It’s common to hear older generations talk about how much more freedom children are given nowadays, compared to stricter upbringings of decades past. And many think that’s a good thing, preferring more lenient child-rearing methods. However, a childhood with no boundaries can be problematic too. So, what’s the middle ground?
Authoritative parenting is the best parenting style because it provides children with appropriate boundaries that build character while being flexible enough to take their individuality into account. In contrast, there are authoritarian (overly strict) and permissive (overly lenient) styles.
Let’s look at the major parenting styles recognized by psychologists and get a feel for each to better understand how authoritative parenting outshines the others. Then we’ll dive deeper into what it means to be an authoritative parent.
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Types of Parenting Styles
According to psychologists and delineated in Psychology Today, there are four main parenting styles:
Every parent falls into one of these styles, whether they realize it or not.
Often, parents unthinkingly repeat the parenting style they were raised with, which isn’t always a good thing. The more we learn about different child-rearing approaches, the more conscious we can be about the method we choose to take.
On one end of the spectrum is authoritarian (or “tough love”) parenting. In this style, what the parent says goes, and the child’s wants are not considered. Punishment for failure is much more common than rewarding success or giving extra support when needed.
Examples of authoritarian parenting:
- Using “because I said so” rather than explaining rules or demands
- Overly-restrictive, inflexible rules that can’t be ‘bent’
- Using punishment as motivation rather than positive reinforcement
Kids with authoritarian parents tend to be quiet and obedient and lack the ability to express their own opinions. It’s not uncommon for them to rebel once the teenage years hit, where they attempt to regain control for themselves.
On the opposite end of the extreme is permissive parenting, which is just what it sounds like. Permissive parents let their kids do pretty much whatever they want, with few or no boundaries and no enforcement of any rules that do exist.
Where authoritarian parents see themselves as the ultimate, unquestioned authority, permissive parents see themselves as the child’s friend. This leaves the child to push family and societal boundaries as they grow to more and more extremes simply to find out if someone cares enough to stop them.
Examples of permissive parenting:
- Unlimited video games and television use
- Lack of supervision while using the internet and interacting with other children
- Refusal to say “no” to the child
While it may seem like permissive parenting is a child’s dream come true, in reality, it leads to anxiety, insecurity, and lack of self-discipline.
Permissive parents mean well, but their failure to set and enforce boundaries will inhibit the child’s character growth and possibly open the door to dangerous situations, especially in unsupervised internet use, contact with friend groups and even playdates.
As you’ve probably guessed, authoritative parenting is a middle-ground approach that involves setting flexible boundaries for your child and using respectful discussion and positive reinforcement to encourage the child to follow the rules.
An authoritative parent sees his or herself as the child’s guide, allowing the child to express their feelings and foster mature decision-making abilities.
Examples of authoritative parenting:
- Providing fair, clear guidelines for behavior
- Using consistent discipline when necessary
- Allowing children to express opinions and explore alternatives
Children raised in a home with authoritative parents tend to be mature, respectful, and happy. They’re usually good communicators and independent thinkers.
Uninvolved or neglectful parents put virtually no effort into raising their children, failing to set boundaries, or respond to the child’s needs.
At first look, these parents can seem permissive since the children usually do whatever they please. However, the important difference is that permissive parents don’t set boundaries because they don’t want to hurt the child’s feelings, whereas neglectful parents are completely indifferent.
Uninvolved parenting has the following traits:
- Little or no supervision
- No boundaries or guidance
- Refusal to show interest in or warmth towards the child
Fortunately, most parents fall into one of the healthier first three camps; this is good since neglected children often grow up depressed, immature, and more likely to self-harm than others.
How to Be an Authoritative Parent
Now that you know more about the different parenting styles, you probably have a pretty good idea of which one most closely matches your own style. However, if you want to lean more towards balanced, authoritative parenting, try following the below tips:
Set Clear, Reasonable Boundaries
A healthy upbringing consists of clear, reasonable boundaries that help the child make good decisions. While you don’t want to strictly monitor your child’s every move, it’s useful to set boundaries around:
- Electronics and internet use
- Healthy dieting
- School performance
- Interaction with siblings, other children, and pets
The more clear your child is on what’s expected, the more likely they’ll be able to meet your expectations.
If you would like a deep dive into this type of parenting, Robert MacKenzie gives you a practical guide in his popular parenting book Setting Limits with Your Strong-Willed Child found here at Amazon.
Encourage Open Communication
It’s vital to set and enforce boundaries, but expecting blind obedience isn’t necessarily reasonable or healthy. Explain to your child why rules are in place so they learn critical thinking skills (I shouldn’t touch the stove because I may burn myself) that they will be able to apply later in life.
It’s also important to make sure your child feels heard; don’t punish them for expressing unhappiness about a particular boundary. Allowing the child to express discontent will let him or her know that you care, even if that doesn’t mean they get their way.
This helps the child learn to have respectful, calm conversations over disagreements, rather than repressing or blowing up.
In helping your child behave properly while giving them a sense of autonomy, it’s often useful to provide choices. For example, you can ask:
- “What veggies do you want for lunch: peas or green beans?”
- “It’s time to get ready for bed. Do you want to wear your blue PJs or your red ones?”
- “Today’s not an electronics day; do you want to read or play outside instead?”
The more choice your child feels he or she has, the more likely they will act appropriately without issue.
Validate Your Child’s Emotions
As children learn to regulate their emotions, it often leads to poor decisions and a lack of impulse control. You will need to redirect certain behavior that might stem from this, of course, like hitting or yelling.
But simply stopping the behavior isn’t enough—it’s important to help the child understand the feeling that led to the action and how to handle the emotion better the next time it arises.
Punishing the behavior without examining the underlying cause just teaches the child that it’s not okay to feel certain emotions, which is not what we want to do.
Offer Early Warnings (and Follow Through on Them)
Clear, early warnings are the authoritative parent’s best weapon against unwanted behavior. The “if this, then that” approach works well to set clear expectations and what will follow if expectations aren’t met. For example:
- “If you don’t do your homework, then you’re not getting dessert tonight.”
- “If you don’t finish your chores, then your TV privileges are suspended for the rest of the day.”
Just as important as clear, early warnings are consistency and follow-through. Give one warning, then follow through on it; otherwise, your child will learn that the warnings mean nothing.
As you can see, authoritative parenting is neither too strict nor too easygoing, giving your child flexible boundaries and open communication. You don’t want to create robotic children who do whatever they’re told without thinking, but you don’t want your kids running wild, either. Authoritative parenting provides a nice balance, leading to happy, well-adjusted children.