Whether a child will grow up a particular way because that’s how they were born or because of how they were raised has been a debate for many years. It’s called the nature versus nurture debate.
Today, most experts agree a combination of nature and nurture is what determines what your child will be like. So, the study of parenting styles may help you raise a confident, kind, successful child.
But what are the different parenting styles, and what impact do they have on our children?
What Are Parenting Styles?
Parenting styles are the broad ways in which a parent interacts with their child.
They reflect the emotional climate that is created by the way a parent guides, disciplines, and supports their child (1).
The details of how we care for our children may differ between families, but researchers have managed to group the strategies for how we raise our kids into four main types. These groupings are the four parenting styles:
They each have their own characteristics and consequences.
Why Are Parenting Styles Important?
Parenting styles shape the way our children grow and develop, in every way.
While some of your child’s personality and behavior will be a result of their inherent nature, a great deal of your child’s personality and how they interact with the world comes from the style in which they are parented.
Your parenting style can have an effect on the emotional, mental, and even physical development of your child. This impact can last their entire lives. It can influence their choice of career, how successful they are in work and personal relationships, and how your children raise their own kids.
Parenting Styles vs. Parenting Practices
A parenting style is the general, overarching way in which you interact with your child. Parenting practices are the individual, specific actions you take.
So, when defining the parenting style of a mother or father, you don’t look at a single action they may take or even a handful of actions. Instead, you look at the actions taken over a sustained period.
Then you consider the “feel” of how the parent and child interact and the general emotional climate those interactions create. This is a person’s parenting style.
Parenting practices are the specific actions a parent takes when interacting with their child.
If you are trying to define your own parenting style, you would make a note of your specific actions across a variety of different situations. These individual actions are parenting practices.
When you look at those practices as a whole, a pattern is likely to emerge, and it is this pattern of practices that is a person’s parenting style.
What Are the Four Types of Parenting Styles?
In 1967, Diana Baumrind, a developmental psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley, published groundbreaking research. She identified four elements that she believed shaped how successful or unsuccessful someone was in their parenting (2).
These elements were responsiveness vs. unresponsiveness and demanding vs. undemanding. Baumrind used these to identify three parenting styles. Those parenting styles are permissive parenting, authoritarian parenting and authoritative parenting.
Building on Baumrind’s work, two researchers, Eleanor Maccoby and John Martin, published a study in 1983. This work split the permissive parenting style identified by Baumrind into two distinct types — indulgent parenting and neglectful parenting (3).
Since then, additional styles of parenting continue to emerge, including free-range parenting, and attachment parenting.
However, these are not definitions of parenting styles that have been developed by psychologists. Instead, they are styles of parenting that are defined more by their cultural nature and the philosophy behind them than the overarching emotional nature of the main four parenting styles.
Let’s take a closer look at the four main styles.
Authoritative parenting is characterized by warm, supportive, parent-child interaction with clear, consistent rules and expectations.
An authoritative parent has high, but achievable, expectations of their child. They provide support to help their children meet them. They communicate openly and clearly with their child, providing guidance and using reasoning in a two-way discussion.
However, authoritative parents are not pushovers. While they are willing to discuss and reason with their children, they have no problem setting rules and sticking to them. If their kids break the rules, an authoritative parent will employ a positive style of discipline, correcting the misbehavior and teaching their child to make better choices.
In the case of a child who is trying to stay up past bedtime, an authoritative parent will listen to their child’s feelings and requests. If they are valid, the parent will be willing to adapt. But if they are only excuses to stay up, the authoritative parent will kindly, but firmly, insist the child returns to bed, and there will be consequences for failing to do so.
Authoritarian parenting is characterized by high expectations and high levels of discipline, without warmth, guidance, or support.
An authoritarian parent sets high standards for behaviors and achievements. However, they then do nothing to help their child meet those standards.
The communication of an authoritarian parent is all one way. They are not interested in providing explanations, hearing what their child has to say, or answering their child’s reasonable questions.
This type of parent expects blind, unquestioning obedience from their child and places no value on independent thought. They utilize punishment rather than discipline when their child breaks a rule or fails to meet an expected standard.
In the case of a child who doesn’t want to go to bed, the authoritarian parent will not be willing to listen to anything their child has to say. Instead, this style of parent is apt to punish the child immediately for non-compliance and will not provide any rationale or context to the punishment.
Permissive parenting is characterized by low expectations and excessive responsiveness to a child’s perceived needs.
A permissive parent makes few, if any, demands of their child and does little to promote their child’s independence. Often, the child is the one communicating their demands, and the parent is the one listening and meeting those demands.
While they are warm and loving, those with a permissive parenting style set minimal rules and are often reluctant to enforce them.
If a child wants to stay up past bedtime, the permissive parent will be unwilling to upset their child by enforcing the rules. Instead, they are likely to allow their child to get up and stay awake until the child is ready to go to bed.
The uninvolved parenting style is characterized by little interest in setting boundaries or providing warmth, guidance, or support.
An uninvolved parent makes few, if any, demands on their child and does not set many appropriate rules or boundaries. The few rules and behavioral boundaries that are set are rarely, if ever, enforced.
There is little in the way of meaningful communication from the uninvolved parent, and they do nothing to encourage meaningful communication from their child.
Uninvolved parents may or may not be overtly neglectful. Some do provide the basic necessities of food, shelter, and proper physical care, but they do not provide appropriate emotional, cultural, or social support, warmth, or guidance.
In the case of a child who does not want to go to bed, the uninvolved parent is unlikely to take notice of their child getting up again. They will not be interested in why their child wants to get up, nor will they be interested in interacting with their child. The uninvolved parenting style is best summed up by the word “whatever.”
Newer Parenting Styles
The categorizations of many “new” parenting styles have their roots in psychology but are used today in a cultural or social context.
The term “helicopter parent” was first used in Dr. Haim Ginott’s 1969 book Parents & Teenagers by teens who said their parents would hover over them like a helicopter. However, it is not a psychological classification and rose to common use in the early 1990s (4).
Meanwhile “free-range parenting” was coined by Lenore Skenazy, a New York Sun columnist who wrote a story about letting her 9-year-old son ride the New York subway alone (5).
The helicopter parenting style is characterized by a high level of parental focus on a child’s achievements, coupled with high levels of parental fear of failure.
A helicopter parent has high expectations of achievement, but instead of letting their child fail and learn valuable lessons from that failure, they will hover over their child, interfering to ensure success.
Rules are set, but helicopter parents jump in rather than let their child break them and learn.
Rather than provide guidance and support, a helicopter parent will jump in and take over in many situations, resulting in a child with low self-esteem along with high levels of fear and anxiety. For example, a student who gets a poor grade in school may not have the opportunity to talk to a teacher to see what went wrong. The parent may call the teacher to discuss it instead of letting the child resolve it.
Free-range parenting is characterized by providing a high level of freedom and independence to a child, coupled with warmth and guidance.
However, free-range parenting is a cultural, subjective term. A parent in one state may allow their 9-year-old child to go to the park alone and this is seen as socially and legally acceptable.
In another state, it may be illegal. The parent may find themselves charged with neglect and potentially face their child being taken into protective care (6).
Instinctive parenting is characterized more by what it doesn’t do than what it does. Instinctive parents rely on listening to their inner voice and do not override that voice in favor of expert advice without good cause.
They may be warm, loving, and provide appropriate guidance and discipline, or they may not.
Attachment parenting is characterized by a focus on building a close emotional bond with your child. Parents who practice attachment parenting may or may not set rules and boundaries for their child, and they may or may not enforce them.
Two-way communication is actively encouraged. However, levels of behavioral, social, and academic expectations vary, as does the amount of guidance and support provided.
Slow parenting is characterized by a lack of structured activity. These parents believe that by filling your child’s time with scheduled and structured activities, your kids will not have enough time and space to discover things on their own.
This parenting style is synonymous with the wider slow movement.
Dolphin parenting is a term coined by Shimi Kang in her book, The Dolphin Way. In this book, Kang talks about how parents should reach a balance between the “jellyfish” parent who does not set rules and the “tiger” parent who is too strict.
The term is meant to reflect “the playful nature of dolphins” but it is basically authoritative parenting by a different name.
How Do Parenting Styles Affect Kids?
The desired end game for most parents is raising a responsible, happy child who grows up respectful and into a contributing member of society. So, which of these parenting methods will help you reach that goal?
Authoritative parenting is said to raise kids who have learned from their own mistakes. They understand and generally respect rules and boundaries.
These children are better equipped to cope with adversity and problems in adulthood. It’s because they have been allowed to make mistakes and experience failures, but, crucially, have received support and guidance on how to cope.
Children of authoritative parents are the most likely to grow into adults who are emotionally well adjusted, take responsibility for their own actions, and find happiness and success (7).
Authoritarian parenting is said to raise kids who either:
- Are anxious and fearful of failure because it is equated with punishment. They may be unable to cope with problems in adulthood because they have not had the opportunity to develop appropriate coping skills in childhood. These children grow into adults who have low self-esteem, may be easily bullied, and struggle to find success and happiness.
- Rebellious and have no respect for rules or boundaries. They are also unable to cope with rules and boundaries in adulthood, but instead of reacting to adversity with fear, they react with anger.
These children are more likely to grow into adults who experience trouble with the law, are bullies in their relationships, and struggle to find success and happiness.
This style of parenting is more popular in certain cultures than others, especially in cultures where being respected is a top priority.
Permissive parenting is said to raise kids who are unable to self-regulate because they never had to control themselves during childhood. Having their parents’ love and devotion, without rules or boundaries, often make these kids feel they are the center of the universe, leading to adults with an inflated sense of self.
Because their parents jumped in to do everything for them, these children never learn appropriate coping skills when something doesn’t go their way.
These children are most likely to turn into adults who have problems with rules and structure and have poor self-control. This can lead to difficulties at work and in relationships, especially as they struggle to consider another person’s point of view or make compromises.
Uninvolved parenting is said to result in kids who struggle to follow rules and appropriate social boundaries. They have impulse issues and, because their parents do not provide support or guidance, they also have few appropriate coping skills.
These children are most likely to grow into adults who struggle with addiction, have low-self esteem, and:
- Are unable to stand up for themselves, cannot cope with life’s adversities, and struggle to find success.
- Bully others, do not cope well when they encounter problems, and have a tendency to break the rules.
Children of helicopter parents are said to grow into either:
- Anxious adults who are paralyzed by the fear of making a mistake. These adults also have minimal coping skills and low-self esteem.
- Angry adults who rebel against their parents’ high expectations and overbearing manner.
Limitations and Criticisms of Parenting Studies
Parenting studies identify links between particular parenting styles, but they do not prove that the style causes particular outcomes.
Do warm and loving authoritative parents behave in a way that causes their child to be loving and well-behaved? Or is a loving and well-behaved child more likely to cause their parents to adopt an authoritative parenting style.
Parenting style is also not the only influence on our children. We each have a particular personality, and we are also influenced by teachers, our peer groups, and the social and cultural norms in which we grow up.
Except in the case of extreme circumstances, it is virtually impossible to separate any of these influences and then pinpoint their exact impact on the adults we turn out to be.
Finally, we have the potential to change as adults, so parenting style may affect how we turn out at one stage of adulthood, but not in another.
What Parenting Style Is Best?
While there is no definitive proof about which type is best, it is generally accepted that the balanced approach of authoritative parenting is best.
Various cultures and demographics place different values on a variety of emotional and social traits.
In some cultures, it is important for people to be blindly obedient. Little value is placed on personal, emotional success, and happiness.
In a culture of this type, authoritarian parenting may be seen as best.
How to Become a More Authoritative Parent
If you want to become a more authoritative parent, we have some tips for you:
- Listen to your child when they are telling you about their day, or something that has happened. Also, listen when they are sharing their thoughts and feelings.
- If you are unable to give your child appropriate attention on their timetable, explain why, and when you will be able to chat or play. This teaches your child that they are not the center of the universe, but they are still important.
- Consider your child’s feelings and let them know you are considering them. This does not mean acting in a way that never upsets them. Instead, it is about acknowledging your child’s feelings and offering explanations, but continue to set clear rules and explain them to your child ahead of time.
- When your child does break a rule, ensure your level of discipline matches the severity of the rule breaking. If it is a minor rule, consider a warning, but for a more significant transgression, consider something more significant.
- When you discipline your child, take the time to explain that “X” is happening because of “Y” behavior. Then, reiterate what the correct behavior is in those circumstances.
- Let your children try things independently when it is safe to do so, and let them learn from their mistakes.
- Model the type of behavior you expect from your child.
- Teach your child how to take responsibility for their words and actions. Do not shield them from the consequences of their behaviors.
Which Kind of Parent Am I?
Not everyone falls neatly into one kind of parenting style 100 percent of the time. Your parenting style might be influenced by your culture and background.
It could be that you are generally an authoritative parent, but from time to time you adopt a more permissive approach.
If this sounds like you, don’t worry. It’s normal to have a “main” parenting style and to adopt another style from time to time.
Parenting styles are important, but don’t let the fear of “messing up” your child prevent you from being a parent.
We all make mistakes in parenting — no parent is perfect.
So, don’t try to be. Instead, concentrate on being the best parent you can be and acknowledge your mistakes and pledge to do better next time.