Why Parenting Styles Matter When Raising Children

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Developmental psychologists have long been interested in how parents affect child development. However, finding actual cause-and-effect links between specific actions of parents and later behavior of children is very difficult.

Some children raised in dramatically different environments can later grow up to have remarkably similar personalities. Conversely, children who share a home and are raised in the same environment can grow up to have very different personalities.

Despite these challenges, researchers have posited that there are links between parenting styles and the effects these styles have on children. And some suggest these effects carry over into adult behavior.

The Four Parenting Styles

In the 1960s, psychologist Diana Baumrind conducted a study on more than 100 preschool-age children. Using naturalistic observation, parental interviews, and other research methods, she identified some important dimensions of parenting.

These dimensions include disciplinary strategies, warmth and nurturing, communication styles, and expectations of maturity and control. Based on these dimensions, Baumrind suggested that the majority of parents display one of three different parenting styles. Later research by Maccoby and Martin suggested adding a fourth parenting style. Each of these has different effects on children's behavior.

Authoritarian Parenting

In this style of parenting, children are expected to follow the strict rules established by the parents. Failure to follow such rules usually results in punishment. Authoritarian parents don't explain the reasoning behind these rules. If asked to explain, the parent might simply reply, "Because I said so."

While these parents have high demands, they are not very responsive to their children. They expect their children to behave exceptionally and not make errors, yet they provide very little direction about what their children should do or avoid in the future. Mistakes are punished, often quite harshly, yet their children are often left wondering exactly what they did wrong.

Baumrind says these parents "are obedience- and status-oriented, and expect their orders to be obeyed without explanation." They are often described as domineering and dictatorial. Their approach is "spare the rod, spoil the child." They expect children to obey without question.

Authoritative Parenting

Like authoritarian parents, those with an authoritative parenting style establish rules and guidelines that their children are expected to follow. However, this parenting style is much more democratic.

Authoritative parents are responsive to their children and willing to listen to questions. These parents expect a lot of their children, but they provide warmth, feedback, and adequate support. When children fail to meet the expectations, these parents are more nurturing and forgiving rather than punishing.

Baumrind says these parents "monitor and impart clear standards for their children’s conduct. They are assertive, but not intrusive and restrictive. Their disciplinary methods are supportive, rather than punitive. They want their children to be assertive as well as socially responsible, and self-regulated as well as cooperative."

The combination of expectation and support helps children of authoritative parents develop skills such as independence, self-control, and self-regulation. 

Permissive Parenting

Permissive parents, sometimes referred to as indulgent parents, make very few demands of their children. These parents rarely discipline their children because they have relatively low expectations of maturity and self-control.​

According to Baumrind, permissive parents "are more responsive than they are demanding. They are nontraditional and lenient, do not require mature behavior, allow considerable self-regulation, and avoid confrontation." Permissive parents are generally nurturing and communicative with their children, often taking on the status of a friend more than that of a parent.

Uninvolved Parenting

In addition to the three major styles introduced by Baumrind, psychologists Eleanor Maccoby and John Martin proposed a fourth style: uninvolved or neglectful parenting. An uninvolved parenting style is characterized by few demands, low responsiveness, and very little communication.

While these parents fulfill the child's basic needs, they are generally detached from their child's life. They might make sure that their kids are fed and have shelter, but offer little to nothing in the way of guidance, structure, rules, or even support. In extreme cases, these parents may even reject or neglect the needs of their children.

The Impact of Parenting Styles

What effect do these parenting styles have on child development outcomes? In addition to Baumrind's initial study of 100 preschool children, researchers have conducted a a number of studies about the impact of parenting styles on children. Among the findings:

  • Authoritarian parenting styles generally lead to children who are obedient and proficient, but they rank lower in happiness, social competence, and self-esteem.
  • Authoritative parenting styles tend to result in children who are happy, capable, and successful.
  • Permissive parenting often results in children who rank low in happiness and self-regulation. These children are more likely to experience problems with authority and tend to perform poorly in school.
  • Uninvolved parenting styles rank lowest across all life domains. These children tend to lack self-control, have low self-esteem, and are less competent than their peers.

The Advantages of Authoritative Parenting

Because authoritative parents are more likely to be viewed as reasonable, fair, and just, their children are more likely to comply with their parents' requests. Also, because these parents provide rules as well as explanations for these rules, children are much more likely to internalize these lessons.

Rather than simply following the rules because they fear punishment (as they might with authoritarian parents), the children of authoritative parents are able to see why the rules exist, understand that they are fair and acceptable, and strive to follow these rules to meet their own internalized sense of what is right and wrong.

The parenting styles of individual parents also combine to create a unique blend in each family. For example, the mother may display an authoritative style while the father favors a more permissive approach.

This can sometimes lead to mixed signals. In order to create a cohesive approach to parenting, it is essential that parents learn to cooperate and combinetheir unique parenting styles.

Limitations and Criticisms of Parenting Style Research

Links between parenting styles and behavior are based on correlational research, which is helpful for finding relationships between variables but cannot establish definitive cause-and-effect relationships. While there is evidence that a particular parenting style is linked to a certain pattern of behavior, other important variables such as a child's temperament can also play a major role.

There is also some evidence that a child's behavior can impact parenting styles. One study published in 2006 found that the parents of children who exhibited difficult behavior began to exhibit less parental control over time. Such results suggest that kids might misbehave not because their parents were too permissive, but because the parents of difficult or aggressive children gave up on trying to control their kids.

The researchers have also noted that the correlations between parenting styles and behaviors are sometimes weak. In many cases, the expected child outcomes do not materialize; parents with authoritative styles have children who are defiant or who engage in delinquent behavior, while parents with permissive styles have children who are self-confident and academically successful.

Cultural factors also play an important role in parenting styles and child outcomes. "There is no universally "best" style of parenting," writes author Douglas Bernstein in his book Essentials of Psychology. "Authoritative parenting, which is so consistently linked with positive outcomes in European American families, is not related to better school performance among African American or Asian American youngsters."

A Word From Verywell

Parenting styles are associated with different child outcomes, and the authoritative style is generally linked to positive behaviors such as strong self-esteem and self-competence. However, other important factors including culture, children's temperament, children's perceptions of parental treatment, and social influences also play an important role in children's behavior.

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Article Sources
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  1. Baumrind D. Child care practices anteceding three patterns of preschool behavior. Genet Psychol Monogr. 1967;75(1):43-88.

  2. Power TG. Parenting dimensions and styles: a brief history and recommendations for future researchChild Obes. 2013;9 Suppl(Suppl 1):S14–S21. doi:10.1089/chi.2013.0034

  3. Huh D, Tristan J, Wade E, Stice E. Does problem behavior elicit poor parenting?: A prospective study of adolescent girlsJ Adolesc Res. 2006;21(2):185-204. doi:10.1177/0743558405285462

  4. Bernstein DA. Essentials of Psychology. Cengage Learning; 2013.

Additional Reading
  • Benson, JB, Marshall, MH. Social and Emotional Development in Infancy and Early Childhood. Academic Press, 2009.

  • Macklem, GL. Practitioner's Guide to Emotion Regulation in School-Aged Children. Springer, 2008.