Parenting Styles

Updated on Dec 23, 2009

Parenting style refers to the normative patterns of behavior and tactics that parents use to socialize and control their children. Early work on parenting styles in the 1950s (e.g., Sears, Maccoby, & Levin, 1957) documented that adults who were nurturing and able to exert control were especially influential on children's development of self-regulated and disciplined behavior. Others (Lewin, Lippitt, & White, 1939) documented that adult leadership styles in classroom-like settings resulted in different levels of engagement on the part of children, with relatively warm and egalitarian styles resulting in greater task involvement, more self-regulated and autonomous behavior, and more competent performance than either highly controlling or permissive styles. From this work evolved a general approach to the study of parenting styles focused on socialization strategies reflecting demandingness and responsiveness. Demandingness, or control, refers to the degree to which parents attempt to integrate a child into the family social system by enforcing family rules and standards for behavior, setting expectations that are developmentally appropriate, and providing structure; responsiveness, or warmth, refers to parental attempts to support the development of their child's individuality and self-assertive tendencies by being attentive to the child's emotional well-being, special needs, and interests.


Following this early work, Diana Baumrind (1971) conducted extensive observations of parents interacting with their children in their homes and concluded that four dimensions of parent-child interactions reflecting types of responsiveness and control could predict reliably children's social, emotional, and cognitive functioning. Parental control reflected consistent enforcement of rules, provision of structure to children's activities, and persistence in gaining child compliance; maturity demands reflected expectations to perform up to one's potential, and demands for self-reliance and self-control; clarity of communication reflected the extent to which parents solicit children's opinions and feelings, and use reasoning to obtain compliance; and nurturance reflected parental expressions of warmth and approval as well as conscientious protection of children's physical and emotional well-being.

These dimensions were then used to develop a typology of qualitatively different parenting styles based on levels of responsiveness and control: authoritative, authoritarian, permissive indulgent, and permissive uninvolved (Baumrind, 1971; Maccoby & Martin, 1983). Authoritative parenting is responsive and demanding in that parents communicate high expectations, provide clear standards for behavior, monitor child behavior, and discipline based on reasoning and explanation rather than power assertion or withdrawal of love. Authoritarian parenting is similar to authoritative parenting in terms of being demanding; however, parents are described as less responsive in that they are more likely to use power assertive disciplinary techniques and rely on love withdrawal to gain child obedience. Permissive indulgent parents display relatively high levels of responsiveness but low levels of control. Specifically, this style is typified by low levels of control and maturity demands, but high levels of solicitation and demonstrations of warmth. In contrast, permissive uninvolved parenting is described as being relatively low on both warmth and control. At its extreme, this style is considered to be rejecting or neglectful of children.


There is widespread recognition that Baumrind's dimensions describe socialization processes central to the development of childhood and adolescent social and cognitive competence (Grusec & Goodnow, 1994; Maccoby & Martin, 1983). Baumrind's studies established that elementary-aged children of authoritative parents display adaptive levels of self-reliance and self-esteem, and socially responsible, independent, and achievement-oriented behavior; children with authoritarian parents display relatively less independent behavior and lower levels of self-reliance and self-esteem; and children with permissive parents display less positive behavior and self-reliance but high levels of self-esteem. Work by Steinberg and his colleagues (Steinberg, Lamborn, Darling, Mounts, & Dornbusch, 1994) supported the validity of the four-dimension typology in that adolescents with authoritative parents fared best with respect to a range of social, emotional, and academic competencies; students with authoritarian parents reported relatively lower levels of psychological well-being; those with indulgent parents were characterized as enjoying high levels of psychological and emotional well-being but lower levels of achievement coupled with higher levels of misconduct; and students with uninvolved/neglectful parents were characterized as demonstrating the lowest levels of competence in all areas. Moreover, over the course of the high school years, the academic functioning of adolescents with neglectful parents declined and levels of delinquency and internalizing symptoms such as depression increased significantly, especially in comparison to that of students with authoritative parents.


Other researchers have documented similar advantages for children with authoritative parents such that they demonstrate competent social interaction skills, self-reliant and independent problem solving, emotional well-being and overall psychological adjustment, and few maladaptive internalizing and externalizing behaviors (Grusec & Goodnow, 1994; Pomerantz, Grolnick, & Price, 2005). These children enjoy academic success, demonstrate socially responsible and prosocial forms of classroom behavior, and competent relationships with their peers. They also report strong intrinsic interest in learning, positive beliefs about ability and control, and mastery goal orientations toward learning (see Wigfield, Eccles, Schiefele, Roeser, & Davis-Kean, 2006). It is important to note, however, that few of these findings reflect comparisons of parenting styles based on Baumrind's typology, but rather on parenting described more generally along dimensions of control or warmth or in terms of authoritative versus non-authoritative parenting.


The benefits of authoritative parenting have been documented mostly in samples of middle-class families in industrialized Western societies. However, some evidence indicates that parenting in working class and low socio-economic status families tends to be more authoritarian, with fathers using power assertive discipline more often than mothers. Children raised in more communal and extended family networks such as those found in Native American cultures, tend to be treated more permissively than European American children. Chinese mothers tend to demonstrate more controlling, authoritarian parenting practices than their European American counterparts (Fisher & Lerner, 2005). Research on age-related differences suggests that as children get older, outward displays of warmth and affection and direct disciplinary encounters by parents lessen, as verbal communication and discussion increase. Parents also tend to provide greater opportunities for autonomy and self-regulation as children enter adolescence and early adulthood (Maccoby, 2007).

Despite these group-level differences, the positive effects of responsiveness and developmentally appropriate levels of control are quite similar for all children. However, work on gender differences suggests that girls tend to be generally more susceptible to socialization practices than boys, whereas parental control tends to be more critical for boys' well-being than for girls' (Pomerantz et al., 2005; Weiss & Schwartz, 1996). Authoritative parenting also tends to predict social competence and adaptive psychological functioning for African American, Asian American, European American, and Hispanic American children; positive relations between authoritative parenting and academic outcomes have been found mostly for European American children.


Although findings have been fairly robust and consistent with respect to the benefits of responsive and demanding parenting, several conceptual and methodological issues preclude strong conclusions about the effects of parenting styles on children. A central issue is that most researchers document parenting on the part of just one parent, most often the mother. Little is known about the frequency with which both parents display similar parenting styles or about the effects of discordant styles on children's development. Similarly, few studies document parenting styles within the context of broader family systems. It also is not clear how consistent parenting styles are across contexts and age of the child. In this regard, the degree to which consistency moderates the effects of parenting styles on child outcomes is not known. However, inconsistent parenting has been related to aggressive and noncompli-ant behavior throughout childhood and adolescence (Wentzel, 1994).

Additional concerns surround the methods employed to document parenting styles (Maccoby, 2007). In studies of young children, observations of mother-child interactions during prescribed laboratory-based activities typically are used to identify specific parenting styles. Or mothers are asked to self-report on their parenting behaviors. In the case of observational studies, issues focus on how to capture behavior in real time and take into account the sequential and reciprocal nature of parent-child interactions. Decisions concerning whether to interpret interactions as a function of time, event, or context also are cause for debate. The use of mothers' reports has been met with concern given the psychological investment that mothers have in presenting themselves and their children in the best light. In studies of older children, self-report methodologies typically are used to ask children about their parents' behavior. In this case, researchers place importance on children's cognitive understanding of their parents' actions rather than on objective forms of behavior. However, the degree to which these reports are reliable and valid assessments of parents' behavior as opposed to characteristics of the child is not well understood.

Of final interest are the processes and mechanisms by which parenting styles might have their influence on child outcomes. To illustrate, reasons for why responsive parenting should be related to a child's academic performance have not been well articulated. Darling and Steinberg (1993) argued that parenting styles are part of a more complex system of parental inputs that include goals and expectations for their children (e.g., expectations for academic performance) and provisions of opportunities, resources, and instruction (e.g., academic enrichment programs, help with homework) targeted at achieving specific outcomes (e.g., mastery of academic subject matter). Additional research and theorizing that clarifies these possibilities is needed.


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Darling, N., & Steinberg, L. (1993). Parenting style as context: An integrative model. Psychological Bulletin, 113(3), 487–49.

Fisher, B. C., & Lerner, M. R. (2005). Encyclopedia of applied developmental science. Vol. 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Grusec, J. E., & Goodnow, J. J. (1994). Impact of parental discipline methods on the child's internalization of values: A reconceptualization of current points of view. Developmental Psychology, 30(1), 4–19.

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Maccoby, E. E. (2007). Historical overview of socialization research and theory. In J. E. Grusec & P. D. Hastings (Eds.), Handbook of socialization: Theory and research (pp. 13–41). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

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Steinberg, L., Lamborn, S. D., Darling, N., Mounts, N. S., & Dornbusch, S. M. (1994). Over-Time Changes in Adjustment and Competence among Adolescents from Authoritative, Authoritarian, Indulgent, and Neglectful Families. Child Development, 65(3), 754–770.

Weiss, L. H., & Schwartz, J. C. (1996). The relationships between parenting types and older adolescents' personality, academic achievement, adjustment, and substance use. Child Development, 67, 2101–2114.

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Wigfield, A., Eccles, J. S., Schiefele, U., Roeser, R., & Davis-Kean, P. (2006). Development of achievement motivation. In W. Damon and N. Eisenberg (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology (Vol. 3, 6th ed. pp. 933–1002). New York: Wiley.

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