parenting is associated with positive outcomes (Pinquart & Kauser, 2018).
The child’s role
One cautionary note concerns the role of the child. Researcher Catherine Lewis (1983) pointed out that Baumrind failed to account for the child’s role in eliciting parents’ behavior. She argued that competent children are more likely to bring about authoritative-type responses from their parents than are other children.
Picture a fatigued mother of a challenging child. She may need to be more controlling because her child is non-compliant. Or consider a father, tired of attempting to manage his son who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Although he might be viewed as a permissive parent, his prior childrearing practices likely made no substantive contribution to his son’s behavior.
In cross-sectional data about parenting styles, evidence about the child’s role suggests that parenting styles change with the age of the child. When children are younger, parents tend to be more controlling, but they become more permissive as their children grow older (e.g., Dornbusch et al., 1987).
Some limitations of authoritative parenting
As important and influential as the idea of an authoritative parenting style is, it can be faulted as being too simplistic. It reflects a broad brushstroke that attempts to capture the complex landscape of a parenting style.
The reality is that childrearing changes as the situation or behavioral domain (e.g., pertaining to morality, social convention, safety) merits. And the question initially raised by Lewis (1981) – whether childrearing is affected primarily by the parenting style or the child’s effect on the adult’s behavior – has not been adequately investigated.
The nature of the evidence supporting the efficacy of the authoritative approach is also limited. For ethical and practical reasons, we lack true experimental evidence to definitively determine the effects of parenting styles. Instead, researchers rely on correlational evidence and, all too often, on short self-report questionnaires to classify parents.
We also know little about the psychological mechanisms involved. Why does authoritative parenting promote optimal development (see Larzelere, Morris, & Harrist, 2013)?
A second neglected topic relates to examining the challenging social cognition processes required to balance socialization expectations with a child’s needs for nurturance. For example, authoritative parents must decide when and where to set limits, in contrast to making allowances for special circumstances (e.g., a sick child, a child acting out because of attention given to a younger sibling).
Developmental psychologists and parenting experts now agree that effective parents should engage in a style known as authoritative childrearing, which involves being responsive to the child but also having high socialization behavioral expectations and exerting appropriate guidance.
This consensus is based on largely consistent though correlational findings, from over half a century of studies from many countries, that these parenting qualities result in competent and well-adjusted children and youth. Although the concept has some limitations and questions remain, the basic premise is widely accepted that authoritative childrearing contains two of the key ingredients of effective parenting: responsivity and guidance.