Parenting Styles

How we parent our children is not something many of us think about very often. In the day-to-day challenges of parenting, we make thousands of choices about how to interact with and raise our children. All of those choices translate into a specific style of parenting that forever impacts our children.

What is a parenting “style”?
As every parent knows, everyone seems to have an opinion when it comes to raising children. How you discipline your child, how you potty train, even how you teach your child to sleep through the night. All of these individual choices about parenting amount to a general style that you’ve developed.

Of course, every parent is a little different, but professionals have developed three categories that most parents fit into: authoritarian, authoritative, and permissive.

Authoritarian: If we think of these three styles on a spectrum, we can start all the way on the right with authoritarian. Parents who use this style of parenting expect high levels of conformity and compliance from their children, and tend to show little warmth or connection with their children. They usually set very high standards for their children, but do not explain the reasoning for their rules and expectations. If a child of an authoritarian parent asks, “Why?”, the parent will typically respond with, “Because I said so.” Authoritarian parents often try to be in control of their children. For example, they may hover while a child is playing with a friend and reprimand or control the situation, rather than letting the child deal with the interaction on his or her own. Authoritarian parents tend to focus on the negative actions of a child rather than the positive. They are more likely to reprimand for bad behavior, (“Why haven’t you cleaned up your toys yet?”) than encourage good behavior when they see it happening (“You did great job making your bed!”). Studies have shown that authoritarian parents are more likely to hit their children as a form of punishment rather than grounding or giving a time out. If a child throws a toy at a sibling, the reaction he gets from an authoritarian parent could be a harsh scolding and even a spanking, without explanation or understanding.

Children of authoritarian parents can find it hard to take initiative or do anything on their own; they may lack spontaneity and curiosity and have general problems thinking for themselves.

Democratic or Authoritative: If we move to the middle of the spectrum, we reach authoritative, or democratic, parenting. Authoritative parenting is often described as having a child-centered approach. These parents have high expectations of compliance to rules and direction, but allow for an open dialogue with their children about those rules and behavior in general. Authoritative parents encourage independence in their children, unlike authoritarian parents. They set limits and demand maturity, but will always explain why they are setting a rule or punishing their children. One of the key habits of a authoritative parent is reinforcing good behavior in their children, rather than only pointing out and punishing the bad. They might say, “You did great job making your bed! Now let’s get these toys cleaned up so we can go outside and play.” If an authoritative parent sees his or her child throw a toy at a sibling, they might take the toy away from the child as punishment, and then explain that because they threw the toy and hurt someone, it will be taken away until they can play with it nicely.

In general, most child development experts agree that the authoritative style of parenting leads to more responsible, successful children with better self esteem and independence.

Permissive: All the way to the left of the spectrum we find permissive parents. These parents have very few behavioral expectations for their children, and are usually warm and nurturing. Permissive parents rarely discipline or punish their children, and the few rules they do establish are rarely strictly enforced. They give children as many choices as possible, even if a child is not capable of making a good decision at his or her particular age. Permissive parents do not set clear boundaries, and tend to accept their child’s behavior regardless if it is good or bad. If a permissive parent were in the same situation and saw their child throw a toy at a sibling, they would simply do nothing.

Children of permissive parents tend to have problems with self control and accepting responsibility, and are often emotionally immature.

I’m somewhere in the middle…
Very few parents fit into any one category all the time. In fact, many of us feel like we’ve been all over the spectrum on our good and bad days of parenting. The general consensus is that parents should work to be authoritative – or somewhere along the middle of the spectrum – in their parenting, as it leads to happier, well-adjusted, more independent children with higher self esteem. Here are some simple techniques:

  1. Focus on your child. When you become a parent, it’s not just about YOU anymore. You have a job—and a difficult one at that—which requires you to focus and do what is best for your child. Your goal, in all of your parenting actions, should be to raise a confident, happy and healthy child. If you keep that thought in your mind, some decisions about parenting may come easier. Ask yourself, “How will this help my child?”
  2. Reinforce positive behavior. When your child does something well, tell them! By reinforcing positive behavior, you’re teaching them how to behave (rather than pointing out how not to) while boosting their self esteem. This takes energy! It’s often easier to only notice when a child does something wrong. Make it a point to look for good behavior and respond with positive comments, such as, “You did a great job setting the table,” or “I really liked the way you helped your brother with his homework.”
  3. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. Your goal is to have wide open channels of communication with your child. If you have a rule you expect your child to follow, explain it to them. If they have a question about it, or want to argue their point, give them the chance to do so in appropriate ways. This allows children to experiment with forming their own opinions, expressing themselves in a safe environment and learning how to better communicate in general.
  4. Offer appropriate choices. Asking a toddler what he wants for dinner is just not an age-appropriate way to provide choices. A question like that can be overwhelming and is bound to result in you telling him “no” and trumping his opinion. At this age, it’s more appropriate to ask, “Would you like rice or potatoes with dinner?” A structured question gives him just enough space to feel like he’s making a good decision on his own and you are following through and encouraging his independent thinking.
  5. Do not spank, hit or punish your child in a physical manner. Period. This might be controversial in some families or communities, but the fact is that studies show time and time again that corporal punishment does not work, at least not in the long term. When we hit or spank our children we send a message to them that people who love them hurt them, regardless of our intention.

Dealing with conflicting parenting styles.
It’s hard enough to establish and improve upon your own parenting style, but what if your style conflicts with your child’s other parent? This is a common challenge for parents, whether married, divorced or single. The first step is to sit down and talk about what you each believe when it comes to parenting and what qualities you hope your child will possess as they grow and develop into adulthood. Some of the more common conflicts parents face when it comes to raising children are discipline, safety issues, eating habits, sleeping and bedtime routines, and the use of TV.

While all of these “trigger” issues might not be imperative to your child’s ultimate health and happiness, it is important that both parents be reading from the same playbook…even if you’re not on exactly the same page. It’s all about compromise. For example, if your spouse believes your child should not watch any television, but you think it’s okay, then perhaps you come to an agreement that when you’re with your child they can watch 1 hour of an age-appropriate show, but never any inappropriate or violent programming.

Some of us learn our parenting techniques from our own parents and family members, or we get advice from friends, or we read books, or we take a parenting class or join a parent support group. No matter where or how we learn our own unique parenting style, it’s critical to remember just WHO those choices are affecting the most…our children.

As parents, we make choices every day that impact our child’s development and ultimately their future. From an appropriate timeout to decisions about snack time to the simple words we speak to our children, we have hundreds of chances every day to constantly improve our parenting style. As the saying goes, “There is no one way to be a perfect parent. But there are a million ways to be a good one.”

And remember, all aspects of parenting can be tough, but finding help doesn’t have to be. Don’t be afraid to ask for help! For more information about parenting styles and how you can improve your own, visit the SCAN website at