Since the early 1960s, psychologists have been interested in the relationship between parenting and the emotional, social and behavioural development of children.
Of particular significance to this field of study, is the early work of psychologist Diana Baumrind and colleagues, who conducted the first longitudinal study of more than 100 preschoolers through to their adolescence, specifically examining the impact of their parents approaches towards them on their subsequent development (Baumrind & Black, 1967). This study, which used a combination of naturalist observations and parental interviews, identified four ‘dimensions’ of parenting – (a) disciplinary strategies, (b) warmth and nurturance, (c) communication and (d) expectations of maturity and control. More than this, however, this influential study identified three ‘parenting styles’ which have since stood up to considerable empirical scrutiny.
The first of the parenting styles identified by Baumrind is now more commonly referred to ‘authoritarian parenting’. This an approach to parenting which is generically low in warmth but high in control. Parents who fall into this category, typically hold very high expectations for their children’s behaviour and develop strict, non-negotiable rules for which they must live by. They are described as “obedience and status-orientated and expect their orders to be obeyed without explanation” (Baumrind, 1991). Failure to abide by their rules, or to meet their behavioural expectations, is typically met with punishment rather than with empathy or understanding. This type of parenting is often seen in adults who they themselves were raised by parents with a similar style of parenting [see my earlier blog on ‘family scripts’] and who therefore hold an authoritarian working model or ‘blueprint’ of what it is to be a parent. This style can also sometimes be seen in anxious parents, who respond to a fear of losing control of their children by exerting total control. The implications for their children, however, is that they are often left feeling angry, confused or upset internally, but have no capacity to process or make sense of these emotional experiences as they develop. Their children are also often limited in their opportunities for free play and exploration of the world, which is equally important for healthy emotional and social development.
The second parenting style identified by Baumrind is that of ‘permissive parenting’. This style can be broken down into two further parenting styles – ‘permissive-indulgent’ and ‘permissive-indifferent’. A ‘permissive-indulgent’ parent is broadly defined as a parent who is very high in warmth, but very low in control. In direct contrast to their authoritarian counterparts therefore, permissive-indulgent parents make very few demands on their children, rarely discipline them and typically seek to avoid confrontation. They are described as “generally nurturing and often take on the status of a friend more than that of a parent” (Baumrind, 1991). The implications for their children, however, is that whilst their internal worlds are largely attended to (although negative emotions can still be feared), they lack the developmentally appropriate structure, boundaries and expectations that they need in order to develop into healthy, socially-adept adults. ‘Permissive-indifferent’ parents on the other hand, present as very low in control AND in warmth. These parents offer neither structure and boundaries nor warmth and affection for their children. They are what we typically consider to be emotionally neglectful parents, who in extreme cases, may actively reject their children, leading to inevitable attachment difficulties as their child develops.
The third parenting style initially identified by Baumrind’s study is known as an ‘authoritative’ parenting style. This style bridges the gap between authoritarian and permissive parenting styles and is known in research circles as the ‘gold standard’ for child development. This is because parents who are able to approach caring for their children with this style of parenting are able to establish developmentally appropriate rules and boundaries, but can at the same time, remain responsive to and curious about their children’s internal worlds. This means that they can be open to trying to understand a child’s internal world (e.g. their thoughts, feelings, motivations, perceptions, beliefs, etc.) even if they do not accept their behaviour. Indeed, when their children fail to meet their expectations, an authoritative parent is more likely to respond with forgiveness, nurture and find structured opportunities for new learning, rather than with punishment. Similarly, they can remain democratically open to questions and challenges from their children about their rules. They are defined as being able to “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” (Baumrind, 1991). The benefits for children raised with this type of parenting style is clearly evidenced in their later performance on a broad range of emotional, social and behavioural indices. These include social responsibility, the ability to cooperate with peers and adults, independence, assertiveness, problem solving and high self-esteem. Support for this ‘middle ground’ approach to parenting is also offered by recent research which has identified that children with a history of severe developmental trauma and attachment disruption, respond most effectively to an ‘authoritative ++’ approach to nurture whilst in care – a specific type of parenting approach which is very high in both control AND warmth and nurture – also known as the ‘two handed’ approach to parenting (Hughes, Golding & Hudson, 2019).
As alluded to earlier, the type of parent we become will be influenced in part by our own experiences of being parented. Whilst we can adapt this to a degree, however, when we are under stress, it is likely that we will move closer towards our ‘blueprint’ of what a parent is. For this reason, it is extremely important that as parents, we take the time to notice for ourselves when we are starting to a more extreme type of parenting style (authoritarian or permissive) as an indicator or ‘red flag’ that we need to take some time out to recharge in order to be the parents that we want to be, and which our children need us to be. If you are co-parenting, it can also be helpful to think about where you and your partner each naturally fall on the continuum between high warmth and high control as parents, and to spend some time thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of these respective similarities or differences in your parenting styles, as well as the impact that the combination of your parenting styles has on your child. When challenges or parenting styles feel unhelpful or entrenched, however, it can be worth seeking professional help.
Baumrind, D. (1991). The influence of parenting style on adolescent competence and substance use. Journal of Early Adolescence, 11(1), 5695.
Baumrind, D., & Black, A.E. (1967). Socialization practices associated with dimensions of competence in preschool boys and girls. Child Development, 38, 291327.
Hughes, D., Golding, K. & Hudson, J. (2019). Healing Relational Trauma with Attachment-Focused Interventions: Dyadic developmental psychotherapy with children and families. Norton