When Sigmund Freud changed the field of psychology in the early 1900s, he introduced the stereotypical relationship between patient and “shrink”: the patient lies on his back on a couch or bed while the therapist listens, takes notes, and then tells the patient how all their problems stem back to mom and dad.
It’s an oversimplified view of what happens in therapy, but Freud–for better or worse–changed much of what we know about how to raise our children, and how to heal from the traumas of our childhood.
But though Freud gave us an interest in how to raise our children, we owe many of the specifics of what we know about parenting to psychologist Diana Baumrind. She published research in 1967 describing three types of parenting, and later researchers added a fourth parenting style.
The Four Basic Parenting Styles
(Demanding and unresponsive)
Authoritarian parents are heavy on expectations and punishment (particularly yelling and spanking) but not heavy on explanations; the phrase “because I said so” may be often heard in an authoritarian home.
(Demanding and responsive)
An authoritative parent might have high expectations for their child, but they communicate those expectations clearly. The child knows what the consequences of their actions will be.
(Undemanding and responsive)
A permissive parent is more like a friend than an authority figure, giving advice rather than demands.
(Undemanding and unresponsive)
A neglectful parent makes no outward appearance of caring about their child. Child neglect is a form of child abuse, and can lead to trauma in children.
Spanking Your Children
Baumrind believed that authoritative parenting was the best method of parenting, and in fact argued that some mild spanking was acceptable in the home. However, modern research on spanking disagrees with her--as do the 53 countries and states that now classify it as child abuse.
A failure to spank your child does not mean that you are being a permissive parent; it simply means that there are better ways to express discipline than with physical punishment. (See “positive parenting” below.)
You may also have heard of a couple other parenting styles along this spectrum: overparenting (also known as “helicopter parenting”) and positive parenting.
Overparenting is sometimes described as a more “extreme” version of authoritarian parenting. The helicopter parent is extremely responsive to their child’s needs, and can be either demanding (authoritarian) or undemanding (permissive).
Some helicopter parents refuse to watch their child fail (and therefore refuse to let them grow) or give them almost no responsibilities. Children that grow up under these parents never learn to fend for themselves. They may also lack basic skills of independence such as cooking and cleaning.
Other helicopter parents simply watch their child’s every move and critique every mistake. These children may learn to be unsatisfied with any personal achievements they make, as their mistakes historically mattered far more than their accomplishments; they may also learn traits of compulsive lying, as the parent cannot be angry about mistakes the child successfully kept hidden.
One study showed that overparenting is associated with low family satisfaction and entitlement. Another showed that young adults raised in overparented homes had “a sense that one cannot accomplish things socially or in general on one’s own,” and were likely to turn to maladaptive workplace responses and poor coping strategies.
Baumrind’s studies showed many detrimental effects of permissive parenting on a child’s behavior, and many see positive parenting as merely an extension of this unhealthy permissive behavior and treating one’s child like a friend.
However, positive parenting is more related to authoritative parenting than permissive. The positive parent is demanding (sets expectations and rules for their child) and responsive (fosters communication about those rules), but rather than accepting Baumrind’s model of spanking as discipline, focuses on positive forms of discipline.
Positive discipline is not reactionary, but educational and communicative. A positive parent may be friendly with their child–that is, treat their child with respect and kindness, and foster a relationship where their child feels comfortable talking to them–but this does not mean that they confuse the role of parent and friend.
Parenting is full of difficult lines that one must tread. Research for decades has backed authoritative parenting styles (demanding yet responsive), but the model of authoritative parenting does not perfectly tell a parent how demanding or responsive is “too” demanding or responsive. In addition, authoritative parenting that also includes physical punishment is at best ineffective at teaching children life lessons and, at worst, traumatic for the child.
Humans are not perfect, and it is likely that most parents fall into over-parenting, under-parenting, or less-than-positive parenting at some time in their lives. Your child will learn in time that you are prone to mistakes. However, if you foster open communication with your child, this will teach them that it’s OK to make mistakes, so long as you keep trying to do the right thing. Ultimately, this all leads to fostering a good relationship with your child–which is essential for maintaining their mental health.