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.
For example, 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 was first defined by developmental psychologist 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:
In subsequent studies, researchers also recognized a fourth style, sometimes called “neglectful parenting,” where parents lack warmth and fail to enforce standards (Maccoby and Martin 1983).
There is overwhelming evidence that kids need parental warmth to thrive. Nurturing, responsive parenting leads to better emotional, cognitive, and behavioral outcomes. As I explain elsewhere, it even protects kids from toxic stress.
So the parenting styles that feature warmth and responsiveness — authoritative and permissive parenting — are better overall than the remaining alternatives.
There is also evidence favoring authoritative parenting as the “best” style. For example, when it comes to reducing sibling conflicts, authoritative approach might be the only effective option (Liu et al 2022). And the cross-cultural trend — observed in most studies — is that authoritative parenting is linked with better academic performance (Pinquart 2016; Pinquart and Kauser 2017; Llorca et al 2017; Hayek et al 2022).
Are there any complications or controversies? Sure. As I note below, the effects of parenting style are partly influenced by culture. And a group of researchers in Spain have argued that “permissive” or “indulgent” parenting is better than authoritative parenting for chidren’s emotional well-being (e.g., Garcia et al 2019; Fuentes et al 2021; Alcaide et al 2023).
But I don’t think these points move the needle very much. Authoritative parenting has advantages over authoritarian parenting in most cultural settings, and when you delve into the details of the “indulgent” versus “authoritative” debate, it looks like like the argument is really over semantics.
The Spanish research group seems to be equating “authoritative parenting” with practices that I would call authoritarian. And their profile of “indulgent” parenting seems to align closely with what other researchers usually refer to as “authoritative.” The research offers important insights into the kind of bossiness and intrusiveness that is linked with worse outcomes. But — after you adjust for the researchers different use of terminology — the results don’t seem to challenge the benefits of authoritative parenting. Read more in this Parenting Science article.
Permissive parents and authoritative parents share an approach that is responsive, nurturing, and involved. Both show respect for children as independent beings. But unlike permissive parents, authoritative parents don’t let their kids get away with bad behavior. Authoritative parents take a firm stand, insisting that their kids to behave responsibly.
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.
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, one popular questionnaire was developed by Clyde Robinson and his colleagues (1995). It presents the parent with a series of statements, and asks 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:
And parents are judged to be less authoritative if they agree with these statements:
This is just a small sample of the kinds of items that appear on the questionnaire. Parents don’t have to tick all the “right” boxes. Instead, they are given an overall score, and their parenting style is classified as “authoritative” if it reaches a particular threshold.
But there isn’t any one, universally-accepted litmus test.
For instance, 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’re wondering about which rules you are supposed to impose. Keep your room clean? Don’t play video games after you’ve finished your homework? Depending on your priorities, beliefs, and assessment of your child’s maturity level, you might think these are important rules. Or you might not.
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 example, the researchers working in Spain (cited above) have scored parents as “authoritative” if they agreed with statements like “I insist that my children do exactly what they are told” (Alcaide et al 2023), or made greater use of punishment to control behavior (Garcia et al 2019). Does this match up with what most parenting experts mean when they talk about authoritative parenting? Probably not.
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?
They shared a similar approach to discipline. When their children misbehaved, they talked with them, and explained the reasons for the rules (Robinson et al 1997). Let’s take a closer look.
Researchers call it “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 promote the development of morality (Patrick and Gibbs 2016), and lower a child’s risk for developing aggressive or defiant behavior problems (Choe et al 2013; Arsenio and Ramos-Marcuse 2014). How does it work?
Inductive discipline focuses on teaching kids 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. Here are the key components.
As noted in the introduction, most studies report that authoritative parenting is linked with the best child outcomes. Kids tend to experience fewer behavior problems and perform better in school. Compared with children from authoritarian homes, they are less likely to engage in delinquency and substance use (e.g., Lamborn et al 1991; Steinberg et al 1992; Querido et al 2002; Benchaya et al 2011; Luyckx et al 2011).
Why? In part, it’s because authoritative practices give kids the tools they need to succeed. For instance, as we’ve just seen, inductive discipline can actively teach kids to consider the impact of their behavior on others. So little wonder if this gives their moral reasoning skills a boost (Dekovic and Janssens 1992; Krevans and Gibb 1996; Kerr et al 2004). Some other examples?
When parents are cold or psychologically controlling, their kids are more likely to develop “internalizing” mental health problems, like anxiety and depression. But affectionate, sensitive, parenting has the opposite effect. From an early age, warmth and responsiveness helps foster attachment security, which reduces a child’s risk of developing internalizing problems (Izett et al 2021; Brumariu and Kerns 2010). Moreover, studies suggest that adolescents are less likely to experience anxiety and depression if their parents are warm and supportive of autonomy (Gorostiaga et al 2019; Wang et al 2021).
We know from everyday experience that people become more confident about their abilities when they get to practice doing things for themselves. This may explain links between authoritative parenting, self-reliance, better problem-solving, and resourcefulness (e.g., Türkel and Tezer 2008; Rothrauff et al 2009; Lamborn et al 1991; Pratt et al 1988; Kamins and Dweck 1999; Luyckx et al 2011).
In places as different as China and Spain, the story is the same: Kids tend to grow up with higher levels of self-esteem when their parents display lots of affection and cheer (Zhang et al 2017; Pérez-Fuentes et al 2019; Peng et al 2021). By contrast, negativity and psychological control put kids at risk for low self-esteem.
Finding ways to say yes. Praising kids for good choices. Making sure that most family interactions are pleasant and positive. When parents learn these positive parenting techniques, their children’s behavior problems tend to improve. And positivity appears to boost a child’s intellectual performance as well (Kamins and Dweck 1999; Schmittmann et al 2006; van Duijvenvoorde et al 2008). Learn more in my articles, “Positive parenting tips” and “Correcting behavior: The magic words that help kids cope with mistakes.”
It’s hard to learn self-regulation skills if your parent is making all the choices for you (or stressing you out with harsh discipline). It’s also hard if your parent lets bad behavior slide, or is inconsistent with follow-up. But if your parent uses authoritative techniques — respecting your autonomy, setting reasonable expectations, explaining the reason for rules, and teaching you how to cope with emotions and impulses — you’ve got a recipe for success.
Parents need to be smart and flexible about the timing of their talks (hint: it’s better to back off while your toddler is in the middle of a tantrum). But — in general — studies support the idea that authoritative parenting and inductive discipline foster better self-control and emotional regulation (Piotrowski et al 2013; Eisenberg et al 2015; LeCuyer and Swanson 2017; Valcan et al 2019).
When we use inductive discipline, we aren’t just teaching self-regulation. We’re also acting as role models — demonstrating techniques for resolving conflicts and soothing bad feelings. Kids learn how to compromise, negotiate and cooperate, and this may explain why preschoolers from authoritative homes experience fewer aggressive behavior problems (e.g., Choe et al 2013; Yamagata 2013).
It makes sense, doesn’t it? If your parent shows warmth and takes the time to reason with you, you’re going to feel more connected. And there’s evidence that this happens. The children of authoritative parents report feeling closer to their parents (Bi et al 2018) and siblings (Liu and Rahman 2022).
Decades ago, researchers working in the Netherlands made a fascinating discovery. They watched as children attempted to solve a series of puzzle-tasks with their parents, and they took note of parental behavior. How often did parents voice disapproval, or try to take over a task? How often did parents show warmth? Did they expect their kids to behave with age-appropriate maturity? When guiding behavior, did they do so in ways that respected the child’s autonomy? (“What would happen if we tried this…?”)
As it turned out, 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 (Dekovic and Janssens 1992).
Since that time, researchers have confirmed this lnik in studies conducted throughout the world (Dekovic and Janssens 1992; Putnick et al 2018; Xiao et al 2018; Zhou et al 2022). Why is parental warmth connected with prosociality in children? Maybe kids are imitating the kindness and helpfulness that their parents model. Or maybe all that calming, stress-busting, parental warmth is making it easier for kids to turn their attention to the needs of others.
But whatever the case, there’s reason to think that kids increase prosocial behavior after being exposed to warm, responsive care. For example, in a study tracking more than a thousand kids from 8 countries (Colombia, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, the Philippines, Sweden, Thailand, and the United States), kids who experienced more parental warmth at the age of 9 were more likely to show high levels of prosocial behavior as adolescents (Pastorelli et al 2021).
This is an important factor to consider. After all, we know that parenting can be stressful –especially if you have to deal with a lot of difficult, disruptive behavior. You might prefer to follow authoritative practices, but you get stressed or overwhelmed, and it pushes you in other directions. Maybe you lose your temper and get punitive. Or maybe you give up on trying to enforce good behavior. You let things slide.
Somebody looking from the outside might think, “Wow, that kid’s behavior is really messed up. It must be caused by the parent. Other kids – who are well-behaved – have parents who practice authoritative caregiving.”
But, in reality, this isn’t entirely down to parenting style. It’s just that authoritative parents are more likely to have started out with cooperative, easy kids.
Studies confirm that this is part of the story (e.g., Hutchison et al 2016; Lansford, Rothenberg, et al 2018), but the emphasis is on part. When researchers have controlled for child-driven effects, they’ve found ample evidence that parenting has an impact too.
Difficult kids are more likely to improve if their parents show warmth and avoid harsh punishments (e.g., Li et al 2021; Guo et al 2022; Olson et al 2017). Moreover, adopting an authoritative approach seems to help parents feel less stressed by their children’s challenging behavior (Delvecchio et al 2020).
This, too, is a valid question. 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 support of this hypothesis, studies confirm that parenting strategies tend to lead to better results when they are matched up with local perceptions of what’s normal (Lansford, Godwin, et al 2018; Rothenberg et al 2021).
Nevertheless, there is remarkable agreement across studies. In an 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.
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 April 2023. Portions of the text derive from earlier versions of the article, written by the same author. Content last modified 4/7/2023
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