The Authoritative Parent: High Standards with Responsive Support

In groundbreaking work that she began in the 1960’s, Diana Baumrind showed that there are systematic differences in the ways in which parents approach the task of parenting, and that different parenting styles affect children in different ways.  Since that time, research has identified at least four broad styles of parenting.   Parents differ in two basic dimensions:  the degree of demandingness and responsiveness.

Demandingness refers to the extent to which parents set and enforce high standards for their children’s behavior.   Parents who are demanding have high expectations for their children.  They tend to use their differential power in an attempt to influence children and prompt them to live up to those expectations.   Demanding parents tend to confront children’s misbehavior directly; they tend to take a stand on children’s behavior, even if doing so bings about parent-child conflict.   They tend to monitor children’s behavior both in and out of the home, and attempt to orient children toward parental values and desired outcomes throughout development.   Responsiveness refers to the extent to which parents are sensitive to their children’s emotional needs.  Responsive parents are attuned to their children’s needs, and consider the needs, perspectives and states of their children when interacting with them.  Responsive parents are highly communicative and interact with their children with warmth, love, nurturance and acceptance.  They tend to value reciprocity in parent-child interactions, show a willingness to adjust their behavior to the local wishes of children, and to find ways to support children’s attempts to influence their environments.   If we distinguish parents who exhibit, one the one hand, high versus low levels of demandingness, and, on the other, high and low levels of responsiveness, we get the four parenting styles described in the figure that accompanies this article.

Authoritarian parents show high levels of demandingness and low levels of responsiveness.   Authoritarian parents have clear ideas of the types of standards to which they want their children to conform and of who they want their children to become.  They tend to think of children in several related ways.  First, authoritarian parents tend to believe that because they know more than their children, it is their job to socialize children in terms of the parent’s beliefs and values.   Because parents know more, they have authority over their children.  Authoritarian parents value obedience; children are expected to respect their parent’s authority and act accordingly.  Second, authoritarian parents may think of children as if they were unformed lumps of clay that must be given shape by the external world.   If children come into the world unshaped and unformed, it is the parent’s job to shape a child’s behavior so that it conforms to the parent’s values and ideals.   Finally, some authoritarian parents may think of children as inherently oppositional wit dispositions that are inherently contrary to a parent’s authority.  From this view, children are like wild horses and must be tamed or trained to follow the orders and directives of the parent.    Because authoritarian parents value obedience to children’s authority, they show low levels of responsiveness to children’s needs; children are expected to conform to the wishes of parents, rather than vice-versa.

Permissive or indulgent show a profile that is the direct opposite of that of authoritarian parents.  Permissive parents show low levels of demandingness and high levels of responsiveness.    Like authoritarian parents, permissive parents tend to think of children in a series of different although related ways.   Some permissive parents think of children as if they were budding flowers.  From this “romantic” point of view, children are capable of directing their own development.  They are born with a sense of inner direction that should be fostered and supported rather than thwarted.   As budding flowers, children need warmth, sunshine and fertile soil in order to grow.  Too much direction from parents can thwart development, or cause children to develop along a false path.  Other parents adopt a permissive style out of a desire to encourage independence, self-reliance or individual initiative in their children.  From this view, children can be taught to be self-reliant by providing them with the freedom to explore and control their worlds.  Children learn through discover, experimentation and error.  As a result, the most important thing that parents can do is to provide their children with loving, warm and emotionally safe environment in which to develop and grow.

Authoritative parents exhibit both high levels of demandingness and high levels of responsiveness.    Authoritative parents recognize that their children are separate individuals with their own developing   interests.  However, they also believe that their children are incomplete beings who require deep parental guidance in order to develop into full-fledged persons who are capable of living successfully in society.  Like authoritarian parents, authoritative parents take a firm stance on their children’s behavior and attempt to bring children’s behavior in line with their beliefs and values.  However, unlike authoritarian parents, authoritative parents are not coercive.  They refrain from using threats, empty promises and punishments as vehicles to influence their children.  Instead, against the backdrop of clear limits and high expectations, they use reasoning in order to explain the basis of family rules and to show the importance of those rules for the developing child himself.  Like permissive parents, authoritative parents are sensitive to their children’s emotional needs and wishes.  They are highly communicative, accepting and responsive to their children’s needs.  However, unlike permissive parents, authoritative parents do not relinquish their authority when interacting with children.  They seek to establish authentic communication with their children.  That is, they are clear and honest in communicating their expectations and needs.  Whenever possible, authoritative parents attempt to advance their children’s interests and desires – but only within the parameters set by the parent’s own values and expectations.   Thus, while authoritative parents are sensitive to their children’s wishes, they do not allow children to make choices that fall outside of the parent’s limits and expectations.   In this way, authoritative parents promote children’s autonomy not by leaving them to their own devices, but instated by equipping them with the skills, knowledge and emotional resources that they need to make effective choices as they approach adulthood.

Disengaged or uninvolved parents exhibit low levels of both demandingness and responsiveness.   Disengaged parents tend to be uninvolved in their children’s lives and indifferent to their children, and place self-concerns above those of their children.   Parents who are disengaged may be emotionally distant, insensitive, or simply fail to interact with their children.   Alternatively, disengaged parents may be actively dismissing of their children’s emotional needs.  Disengaged parenting occurs in a variety of different homes.  These can include high-income homes where parents are more focused on careers than on their children, low-income families where parents work multiple jobs in order to make ends meet, or families that exhibit high levels of dysfunctionality.   Regardless of the source, disengaged parents fail to provide the degree of love, acceptance, security that responsive parents provide or the level of control, regulation and maturity demands that demanding parents do.   As a result, the intellectual, social and emotional outcomes of children of disengaged parents tend to be quite poor.