Parents influence their children through specific practices, like encouraging them to play outdoors, or helping them with their homework. But parenting is more than a set of specific practices. What about the overall approach that parents take to guiding, controlling, and socializing their kids? The attitudes that parents have about their children, and the resulting emotional climate that creates.
It’s this general pattern–this emotional climate–those researchers refer to as “parenting style” (Darling and Steinberg 1993). And research suggests that parenting styles have important effects on the ways that children develop.
So how do psychologists distinguish one parenting style from another?
It started in the 1960s with psychologist Diane Baumrind. She noted that the very idea of parental control–of adults acting as authority figures–had fallen into disrepute. Maybe that’s because people were equating “control” with blind obedience, harsh punishments, and domineering, manipulative behaviour (Baumrind 1966).
To avoid perils of authoritarianism, many parents tried the opposite approach. They put very few demands on their children, avoiding any sort of parental control at all. To Baumrind, these were choices between two extremes. Wasn’t there a compromise? A moderate approach that fosters self-discipline, responsibility, and independence? So Baumrind proposed three distinct parenting styles:
Authoritarian parenting, which emphasizes blind obedience, stern discipline, and controlling children through punishments–which may include the withdrawal of parental affection.
Permissive parenting, which is characterized by emotional warmth and a reluctance to enforce rules, and
Authoritative parenting, a more balanced approach in which parents expect kids to meet certain behavioural standards, but also encourage their children to think for themselves and to develop a sense of autonomy.
Later, researchers added a fourth style, uninvolved parenting (Maccoby and Martin 1983).
Uninvolved parents are like permissive parents in their failure to enforce standards. But unlike permissive parents, uninvolved parents are not nurturing and warm. They provided kids with food and shelter, but not much else.
In addition to adding a new category to Baumrind’s original scheme, researchers have re-stated her definitions in terms of two dimensions—” responsiveness” and “demandingness.”
Responsiveness is “the extent to which parents intentionally foster individuality, self-regulation, and self-assertion by being attuned, supportive, and acquiescent to children’s special needs and demands” (Baumrind 1991).
Demandingness refers to “the claims parents make on children to become integrated into the family whole, by their maturity demands, supervision, disciplinary efforts and willingness to confront the child who disobeys” (Baumrind 1991).
Both of these qualities are desirable, hence authoritative parenting–which is both responsive and demanding–is considered the optimal style.
Other styles are missing one or both qualities. Authoritarian parenting is demanding but not responsive. Permissive parenting is responsive but not demanding. And uninvolved parenting is neither demanding nor responsive.
Do people really sort neatly into one of these categories? Isn’t it possible for a parent to combine more than one style, or fail to fit into this scheme altogether?
I think the answer is clearly yes. This scheme is very useful, but like any attempt to categorize human behaviour, it has its limitations.
So, the four basic parenting styles represent a continuum. Some parents might straddle the line between authoritarianism and authoritativeness. Other parents might find themselves on the border between authoritativeness and permissiveness.