The best parenting style for a close relationship

by Gary Gilles

Authoritative parenting Authoritative parenting sets clear boundaries by using respect and attentiveness

There seems to be widespread agreement: kids need parents to be involved in their lives. But that’s where the common ground ends. Each parent has a different idea of what constitutes “being involved”. Some monitor their child’s every action, others allow their child great freedom to make their own decisions. Does parenting style matter? If so, what effect does a particular style have on a child’s emotional and social development?


To better answer these questions let’s look at three common parenting styles:

  • Authoritarian
  • Permissive
  • Authoritative

Each of these styles display different amounts of parental action and support. Action refers to how much energy is spent on trying to shape and guide the behavior of the child.  Support speaks to the degree of acceptance and approval a parent extends to the child.

Authoritarian parenting

Parents who use the authoritarian approach usually have strong ideas about childrearing. They create standards of behavior that must be strictly followed, with consequences for disobedience. When the parent and child disagree on an issue the parent typically does not encourage a give and take discussion, but decides for the child. Respect for authority is highly valued and taught.

Jan is a good example of a parent who uses an authoritarian approach for parenting her two children. She is devoted to her kids and spends an inordinate amount of time attending to their needs (high in action). But she squeezes the warmth out of her relationship with them by establishing countless rules that must be followed (low in support). The primary values these rules revolve around include being obedient, respecting authority, and not talking back, among others.

In this type of home the children are usually compliant, high achievers, and good at following directions. The down side is that they often don’t develop problem solving or negotiation skills because they are rarely encouraged to offer their opinion. They also tend to be socially withdrawn and anxious. This stems from a fear of making mistakes or getting into trouble for not doing something “right.” They are more likely to follow someone else’s initiative versus taking their own. Risk taking is minimal and so is the social and emotional growth that could result from taking calculated risks.

So the authoritarian approach, while beneficial in some ways, tends to shape a child’s behavior by control. This control ends up stifling their need to express themselves, be part of the decision-making process, and branch out into new areas.

Permissive parenting

On the other side of the spectrum are parents who take a permissive approach. They, in contrast to authoritarian parents, make few demands of their child and allow them to make many of their own decisions (high support). These parents avoid the use of control and treat their child as if they were a friend, not someone they are trying to guide, shape and teach (low action). The assumption behind a permissive style is that a child will blossom into a responsible and mature adult if given adequate amounts of love, support and autonomy.

Dan and Mary take pride in being “modern parents.” They make themselves available to talk with their 14 year-old son when he feels the need but allow him to make decisions about curfew, friends, dating, grades, and other issues. It’s not that they are unconcerned about his decisions, but feel he will learn responsibility as he makes his own decisions.

This hands-off parenting approach is popular with many kids, especially teens, because it lets them be in control of their choices. But it’s very questionable whether most of these kids are capable of making important decisions on their own? Generally speaking, permissive parenting minimizes the idea that children need active, ongoing guidance in behavior, attitude and values. If the parents do not assume the responsibility for providing that guidance, the child naturally looks to peers, the media and other sources for direction.

Homes using a permissive parenting style leave much of the emotional and social development of the child to chance. As a result, a high number of children from these homes have antisocial behaviors, difficulty with authority, lower school performance, and drug/alcohol abuse. Ironically, these kids also have difficulty taking responsibility for their choices when something doesn’t work out as they had hoped. They tend to blame or feel like they are victims. Most permissive parents are people who truly care about their child’s welfare but are under-involved in guiding their child’s behavior.

Authoritative parenting

If you were to skim off the best qualities of the authoritarian and permissive styles and combine them you would have what is typically referred to as an authoritative approach. Parents using this style have behavioral expectations of their child and will use power and discipline when necessary to enforce them. But they also encouraging self-direction, discussion of opinions and active participation in problem solving. These parents strike a good balance between being an authority figure that provides guidance (high action), while considering the child’s desires and need for autonomy (high support).

Joe and Sally have used routine life events through the years as opportunities to teach their three children what they consider appropriate behavior, attitudes, and values. Their method for teaching is usually conversation, not punishment. When there is disagreement about a parental decision, Joe and Sally invite the children to respectfully express their views. Yet it is understood that the parents have the final word.

Parents who use an authoritative approach must exert more energy to guide and teach than permissive parents, and less control than authoritarian parents. The authoritarian style recognizes that children function best when they know what is expected of them. But it also respects the child’s need to participate in decisions through the expression of feelings and opinions.

Children from authoritative homes fare best of the three styles. They tend to be more socially mature, self-confident about their ability to try and master new tasks, have a greater range of emotional expression, and take responsibility for their decisions.

Creating an authoritative relationship

If you find that your relationship with your child is not as authoritative as you would like, try these ideas:

  • Set behavioral expectations for your child. But don’t just tell them, teach them. Use day-to-day experiences as object lessons to reinforce what you want them to understand. Realize you may have to go over this many times before they get it.
  • Admit to your child when you’ve made a mistake, been harsh with them or need to apologize. This teaches them that you value and respect them enough to ask for their forgiveness. This is a far more powerful way to teach respect than simply demanding it.
  • Set behavioral boundaries where you think they belong. But explain why you are setting them up and what choices they do have within those limits.
  • Encourage your child to express their feelings and opinions on matters where you disagree. This might sound like you’re inviting a battle, but in reality you are communicating to your child that their feelings and opinions are important to you.

©Gary Gilles, 2012

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: