Research shows there are four different parenting styles but only one tends to result in strong, resilient kids.
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Those first few weeks and months of being a parent are etched into my memory.
Arriving home from the birth center after my eldest was born felt like entering a new world.
Suddenly, what I did mattered. My life was no longer about me but also about this tiny human. Questions filled my mind.
First, there were the sleep issues. After spending many nights holding and rocking our infant to sleep, my husband and I wondered if we were spoiling her with this constant attention.
Then, as she began to crawl – and get into anything and everything – we questioned how to respond to her misdeeds.
Months later, when the tantrums came, we weren’t sure what to do: hold our line with what was right, or comfort her as she began to meltdown?
Finding answers to these questions was difficult. Which parenting techniques were best, and which would have the most positive impact on our daughter and our relationship with her?
Different parenting styles and how they affect children
Parenting challenges like these aren’t easy. There are many ways parents can respond.
But rather than get into the details of what to say or do, it can be more helpful to learn which parenting style, according to research, tends to lead to the outcomes we’re looking for – such as kids with better emotional health, social skills, more resiliency, and more secure attachments with their parents.
Before highlighting which is best, here are the four different parenting styles researchers have identified:
Neglectful: At best, these parents are indifferent to their kids. At worst, they are negligent. Kids are often left with little supervision and low expectations.
Authoritarian: This is a parenting style characterized by high demands and low responsiveness. Authoritarian parents have very high expectations of their children, but usually provide very little feedback and nurturance. Any mistake made by the child tends to be punished harshly. There is little emotional warmth between parent and child. Children are expected to obey their parents no matter what.
Authoritative: Different than authoritarian. Authoritative parents are warm and loving with their kids but also have high expectations of them. Kids are seen as individual rational beings with thoughts and ideas of their own but who still need parental guidance and boundaries. Authoritative parents enforce rules, but also explain them. These parents are active in their kids’ lives but don’t let their kids get away with bad behavior.
Permissive: Permissive parents make very few demands of their children and tend to attend to their child’s every need and want. They establish few rules or expectations, so discipline rarely occurs or is applied inconsistently. Permissive parents are often very loving and play the role of a non-judgemental friend rather than a parental figure.
The best way to parent, according to science
Of the four different parenting styles, researchers generally agree that the authoritative hybrid blend of being responsive to kids’ needs while also providing boundaries is the best approach.
Here’s why it works: When parents are emotionally available and warm to kids, they form a bond. Since authoritative parents listen to their kids’ needs and respond when necessary, a trust is formed between parent and child.
But authoritative parents also know that even though there is a loving bond between them and their kids, their kids still need parental support and structure to develop self-regulatory skills and competence.
While culture and the temperament of the child can also play a role in the effectiveness of authoritative parenting, researchers generally find that children raised by authoritative parents tend to:
- Be independent, responsible, and make good decisions on their own (because their parents have given them the structure and freedom to do so)
- Have respect for adults, other people, and rules but don’t equate obedience with love (as is the case with kids raised by authoritarian parents)
- Trust that their parents have their best interests at heart
- Be more empathetic, kind, and warm
- Be more resistant to peer pressure
Books that provide guidance in authoritative parenting:
What this means in the real world
Attempting to be responsive to kids’ needs while also providing boundaries sounds simple enough. But in practice, it can be a balancing act.
Let’s say your daughter is frustrated with her math homework, so she refuses to do it. How should you respond?
On the one hand, she needs loving support to build confidence in her math abilities, on the other, she needs to know that skipping math homework isn’t an option.
So what would an authoritative parent do?
In most situations, you’ll find that striking a balance between responsiveness and setting boundaries comes down to answering these two questions in the affirmative:
- Does my child feel like their worries/fears/concerns are being heard and acknowledged?
- Will my action support my child while also making sure they’re practicing the skills (both life skills and critical thinking skills) they’ll need as an adult?
The first action will let your child know you’re listening to them and being respectful of their feelings. You could say something like: “It sounds like you really don’t like math. What is it about math you don’t like?”
Once it’s clear that your child feels heard, it’s time to discuss the reasons why he or she must do their homework. To get more buy-in from your child, ask them to come up with solutions for how he or she will make that happen.
But let’s be honest…
Things don’t always go as smoothly as we’d hope.
Even if we’ve listened carefully to our kids, while at the same time tried to provide structure, kids may still push back.
In this case, even as tempting as it is to simply put our foot down or throw up our hands, the best thing to do is to stay the course and keep at it.
In this situation, having a “first things, first” rule tends to get kids’ attention. For example, in the math case, if a child is still refusing to do their homework a parent could say: “OK, but just know that you can’t watch a video or play with your friends until we find a solution.”
The reality is that there will be times when the balance of being responsive yet providing boundaries is forgotten and instead you hear yourself saying: “skipping homework is not an option! Get to work now!”
Parenting kids is never easy. And we’re bound to make mistakes along the way. But in time, and with practice (sometimes a lot of practice), using authoritative parenting techniques will become more natural and ultimately help our children grow into the adults we hope them to be.
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