In the early 1960s, when America was on the cusp of social upheaval that would challenge authority at all levels, a University of California, Berkeley psychologist named Diana Baumrind began a longitudinal study aimed at answering a still timely question: How does our parenting style—including our practice of authority as well as love—affect our children’s development of character and competence?
More than 100 parents and their children participated in Baumrind’s study. When the children were in preschool, middle school, and high school, the researchers spent 50 hours observing each family’s parent-child interactions at home and in the lab, and interviewed parents about those interactions. In addition, the research team observed each child’s peer interactions at school. Finally, they interviewed every child individually when they were in middle school and again in high school.
On the basis of this research, Baumrind was able to identify four parenting styles. Each style was defined by how parents practiced “demandingness” and “responsiveness.” Demandingness referred to the way parents used their authority—how they monitored their children’s activities, exercised control, and motivated compliance with expected behavior. Responsiveness referred to the way parents expressed love—how they responded to their children’s needs and desires and how they helped their child meet parental expectations.
How kids turned out
How did each of the 4 parenting styles integrate—or fail to integrate—demandingness and responsiveness, and how did kids raised with these different styles turn out?
1. Disengaged parents were neither demanding nor responsive.
Their attitude was basically one of not wanting to be bothered with the responsibilities of childrearing. Some were detached and neglectful; others were cold and rejecting.
Outcome: The children of disengaged parents had the worst outcomes. Most did not do well in school and had problems with peer relationships. By the time they were teens, they had the lowest achievement scores of all the youth in the study and the highest levels of anxiety, depression, and drug abuse.
2. Permissive parents were responsive, but undemanding.
These parents set few rules, frequently indulged their children, and tended to use manipulative methods like bribery or love withdrawal when they did try to motivate compliance. They did not require their children to be responsible or respect the needs of others. They avoided confrontations, preferring to be seen as friends rather than authority figures.
Outcome: The children of permissive parents were typically low in self-control, low in consideration of others, and low in achievement motivation. As teens, they were more likely to use drugs than children whose parents were higher in demandingness.
3. Authoritarian parents were demanding, but unresponsive.
They lacked warmth, were very critical, and rarely praised their children’s positive achievements or actions. They micromanaged their children’s activities and insisted on conformity to parental wishes in arbitrary and rigid ways that were unrelated to the child’s interests, abilities, or needs. They made no effort to communicate the reasons for their directives and demands but relied instead on threats and punishment to motivate compliance. Consequences for disobedience were harsh and sometimes unpredictable.
Outcome: Children raised in this manner saw their parents as arbitrary and unapproachable. These children lacked confidence and were prone to anxiety, depression, and giving in to peer pressure.
4. Authoritative parents were both demanding and responsive—high in their expectations and high in support.
They were warm and nurturing, encouraged individuality and age-appropriate independence, but also valued obedience to adult requirements. They knew where their children were and what they were doing. They praised positive behavior, gave rational explanations for their rules and expectations, and listened to their child’s perspective. They engaged in give-and-take but did not base their decisions solely on their child’s desires. Consequences for misbehavior were logically related to the child’s actions.
Outcome: Children with authoritative parents showed the highest levels of confidence, respect for others, self-control, and school achievement.
Confirmation from a 10-year study of 20,000 families
The superiority of authoritative parenting, with its balanced integration of demandingness and responsiveness, got major confirmation from a 10-year study by Temple University psychologist Laurence Steinberg that focused on just the teen years. Whereas Baumrind study’s looked at 100 families, Steinberg’s investigated 20,000 families—drawn from nine diverse communities across the United States.
To illustrate how the 4 parenting styles would play out in adolescence, consider how each style would handle a common parent-teen scenario: Your teenager comes home late—after curfew.
- An authoritarian parent would impose a punishment with little or no discussion; the emphasis would be on following the rule, period.
- A permissive parent might be unhappy about the lateness but would avoid a confrontation about it.
- Disengaged parents probably wouldn’t have even set a curfew, or if they had, wouldn’t care much about the lateness.
- Authoritative parents would take the lateness seriously. They would find out why their child was late, discuss the legitimacy of the reason, and help their teen see why a responsible person, regardless of the reason, would phone (or text) to let their parents know they were safe but would be late.
The emphasis of the authoritative parent would be on the teen’s taking the parent’s perspective and committing to more responsible behavior in the future. If the lateness problem recurred, there would be a discussion of fair consequences to motivate future compliance.
In Steinberg’s study, as in Baumrind’s, teens from authoritative families excelled in all categories. They were the most confident, the least likely to abuse drugs or alcohol, and the least likely to experience problems with anxiety or depression. They invested the most time in their studies and got the best grades.
The major takeaway from the Steinberg and Baumrind studies?
If you want to maximize your contribution to your child’s development of character and competence, integrate demandingness (the essential exercise of your authority) and responsiveness (the essential expression of your love). This balanced, authoritative style of parenting combines these important elements:
- confident authority that sets high but age-appropriate expectations
- a high level of warmth and support that helps children meet those expectations
- rational explanations of parental rules and requirements
- valuing both obedience and age-appropriate independence
- fair and reasonable discipline that holds children accountable to expectations, with an emphasis on the development of responsibility
- parental willingness to engage in give-and-take that gives kids a fair hearing, with parents making the final decision
- treating children as individuals who have needs and feelings deserving respect.
Baumrind, D. (2008). Authoritative parenting for character and competence. In D. Streight (Ed.), Parenting for Character: Five Experts, Five Practices. Portland, OR: The Center for Spiritual and Ethical Education.
Steinberg, L. et al. (1996). Beyond the classroom: Why school reform has failed and what parents need to do. New York: Simon and Schuster.