The Four Parenting Styles and How They Influence Development

Parents play an important role in their children’s lives, not only by providing essential nourishment and care, but also by providing emotional and social support.

Psychologists have studied the ways parents “parent” since the 1960s; over time, they have tried to classify the range of parenting practices as they observe them. Importantly, research shows that the different types of parenting have implications for children’s academic achievement, mental health and emotional development later in their lives.

Parenting type or style is typically measured on two dimensions — warmth and control. Parents who are high in warmth are accepting and affectionate. They listen to their children and include children in decision making, and they respond to their children’s physical and emotional needs.

In contrast, parents who are low in warmth are less responsive, more rejecting and have trouble expressing affection to their children.

Parents who are high in control set limits for their children and are clear about what these limits are. They explain when certain behaviors are appropriate and how much is allowed. Importantly, these parents also have high expectations for their children. They expect a lot from their children but provide the appropriate guidelines to help them meet those expectations.

Parents who are low in control are often described as permissive. They set few limits, and they typically allow their children to do whatever they want.

The combination of these dimensions results in four general categories, which were termed by Diane Baumrind as the Four Parenting Styles: Authoritarian, Authoritative, Rejecting-neglecting and Permissive.

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Psychologists typically regard authoritative parenting – the style in which parents are high in warmth and control –  as the best in terms of providing children with the emotional and psychological support they need. Research shows that authoritative parents have children that are more likely to succeed in school, have less problem behaviors, and experience less mental illness.

What make authoritative parenting effective is not only the structure it provides, but because children understand why rules are set. Expectations are not arbitrary, and because these parents are loving and responsive, there is value in their approval and disapproval. Children of authoritative parents are challenged to meet their potential, which helps them build self-control and self-confidence.

Unfortunately, the outcomes for children whose parents exhibit the other three parenting styles are less positive. For example, children of authoritarian parents are more likely to experience depression and have poor coping skills. Children of permissive parents are more likely to be impulsive and exhibit problem behaviors in school. Rejecting-neglecting parents, unsurprisingly, have children who have trouble forming healthy relationships and sometimes exhibit anti-social behaviors.

Are these children doomed to grow up with problems?

Not necessarily. First, most studies show that authoritative parenting is the most common parenting style in the U.S. Second, research suggests that different parenting styles may be more beneficial depending on culture. For example, authoritarian parenting has more positive outcomes for African-American families compared to white families, potentially because African-American children are more likely to grow up in environments where safety is a priority.

The bottom line: The degree to which parents exhibit warmth and control matters for children’s development. However, it’s important to remember that the degree of control needs to be appropriate to children’s age and abilities. For example, it might be unreasonable to expect a 2-year old to sit still while reading a book together. Here, punishing a child might seem arbitrary because the child may not understand why they are being punished. Therefore, parents should aim to set high but reasonable expectations for children while showing them responsiveness and unconditional love.

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Parenting and Gender Expectations

Parents often make decisions for their children based on their child’s gender. For example, parents often use gender to make decisions about how to dress their child, what color to paint their room or deciding what activities to enroll them in. These types of decisions may seem inconsequential, but many developmental psychologists have investigated whether parents treat boys and girls differently in more consequential ways.

Dr. Mesmen and Dr. Groeneveld from Leiden University refer to this line of research as gendered parenting — the ways parents convey how boys and girls should and shouldn’t behave. Parents rarely admit that they explicitly treat their sons and daughters differently, but a number of studies suggest that parents may unintentionally treat their children differently by conveying gender stereotypes to them.

In one classic study, an infant was dressed in either female-typical (pink) or male-typical (blue) clothing, and adult males and females were asked to interact naturally with the infant. The researchers found that adults spoke more to the female-looking infant, but made more eye contact with the male-looking infant. There were also some differences between male and female adults. For instance, male adults were more likely to smile at the male-looking infant, and females were more likely to use feminine toys when interacting with the female-looking infant. When later interviewed, parents were largely unaware of their gendered behaviors.

Parents also convey gender expectations to their older children in subtle ways. For instance, one study asked mothers and fathers to read a book with their 2- to 4-year-old child that depicted male and female characters doing a variety of activities. During reading, mothers commented more positively about drawings of children doing gender stereotypical activities (e.g., “Playing with dolls is fun!”), and fathers commented more often to confirm gender stereotypes (e.g., “He plays hockey but his sister doesn’t”). Other research shows that mothers respond more positively to their son’s disruptive behaviors compared to their daughter’s disruptive behaviors, but are less encouraging of their son’s prosocial behavior, like sharing and helping.

Parents’ unintentional gendered behaviors, like smiling more, responding negatively or positively to children’s behavior, or playing with certain toys may affect children’s development. Given that children are adept at modeling their parents’ behaviors, parents who endorse gender equality can try to be more conscious of the gender expectations they’re conveying to their children. Indeed, research shows that children who grow up in families with traditional family roles (like fathers working and mothers caring for children) also have more stereotypical gender expectations. Parents can also be more conscientious about exposing their daughters and sons to similar activities, especially if they’re beneficial for learning. For example, research shows that playing with blocks can improve children’s spatial skills, but parents may be less inclined to encourage their daughters to play with blocks because they’re stereotypically viewed as a male toy.

For parents who endorse gender equality, making the additional effort to reflect on the gender expectations that you’re conveying to your child can make a difference. By exposing children to a wide array of activities they enjoy, regardless of their gender, parents can increase their child’s learning opportunities while also broadening their child’s understanding of what it means to be a boy or a girl.