They sound alike, so they're often used interchangeably. But authoritative and authoritarian parenting styles are actually very different.
Child psychologist Diana Baumrind famously defined three styles of parenting in the 1960s: authoritarian, authoritative and permissive. Most parents have a gut sense of what the first and the last look like. Authoritarian parents tend towards yelling, swift punishments that often have little relation to the gravity of the infraction and a "It's my way or the highway" attitude towards their children. They tend to be on the detached side emotionally, believing that showing children too much affection makes them "soft."
Permissive parents, at the other end of the spectrum, seem to act more like a buddy than a mother or father. Wanting to be liked, even known as the "cool parent," they let their kids call the shots and indulge their wishes whenever humanly possible. They also tend to remove obstacles and solve problems for their kids rather than let them struggle and find solutions on their own, notes a January 2017 report by Michigan State University (MSU).
It's the middle-ground option — authoritative — that can be harder to accurately conceptualize. Yet at the same time, it's the approach that holds the greatest promise to help children grow to be self-sufficient adults with high self-esteem and a close relationship with their parents, affirms the MSU report.
A 'Democratic' Approach
Even though each child's temperament will affect how he or she responds to any parenting approach, authoritative parenting seems to offer a balance that works for most kids. "It's certainly easiest during the middle childhood years from ages 6 to 12, but is applicable and beneficial for all ages," says Wyatt Fisher, PsyD, a family counselor in Boulder, Colo.
Parents who adhere to the authoritative style take a page from both the permissive and the strict approaches. Authoritative parents tend toward moderation. They have high expectations, but also high levels of responsiveness toward their children. They are supportive and nurturing but don't hesitate to draw the line and hold firm on it when necessary. They show respect for their kids and their opinions, but also demand respect themselves.
Some compare the authoritative approach to a democracy: Everyone has freedom of speech and gets a vote, but the parent still has veto power. "Authoritative parenting is viewed as the optimal parenting style, blending the best of both love and limits," says Fisher. "You know you're doing it correctly if you regularly set appropriate limits for your child while also maintaining a loving connection with them."
"Authoritative parenting is a choice that requires proper self-care to maintain."
When it comes to discipline, authoritative parents don't allow their child to get away with bad behavior, but do enforce consequences that are logical. For example: taking a teen's phone away for two weeks because she forgot to walk the dog can seem random to a kid, as though the parent's goal is merely spite. If, though, that same teen failed a test because, instead of studying, she was on her phone for hours the night before the exam, then that consequence can be leveraged as a learning tool.
Discipline by an authoritative parent conforms to the situation at hand and the age and emotional maturity of the child, keeping differences between siblings in mind. Indeed, a flexible approach that takes the unique needs of the particular child into account, as well as the goal in the current situation, can be the most productive, according to research published in February 2017 in Current Opinion in Psychology.
Authoritative parents encourage a verbal give-and-take, rather than just issuing an order as a strict, authoritarian parent might. They take the time to explain the "why" of the discipline or consequences. In short, parents who employ the authoritative style see their child's bad choices and the resulting consequences as a way for him or her to learn how to make smarter moves in the future.
Overall Effect on Children
"A child raised with authoritative parents has several advantages," says Fisher. "First, they continually feel loved, which gives them immense security and confidence in who they are. Second, they continually have appropriate limits, which helps them behave more effectively in relationships with others and in settings such as school, on sports teams and in the workplace."
The warmth of an authoritative parent allows a child to feel safe in sharing feelings while strengthening the parent-child relationship. The value of that is tremendous, especially when children reach the teen years. High-schoolers who seem to value their mom or dad's opinion more than their friends? They do exist, and are likely to have been raised in the authoritative style.
The Balancing Act
"All intensive parenting takes considerable time and persistence. Authoritative parenting places additional demands on those in the home," notes Chaoyi He in a 2018 paper on the topic published by the UCLA School of Mental Health. She also observes that parents must be in agreement about practices and have plenty of patience.
Fisher agrees. "The authoritative parenting style can be challenging to maintain because it's a lot to balance," he explains. "When stressed, many parents slide either towards permissive or authoritarian parenting. Authoritative parenting is a choice that requires proper self-care to maintain."
The challenges of being an authoritative parent can be well worth it, though. It gives you the best chance of maintaining the warmth and affection of the relationship with your child. And your child has a supportive environment that will provide the perfect launching pad for meeting, and even exceeding, your high standards all throughout life.