Throughout the world most parents manage to find acceptable, balanced ways to show their love and wield their authority (R. H. Bradley, Corwyn, McAdoo, & Coll, 2001; Rohner & Rohner, 1981). However, parents vary in how they express affection and implement discipline; that is, they develop characteristic parenting styles. Initial research into parenting styles in U.S. families, conducted by Diana Baumrind (1967, 1971, 1980, 1989, 1991), identified three unique styles—authoritarian, authoritative, and permissive. A fourth style—uninvolved—has since been identified by other researchers in the field. The results suggest these patterns:

  • Parents who use an authoritarian style expect complete and immediate compliance. They neither negotiate expectations nor provide reasons for their requests (“Clean your room because I told you to—and I mean now!). Authoritarian parents also tend to be somewhat cool, aloof, and punitive with children, and they expect children to act in a mature fashion at a fairly young age. Children of authoritarian parents tend to be withdrawn, mistrusting, and unhappy. They have low self-esteem, little self-reliance, and poor social skills, and in some cases they are overly aggressive with others (Coopersmith, 1967; Lamborn, Mounts, Steinberg, & Dornbusch, 1991; Maccoby & Martin, 1983; Simons, Whitbeck, Conger, & Conger, 1991).
  • Parents who use an authoritative style also seek mature behavior from their children, but they do so in a warmer manner that incorporates give-and-take, explanations for why rules should be followed, and respect for children’s viewpoints (“OK, maybe you don’t need to sort through your backpack every night, but can we both agree you’ll do it every Wednesday and Saturday?”). Children of authoritative parents are generally mature, friendly, energetic, confident in tackling new tasks, and able to resist distractions. They have high self-esteem, are self-reliant, and have good social skills. Furthermore, they achieve at high levels academically, are well-behaved at school, and adjust reasonably well to traumatic events (Coopersmith, 1967; Dekovic & Janssens, 1992; Dornbusch, Ritter, Leiderman, Roberts, & Fraleigh, 1987; Hetherington & Clingempeel, 1992; Lamborn et al., 1991; R. C. Loeb, Horst, & Horton, 1980; L. Steinberg, Elmen, & Mounts, 1989).
  • Parents who use a permissive stylecare about their children, but they exercise little control over children’s behaviors. Permissive parents relinquish decisions to children (even fairly young ones) about when to go to bed, what chores (if any) to do around the house, and what curfews to abide by (“Fine. Just ignore what I say!”). Children in such families are typically immature, impulsive, demanding and dependent on parents and, not surprisingly, disobedient when parents ask them to do something they do not want to do. These children tend to have difficulty in school, to be aggressive with peers, and to engage in delinquent acts as adolescents (Lamborn et al., 1991; Pulkkinen, 1982).
  • Some parents are not only permissive but also indifferent to their children. Uninvolved parents make few demands on their children, and they respond to children in an uncaring and rejecting manner. Their children frequently exhibit serious difficulties in many areas, including problems with school achievement, emotional control, tolerance for frustration, and delinquency (Lamborn et al., 1991; Simons, Robertson, & Downs, 1989).

Overall, the research suggests that the authoritative style is the most effective pattern for many U.S. children. On the playground and in the community, children of authoritative parents know that rules exist for a reason, exceptions are sometimes possible, and everyone has a right to an opinion (Hinshaw, Zupan, Simmel, Nigg, & Melnick, 1997). Even so, authoritative parenting is far from universal and may not be optimal or possible in some environments. The effects of a particular style may depend on other dynamics in the family. For example, many Asian American families make high demands for obedience and discourage negotiation over rules (and so appear “authoritarian”), but they do so within the context of a close, supportive mother-child relationship (Chao, 1994, 2000). This parenting style is bolstered in some families by principles of Confucianism, which teach children that parents are right and that obedience and emotional restraint are essential for family harmony (Chao, 1994). In fact, some Chinese American children may feel bad when their parents fail to use an involved, directive style, which they see as an expression of love. Moreover, the children of very controlling Asian American parents often do quite well in school (Chao, 1994; Dornbusch et al., 1987; Lin & Fu, 1990).

Similarly, research yields mixed results as to whether authoritative or authoritarian parenting is more effective in some African American families (Baumrind, 1982; Deater-Deakard, Dodge, Bates, & Pettit, 1996; D. Rowe, Vazsonyi, & Flannery, 1994; Steinberg, Lamborn, Darling, Mounts, & Dornbusch, 1994). Positive outcomes have been found in some children whose parents use the authoritarian style, which is fairly common among African American families, but the benefits may be due to other socialization factors. Quite possibly other important family dimensions—a strong emphasis on spirituality, active involvement of extended family members, ongoing resistance to oppression, cultural pride, and so on—have not been taken into account in researchers’ classifications of parenting styles (H. C. Stevenson, 1995; R. D. Taylor & Roberts, 1995).

Other aspects of families’ lives may make the authoritative style ineffective or impossible to implement. When families live in dangerous neighborhoods, for example, parents may better serve children by being directive, particularly if parents simultaneously communicate the consequences of disregarding strict rules (Hale-Benson, 1986; McLoyd, 1998b). In other circumstances parents are strict not because they are consciously preparing children to survive in hazardous environments, but rather because economic hardship and other family stresses provoke them to be short-tempered with children (Bronfenbrenner, Alvarez, & Henderson, 1984; L. F. Katz & Gottman, 1991; Russell & Russell, 1994).

In a range of cultural settings, most heads of family are sufficiently capable as nurturers and disciplinarians that they inspire reasonably mature, socially competent behavior in children. Through a variety of tactics, and most certainly by being affectionate, parents persuade children that they are trying to be helpful and supportive. As a result, children usually accept parents’ authority, even though they may sporadically (and sometimes recurrently) haggle with parents (Hoffman, 1994). In contrast, when children see parents as demeaning, cruel, or hostile, children tend not to accept parents’ guidance. A key implication for educators is that children from any cultural background who have experienced harsh punishments or uninvolved parenting may exhibit assorted behavior problems both at home and in the classroom. With these children, teachers must typically make special efforts to communicate rules, give reasonable consequences when rules are disobeyed, reward good behavior, and encourage consideration of other people’s perspectives, needs, and feelings.

Educators and counselors may also be able to help by teaching effective disciplinary techniques and other child-rearing strategies to parents. For example, in one intervention with an ethnically diverse sample of low-income parents of 2- and 3-year-old children, parents were randomly assigned to either receive or not receive parent training (D. Gross et al., 2003). Those who received training became more self-confident in their parenting, were more positive in their interactions with toddlers, and used less coercive discipline strategies. In addition, their children showed fewer behavior problems in the classroom.