Parenting

Parenting Style: Balancing Demandingness and Support

All parents want to control their children. They differ in how they do it.

Posted Nov 02, 2019

Metropolitan Museum of Art/Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art/Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Parenting, in many ways, is about exerting control.

It's our job. We're tasked with keeping our kids safe, guiding them towards healthy adulthood, and helping them fit into society.

Often that means reigning in their behavior.

  • Don’t hit
  • No running with sticks
  • Do your homework
  • Be home by 10:00

Pick any age; it seems like there’s always something that kids want to do that parents want to stop.

Although almost 90 years of research has shown that virtually all parents try to control their children, how they exert control varies in systematic ways. One of the most common ways parental control is classified is in terms of parenting style. Parenting styles differ in the extent to which parents:

  • Adjust rules and expectations to meet the needs and individual characteristics of the child
  • Ask the child to adjust their behavior to meet the needs and expectations of others

Support and control

Another way to think about it: supportiveness/warmth and control/demandingness. Supportiveness/warmth captures the child’s perception that their parent loves them unconditionally. Control/demandingness captures the extent to which parents respond differentially to how well the child meets their behavior demands.

Crossing these two dimensions, we get four types of typical parenting (abusive parenting is considered separately):

  • Authoritarian parents are high in control/demandingness, but low in warmth.
  • Indulgent or permissive parents are high in supportiveness/warmth and low in control.
  • Authoritative parents balance both high demandingness and high warmth.
  • Uninvolved parents are low on both demandingness and warmth.

Children of authoritarian parents don’t rebel

Decades of research have consistently shown that in the U.S., children who describe their parents as authoritative show the best outcomes across the board: They are better in school, less likely to get in trouble, more likely to have friends, and happier and better adjusted. Even more consistently, those with uninvolved parents fare worse than their peers from any other family type. In general, the children of authoritarian parents tend to be conformists. Those from indulgent families tend to get in a little trouble, but not too much (partying, rather than becoming seriously involved in drugs), and underperform in school.

Interestingly, that balance between adjusting rules and expectations to meet the needs of the child and asking the child to adjust their behavior to meet the needs of others isn’t just about families. It’s about families and cultures. In relatively risk-free environments, where there is a lot of support for individuality, authoritarian parents can provide a buffer of protection. They keep children a little reigned in. In very constraining environments with high expectations for conformity, permissive parenting can give children a safety zone where they can express themselves.

Authoritative parents are both warmest and strictest.

The labels "authoritarian," "permissive," and "authoritative" came out of the Cold War after World War II. In fact, much of this research came out of researchers trying to understand the social origins of the Holocaust. “Authoritative”—a word that means a legitimate authority that derives from greater knowledge—was originally called "democratic" parenting. That label fell out of fashion in the 1960s.

Although parenting style is typically classified on the basis of median splits (relatively high or low on each dimension), parents in each style don’t tend to be equivalent. Many people think that authoritarian parents are the strictest—that they will have the highest levels of control. That’s not true. Authoritative parents tend to be the most consistent about setting clear rules and following through. Authoritarian parents set a lot of rules—too many, in fact. They threaten more than they consistently enforce.

Similarly, permissive parents sound warm and fuzzy. They may be, but they don’t tend to be as warm and consistently supportive as authoritative parents. Instead, they set looser guidelines, but then get frustrated and angry when their children don’t follow through on the rules that they haven’t quite set.

Authoritative parents tend to be consistently there for their children, enforcing rules and sanctioning poor behavior, but always being someone that their children can count on.  

References

Darling, Nancy.  (1999).  Parenting Style and Its Correlates.  ERIC Digest.