© 2010-2018 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
The authoritarian parenting style: Little nurturing, lots of psychological control
You might have a good handle on what it means to favor authoritarian government:
The blind submission to authority. The stifling of autonomous, critical thinking. The attempt control people through threats and fear.
But how does this compare with authoritarian parenting? And what makes authoritarian parenting different from other approaches to child-rearing?
First, it’s important to distinguish authoritarian parenting from authoritative parenting. They have similar names, and both styles of parenting set high standards of conduct.
But there are important differences. As I explain elsewhere, authoritative parents are more responsive and nurturing towards their kids. And authoritarian parents?
We might think of boot camp, with the parent as drill sergeant. A drill sergeant insists on unquestioning obedience. He punishes autonomy. His purpose is to “break” the will, so he can reshape people according to an absolute standard.
He’s not a warm, fuzzy kind of guy, and he’s not going to inspire feelings of intimacy. But when his system works, he can boast about one thing: His recruits tend to obey.
Admittedly, the analogy is cartoonish. But is it far from the mark? Not by much.
How psychologists define the authoritarian parenting style
When psychologist Diane Baumrind first proposed her definition of authoritarian parenting, she cited the 18th century views of Puritan Susannah Wesley–not military training techniques. But the ideas were pretty much the same (Baumrind 1966).
According to Baumrind, authoritarian parents:
- Don’t encourage verbal give-and-take.
- Are “obedience- and status-oriented, and expect their orders to be obeyed without question.”
- Tend to control their children through shaming, the withdrawal of love, or other punishments.
- Don’t usually attempt to explain the reasons for rules.
Other researchers have restated Baumrind’s definition in terms of two factors:
1. Warmth, also known as “responsiveness.” This quality is defined as “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).
2. Control, also known as “demandingness.” This 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).
Authoritative parents show high levels of warmth and control. Authoritarian parents how high levels of control, but only low levels of warmth.
Does the difference matter?
It seems to make an important difference to children. When parents take a harsh approach to control, their children are more likely to develop behavior problems in the future (Pinquart 2017). And overall, research suggests that the best-adjusted, best-behaved, most resourceful, and highest-achieving kids have authoritative parents — not authoritarian ones.
Moreover, for some outcomes, children with authoritarian parents aren’t just second to those raised in authoritative homes. They may also perform more poorly than kids with permissive parents — caregivers who show warmth, but don’t enforce rules (Calafat et al 2014).
For more information, see this article about the effects of the authoritarian parenting style.
But how can you be sure what your parenting style really is?
In everyday life, all parents experience ups and downs, and changes of mood. They may behave differently depending on what stresses they feel, or what feedback they get from their children. And people can show warmth — or withhold warmth — in a variety of ways. Where exactly should we draw the line between authoritarian and authoritative parenting?
So let’s take a look at how researchers do it.
What do psychologists look for when they rate a parent as authoritarian?
It’s one thing to say that authoritarian parents exert lots of control and relatively little warmth. But what does this actually look like in the day-to-day world? And how do researchers decide that a parent’s style is authoritarian?
To make judgments, researchers sometimes use direct observation.
For example, they might assign kids and parents a join task — like a puzzle to solve—and watch to see how they interact. In one such study, investigators watched to see if parents showed approval, took over the task, or made disapproving comments (Janssens and Deokovic 1997).
Alternatively, researchers use questionnaires (e.g., Lamborn et al 1991; Garcia and Gracia 2009).
In these cases, parents (or kids) are asked to rate with a four point scale ( 1= “almost never true”, 4 = “almost always true”) their agreement or disagreement with statements about their family relationships.
For instance, parents are MORE likely to be identified as authoritarian if they strongly AGREE with statements like:
- When I ask my child to do something, and he asks why, I say something like “because I said so,” or “because I want you to do it.”
- I punish my child by withholding expressions of affection
- I explode in anger towards my child
- I yell or shout when child misbehaves
Parents are LESS likely to be identified as authoritarian if they strongly AGREE with statements like:
- I talk to my kids about our plans and I listen to what my children have to say
- I try to help and comfort my child when he is upset
- My child feels she can come to me when she has a problem
What about partial agreement—if, for example, you sometimes yell at your child when he misbehaves?
A parent’s classification doesn’t depend on one or two questions. It’s your overall scores in two areas–warmth and control–that matters.
Typically, researchers look at the distribution of scores for their entire sample and set cutoffs for deciding who is authoritarian. For example, researchers often define a parent as “authoritarian” if her score for warmth falls in the lower third of the distribution and her score for control falls in the upper third of the distribution.
In other words, researchers often grade their questionnaires on a curve. The authoritarian parenting style is treated as a relative concept, and whether or not your parenting is classified as “authoritarian” will depend — at least in part — on the population you are compared with.
Other ways of being “authoritarian?”
As noted above, Baumrind’s model of authoritarian parenting style was based, in part, on the religious views of an 18th century Puritan. Does this model fit all types of parents—even parents from non-Western backgrounds?
The Baumrind definition suggests a rather distant, cold relationship between parent and child.
And for European-Americans, that may be the case. One cross-cultural study found that European-American kids who reported feeling less close to their parents were more likely to come from authoritarian homes (Chao 2000).
But in other populations, kids may interpret the authoritarian approach as a sign that adults care about them.
For instance, a preschool teacher recounts how she scolded some Haitian-American kids for crossing a parking lot without her. Then she said, “I don’t want you to go alone. Why do I want you to wait for me, do you know?”
“Yes,” a child answered, “because you like us” (Ballenger 1992).
Something similar may apply to traditional Chinese families. Psychologist Ruth Chao has proposed a cultural variant of authoritarian parenting, chiao shun, which she translates as “training.”
According to Chao, chaio shun emphasizes harmonious family relationships—not the domination of the child.
In a study of Chinese immigrants to the United States, Chao found that first-generation immigrants felt as close to their parents as did European-Americans.
And for the immigrant kids there was no correlation between the authoritarian parenting style and relationship closeness. Kids who reported feeling less close to their parents were not more likely to have authoritarian parents (Chao 2000).
Such research suggests that the authoritarian parenting style may have different effects depending on the cultural context.
It also seems likely that the effects vary as a function of what kids perceive to be normal. If you live in a community where authoritarian parenting is rare, you might find it more disturbing if your parent takes an authoritarian approach with you. International research supports this idea (Lansford et al 2018).
But can we conclude that authoritarian parenting is — in some cultural settings — the best parenting style ?
Caution is warranted. There is cross-cultural evidence suggesting that kids–even kids living in Beijing, China–seem to be better off when their parents are authoritative, not authoritarian. For the details, see my article about the effects of the authoritarian parenting style on kids.
In addition, check out my article, “Traditional Chinese parenting: What research says about Chinese kids and why they succeed.”
There I review claims that authoritarianism is somehow beneficial for Chinese kids, and I offer alternative explanations for the academic achievements of many Chinese-Americans.
More information: Putting the authoritarian parenting style in context
References: The authoritarian parenting style
Baumrind D. 1966. Effects of authoritative parental control on child behavior. Child Development, 37(4), 887-907.
Baumrind D. 1991. The influence of parenting style on adolescent competence and substance use. Journal of Early Adolescence 11(1): 56-95.
Calafat A, García F, Juan M, Becoña E, Fernández-Hermida JR. 2014. Which parenting style is more protective against adolescent substance use? Evidence within the European context. Drug Alcohol Depend. 138:185-92
Chao R. 2001. Extending research on the consequences of parenting style for Chinese Americans and European Americans. Child Development 72: 1832-1843.
Janssens JMAM and Dekovic M. 1997. Child Rearing, Prosocial Moral Reasoning, and Prosocial Behaviour. International Journal of Behavioral Development 20(3): 509-527.
Garcia F and Gracia E. 2009. Is always authoritative the optimum parenting style? Evidence from Spanish families. Adolescence 44(173): 101-131.
Lamborn SD, Mants NS, Steinberg L, and Dornbusch SM. 1991. Patterns of competence and adjustment among adolescents from authoritative, authoritarian, indulgent, and neglectful families. Child Development 62: 1049-1065.
Lansford JE, Godwin J, Al-Hassan SM, Bacchini D, Bornstein MH, Chang L, Chen BB, Deater-Deckard K, Di Giunta L, Dodge KA, Malone PS, Oburu P, Pastorelli C1, Skinner AT, Sorbring E, Steinberg L, Tapanya S, Alampay LP, Uribe Tirado LM, Zelli A. 2018. Longitudinal associations between parenting and youth adjustment in twelve cultural groups: Cultural normativeness of parenting as a moderator. Dev Psychol. 54(2):362-377.
Maccoby EE and Martin JA. 1983. Socialization in the context of the family: Parent–child interaction. In P. H. Mussen (ed) and E. M. Hetherington (vol. ed.), Handbook of child psychology: Vol. 4. Socialization, personality, and social development (4th ed., pp. 1-101). New York: Wiley.
Pinquart M. 2017. Associations of parenting dimensions and styles with externalizing problems of children and adolescents: An updated meta-analysis. Dev Psychol. 53(5):873-932
Content last modified 8/2018
image of father scolding boy by Andrew Penner / istock
image of drill sergeant by Corporal Shawn M. Toussaint USMC