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.
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 (Fletcher et al 1999).
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 Diane Baumrind, who proposed a new system for classifying parents. Her idea was to focus on the way parents attempted to control their kids (Baumrind 1966).
She recognized three major approaches to parental control:
- Permissive parents are reluctant to impose rules and standards, preferring to let their kids regulate themselves.
- Authoritarian parents demand a sort of blind obedience from their children.
- Authoritative parents take a different, more moderate approach that emphasizes setting high standards, being nurturing and responsive, and showing respect for children as independent, rational beings. The authoritative parent expects maturity and cooperation, and offers children lots of emotional support.
So what’s the main difference between authoritative parenting from permissive parenting?
Like permissive parents, authoritative parents are responsive, nurturing, and involved. But unlike permissive parents, authoritative parents don’t let their kids get away with bad behavior. Authoritative parents take a firm stand, expecting their kids to behave responsibly.
And what’s the 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 (Maccoby and Martin 1983).
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, they may present a parent with a series of statements, and ask 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 let my child get away with leaving chores unfinished
- 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
So this is a good guide to follow. But authoritative parents are also good psychologists and problem-solvers. How do they talk with their kids? What tactics do they use to reason with children? How do they address their children’s emotional issues?
For help, see these evidence-based tips for implementing positive parenting practices.
But there isn’t any one, universally-accepted litmus test.
For example, 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 think that authoritative parenting sounds very strict. You might regard the statement about letting kids “get away with leaving chores unfinished” as evidence that authoritative parents must respond to every infraction by imposing a punishment.
Again, that’s not necessarily true.
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 instance, researchers in Spain have reported that adolescents from permissive families are as well-behaved and academically successful as are teens from authoritative homes. The results contradict studies that link permissive parenting with inferior child outcomes. Could cultural differences account for the mixed results? Are some studies just wrong?
Maybe. But as I’ve argued elsewhere, it seems likely that the disagreement reflects differences in the wording of the questionnaires used to identify a parent’s style.
Alfonso Osario and his colleagues recently tested this idea, and found support for it. Once Spanish adolescents were evaluated with the same questionnaire used in the United States, authoritative care-giving was linked with the best child outcomes (Osario et al 2016).
Does authoritative parenting look the same in every family?
Not necessarily. For example, when researchers surveyed parents in four different countries — China, the United States, Russia, and Australia– they found an interesting pattern.
In the U.S. and Australia, authoritative parents were very likely to emphasize certain democratic practices, like taking a child’s preferences into account when making family plans, or encouraging a child to express his or her own opinions (Robinson et al 1997).
But in China and Russia, authoritative parents didn’t take their children’s preferences into account when making family plans. And most authoritative parents from China didn’t encourage kids to voice their own opinions — not if those opinions were in conflict with a parent’s views (Robinson et al 1996).
What, then, did authoritative parents have in common across all four countries?
One of the biggest common denominators concerned discipline.
Authoritative parents everywhere made it a point to reason with their children (Robinson et al 1997). When their children misbehaved, they talked with them, and explained the reasons for the rules. Let’s take a closer look.
How do authoritative parents discipline their kids?
It’s called “inductive discipline,” and there is evidence that it helps kids become more empathic, helpful, conscientious, and kind to others (Krevans and Gibbs 1996; Knafo and Plomin 2006).
It may also help prevent children from developing aggressive or defiant behavior problems (Choe et al 2013; Arsenio and Ramos-Marcuse 2014).
And inductive discipline may promote the development of morality (Patrick and Gibbs 2016).
But what is it, really? Inductive discipline is about teaching your child to think — constructively and non-selfishly — about how their behavior affects others.
The idea is that instead of trying to enforce good behavior through threats and punishments, you provide kids with the internal tools to regulate themselves:
Shaping behavior through reasoning.
For a very young child, this might mean simply explaining why she can’t touch something. That’s not for you! It’s too hot! It could burn you! But for older kids, it means talking with them — not at them — about the reasons for our policies and rules.
What should your child do when he feels angry? Or sad? Or scared? Inductive discipline depends on your child’s ability to cope with strong emotions, so one facet of inductive discipline is being a good “emotion coach.” Read tips about that here.
Emphasizing empathy and concern for others.
Inductive discipline focuses on the consequences of a child’s behavior for others. What happens when you shove your brother? How does it make him feel?
The goal of inductive discipline is to nurture a child’s intrinsic motivation to cooperate and behave with kindness (Xiao et al 2018; Xiao 2016).
Studies show that even very young children feel empathy, and want to be helpful. So we can help kids develop moral reasoning skills by talking with them about how our behavior impacts others. For more information, see these tips for fostering empathy in children.
Why do kids from authoritative families turn out so well?
Each component of the authoritative parenting style seems to have its own benefits.
As noted above, inductive discipline—explaining the reasons for rules—has been linked with more advanced moral reasoning skills (Krevans and Gibb 1996; Kerr et al 2004).
In addition, research suggests the following points.
2. The children of authoritative parents are less likely than the children of authoritarian parents to engage in drug and alcohol use, juvenile delinquency, or other antisocial behavior (e.g., Lamborn et al 1991; Steinberg et al 1992; Querido et al 2002; Benchaya et al 2011; Luyckx et al 2011).
4. Parents who avoid reprimanding kids for intellectual mistakes (e.g., “I’m disappointed in you”) may have kids who are more resilient problem-solvers and better learners (Kamins and Dweck 1999; Schmittmann et al 2006; van Duijvenvoorde et al 2008).
5. Encouraging independence in kids is linked with more self-reliance, better problem solving, and improved emotional health (e.g., Turkel and Tezer 2008; Rothrauff et al 2009; Lamborn et al 1991; Pratt et al 1988; Kamins and Dweck 1999; Luyckx et al 2011).
6. An authoritative approach to discipline may help prevent aggression and reduce peer problems in preschoolers (e.g., Choe et al 2013; Yamagata 2013).
7. Kids with warm, responsive parents are more likely to be helpful, kind, and popular.
The last point is illustrated by research conducted in the Netherlands. In this study, school kids were observed at home as they worked with their parents on a couple of puzzle tasks. Then researchers
- recorded how often parents uttered their disapproval or tried to take over the task,
- rated how often parents showed warmth, made suggestions, used induction (“What would happen if we tried this?”), or demanded mature behavior from their kids, and
- asked teachers and peers to rate each child’s social behavior.
The results are compelling. Parents who behaved more authoritatively during the puzzle task had kids who were rated as more prosocial—helpful and kind—by their teachers and peers. The kids with authoritative parents were also more popular (Dekovic and Janssens 1992).
There is even evidence that kids from authoritative homes are more attuned with their parents and less influenced by their peers.
In a study of American students, undergraduates were presented with a series of moral problems and asked how they would solve them. Students from authoritative families were more likely than others to say that their parents–not their peers–would influence their decisions (Bednar and Fisher 2003).
But there are other factors, too.
It’s likely that the benefits of authoritative child-rearing are maximized when the whole community is organized along authoritative principles. For instance, when the school climate is authoritative, kids from authoritative families may find it easier to fit in (Pellerin 2004).
In addition, some studies have reported ethnic differences–that for African-American and Chinese-Americans, there is sometimes little or no difference in academic performance between kids from authoritarian and authoritative homes.
Why? Researchers have posed several different explanations, which you can read about in this article that contrasts the effects of authoritarian parenting with the effects of authoritative parenting.
Nevertheless, there is remarkable agreement across studies. From Argentina to China, from the United States to Pakistan, the authoritative parenting style is consistently associated with superior outcomes (Steinberg 2001).
As researcher Laurence Steinberg has stated, “I know of no study that indicates that adolescents fare better when they are reared with some other parenting style” (Steinberg 2001).
As of 2017, that still seems to be the case. In a recent analysis of 428 published studies, researchers compared child outcomes throughout the world.
For every region of the globe, they found that the authoritative parenting style was associated with at least one positive child outcome (Pinquart and Kauser 2017). By contrast, authoritarian parenting was linked with at least one negative child outcome (Pinquart and Kauser 2017). The authors conclude that the authoritative approach is worth recommending everywhere.
More information about authoritative parenting
If you’re interested in reading more about how researchers identify parenting styles, check out this Parenting Science overview, which includes a discussion of Diane Baumrind’s original model.
For more information about the difference between authoritarianism and the authoritative parenting style, see my article, “Authoritarian parenting: What happens to the kids?”
And for help drawing the line between permissiveness and authoritative parenting, see this Parenting Science article about the permissive parenting style.
In addition, read more about the importance of treating children as independent, thinking beings, and the possibility of friendship between parents and children.
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This article is based on research published through July 2017. Content last modified 7/17.
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