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Authoritative Versus Authoritarian Parenting Style

There's a big difference between discipline and punishment.

Key points

  • Authoritarian parents value obedience to higher authority as a virtue unto itself.
  • Authoritative parents set fewer rules than authoritarian parents, but are better at enforcing them.
  • The children of authoritative and authoritarian parents tend to be equally well-behaved and high-achieving.

In response to the indictment last week of NFL player Adrian Peterson for child abuse, essayist Michael Eric Dyson wrote a thoughtful piece about the roots of corporal punishment within the American black community.

Among many insights is the following quote:

"The point of discipline is to transmit values to children. The purpose of punishment is to coerce compliance and secure control, and failing that, to inflict pain as a form of revenge ... "

Dyson discusses the etymology of the two words. "Discipline" comes from the Latin "discipuli," from which we get the word "disciple." "Punishment" comes from the Greek "poine" and Latin "poena," which means revenge, from which we get the words "pain" and "penalty."

I find "discipline" to be an interesting word with regard to parenting. It connotes one who shares the beliefs of a master and who follows their teaching. It also connotes being able to stick to a difficult path despite temptations, as in the phrase "self-discipline." The distinction between discipline and punishment comes out clearly, I think, in how we use the two phrases "self-discipline" and "self-punishment." The first is a strength. The latter dysfunctional.

Self-punishment and self-discipline mean very different things.

Psychologists classically describe overall ways of parenting in terms of parenting styles. The most commonly used typology of normal parenting is based on work by Diana Baumrind. She distinguished between authoritative, authoritarian, and permissive parenting. (Later, Maccoby and Martin developed a typology of parenting based on Baumrind's work and added a neglect/abuse category; parenting style typologies do not address abusive or pathological parenting.)

Unlike later typologies of parenting that were melded onto her work, Baumrind focused on control: She believed the job of parents is to socialize and teach children. Parents differ, however, in the type of control they exert. I want to focus on authoritarian and authoritative parenting, as these two styles really differ along that idea of punishment versus discipline. (The other two types of parents—permissive and neglectful—are both relatively low in control and socialization attempts.)

Authoritarian parents believe that children are, by nature, strong-willed and self-indulgent. They value obedience to higher authority as a virtue unto itself. Authoritarian parents see their primary job to be bending the will of the child to that of authority—the parent, the church, and the teacher. Willfulness is seen to be the root of unhappiness, bad behavior, and sin. Thus, a loving parent is one who tries to break the will of the child.

Baumrind's exemplar of an authoritarian mother is Susanna Wesley, the mother of the founders of the Methodist Church. She writes:

As self-will is the root of all sin and misery, so whatsoever cherishes this in children ensures their after-wretchedness ... whatever checks and mortifies it promotes their future happiness and piety.

Wesley's discipline was "strict, consistent, and loving," clearly motivated by her love for her children (Baumrind's original description of authoritarian parenting with supporting quotes can be found on page 891 here).

Authoritative parents are also strict, consistent, and loving, but their values and beliefs about parenting and children are markedly different. Authoritative parents are issue-oriented and pragmatic, rather than motivated by an external, absolute standard. They tend to adjust their expectations to the needs of the child. They listen to children's arguments, although they may not change their minds. They persuade and explain, as well as punish. Most importantly, they try to balance the responsibility of the child to conform to the needs and demands of others with the rights of the child to be respected and have their own needs met (see page 891, above). 1

My students have always had trouble with the words "authoritative" and "authoritarian," because over the years, they have come to be used almost synonymously. But they are fundamentally different, just as the words "punishment" and "discipline" are. Authoritative parents teach and guide their children. Their goal is to socialize their children, so they come to accept and value what the parents value. They hope their children will internalize their goals. They are shepherds. The word "authoritative" was chosen to imply that parents have power, because they are wiser and are legitimate guides to the culture.

Authoritarian parents, however, exert control through power and coercion. They have power, because they exert their will over their children.

Interestingly, authoritative parents tend to be more strict and more consistent than authoritarian parents. They set fewer rules, but are better at enforcing them. The children of authoritative and authoritarian parents tend to be equally well-behaved and high-achieving. The children of authoritarian parents, however, tend to be somewhat more depressed and have lower self-esteem than those of authoritative parents.


1. Research on ethnic differences within the U.S. have yielded some interesting findings. Using Baumrind's original classification scheme and those derived from it, Asian-American and African-American parents tend to be more likely to be classified as authoritarian than European-Americans. Authoritarian parenting in those groups may have more benefits. Researchers have speculated that this may due to problems in measurement, which tend to be culturally grounded in European-American behavioral norms, differences in the cultural meaning of discipline, as well as differences in neighborhoods and peer groups. In general, stricter parenting has greater benefits in high-risk environments. More permissive parenting tends to be most beneficial in safer ones. This is true both across different types of neighborhoods and schools, but also across different historical periods. In general, however, and cross-culturally, authoritative parenting, with its high warmth and high control, has shown broad positive effects.

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