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The authoritative parenting style: An evidence-based guide

What is authoritative parenting? The authoritative parenting style is an approach to child-rearing that combines warmth, sensitivity, and the setting of limits. Parents use positive reinforcement and reasoning to guide children. They avoid resorting to threats or punishments. This approach is common in educated, middle class families, and linked with superior child outcomes throughout the world. For example, kids raised by authoritative parents are more likely to become independent, self-reliant, socially accepted, academically successful, and well-behaved. They are also less likely to report depression and anxiety, and less likely to engage in antisocial behavior like delinquency and drug use. And research suggests that having at least one authoritative parent can make a big difference. But what exactly sets the authoritative parenting style apart? How is it different from authoritarian parenting? How do experts decide if you’re an authoritative parent, or practicing some other parenting style?  And why, exactly, do researchers think authoritativeness breeds success? Here is an overview. The authoritative parenting style: The original definition The authoritative parenting style was first defined by developmental psychologist Diane Baumrind, who proposed a new system for classifying parents. Her idea was to focus on the way parents attempted to control their kids. She recognized three major approaches to parental control: Permissive parents are warm and responsive, but reluctant to impose rules or standards. They prefer to let their kids regulate themselves. Authoritarian parents show less warmth and sensitivity, and insist on blind obedience. They attempt to enforce compliance through punishments, threats, and psychological control. Authoritative parents are warm and responsive, like permissive parents. But where permissive parents shrink away from enforcing standards, authoritative parents embrace it. They expect maturity and cooperation…as much as is appropriate for a child’s developmental level. And they try to guide behavior by reasoning with their kids. In subsequent studies, researchers also recognized a fourth style, sometimes called “neglectful parenting,” where parents lack warmth and fail to enforce standards. Which parenting style is associated with the best outcomes? There is overwhelming evidence that kids need parental warmth to thrive. Nurturing, responsive parenting leads to better emotional, cognitive, and behavioral outcomes. As I explain elsewhere, it even protects kids from toxic stress. So the parenting styles that feature warmth and responsiveness — authoritative and permissive parenting — are better overall than the remaining alternatives. There is also evidence favoring authoritative parenting as the “best” style. For example, when it comes to reducing sibling conflicts, authoritative approach might be the only effective option. And the cross-cultural trend — observed in most studies — is that authoritative parenting is linked with better academic performance. Are there any complications or controversies? Sure. As I note below, the effects of parenting style are partly influenced by culture. And a group of researchers in Spain have argued that “permissive” or “indulgent” parenting is better than authoritative parenting for chidren’s emotional well-being. But I don’t think these points move the needle very much. Authoritative parenting has advantages over authoritarian parenting in most cultural settings, and when you delve into the details of the “indulgent” versus “authoritative” debate, it looks like like the argument is really over semantics. The Spanish research group seems to be equating “authoritative parenting” with practices that I would call authoritarian. And their profile of “indulgent” parenting seems to align closely with what other researchers usually refer to as “authoritative.” The research offers important insights into the kind of bossiness and intrusiveness that is linked with worse outcomes. But — after you adjust for the researchers’ different use of terminology — the results don’t seem to challenge the benefits of authoritative parenting. So what’s the key difference between authoritative parenting and permissive parenting? Limit-setting.  Permissive parents and authoritative parents share an approach that is responsive, nurturing, and involved. Both show respect for children as independent beings. But unlike permissive parents, authoritative parents don’t let their kids get away with bad behavior. Authoritative parents take a firm stand, insisting that their kids to behave responsibly. And what’s the key difference between authoritative and authoritarian parenting? It’s all about the exercise of power. Think of the authoritarian parent as a drill sergeant. Do it now, or else! The drill sergeant tries to get his way through threats and coercion.  By contrast, the authoritative parent aims to inspire cooperation by fostering positive feelings, and teaching kids the reasons for the rules.  Authoritative parents communicate lots of warmth to their kids. They avoid using harsh or arbitrary punishments. They are less likely to shame their kids, or attempt to control kids by withdrawing love. And when their children make mistakes or misbehave, they talk with them about it. They listen to their children’s concerns, and take them into account. They help kids figure out what went wrong, and explain the consequences of good and bad behavior.  So while they have similar-looking names, there is a big difference between authoritative and authoritarian parenting. Authoritative parents aren’t just trying to enforce compliance. They recognize and encourage a child’s sense of autonomy. They want kids to develop self-discipline, maturity, and a respect for others. And they approach these goals by offering concrete advice and emotional support. Summed up, some researchers have described it this way: Authoritative parents are highly demanding (like authoritarian parents), but they are also very responsive to their children’s needs. That’s the classic definition of the authoritative parenting style, and, using this definition, researchers have identified the authoritative parents throughout the world. But not every authoritative parent runs his or her family the same way. There is some important variation, particularly when it comes to how much of a “vote” children get during family decision-making. How do you practice authoritative parenting? It’s one thing to read a definition, and another to put it into practice. How can you tell if you are acting like an authoritative parent? When researchers want to identify an individual’s parenting style, they often use a kind of rubric or questionnaire. For example, one popular questionnaire was developed by Clyde Robinson and his colleagues. It presents the parent with a series of statements, and asks the parent to rate his or her agreement on a four-point scale (1= “almost never true”, 4 = “almost always true”). Authoritative parents tend to agree with statements like these: I take my child’s wishes and feelings into consideration before I ask her to do something I encourage my child to talk about his feelings I try to help when my child is scared or upset I provide my child with reasons for the expectations I have for her I respect my child’s opinion and encourage him or her to express them…even if they are different from my own And parents are judged to be less authoritative if they agree with these statements: I ignore my child’s misbehavior I bribe my child to get him to comply with my wishes I explode in anger toward my child I punish my child by withdrawing affection This is just a small sample of the kinds of items that appear on the questionnaire. Parents don’t have to tick all the “right” boxes. Instead, they are given an overall score, and their parenting style is classified as “authoritative” if it reaches a particular threshold. But there isn’t any one, universally-accepted litmus test. For instance, the statements above might make it seem that you have to run your family like a mini-democracy in order to be authoritative. But that isn’t the case. Or maybe you’re wondering about which rules you are supposed to impose. Keep your room clean? Don’t play video games after you’ve finished your homework? Depending on your priorities, beliefs, and assessment of your child’s maturity level, you might think these are important rules. Or you might not.   As we’ll see below, the classic definition of authoritative parenting allows for variation in these areas. And different researchers have used different screening tools to decide who’s “authoritative.”   For example, the researchers working in Spain have scored parents as “authoritative” if they agreed with statements like “I insist…