Few endeavors in life come with both the potential for such tremendous joy and such intimidating challenge as parenting. The stakes are justifiably high. After all, as parents we have the responsibility for the pressing needs of our children in the here and now and the concern about how our daily decisions come together to determine their functioning and happiness in adulthood.
This understandably leads parents to contemplate the question “What makes a ‘good’ parent?” Granted this is a very big question, but it is answerable. As such an important question, social science researchers and practitioners have studied the relationship between parenting and child outcomes for decades. We’re going to take a look at what has been learned and give you some concrete takeaways.
The Big Picture
Parenting involves a myriad of specific interactions with one’s children. It’s how these come together in overarching and ongoing patterns throughout the long course of raising a child that tells the real story of parenting. One of the most frequently investigated and credible frameworks for studying parenting and child outcomes is parenting styles.
These styles form a particular childrearing climate through configurations of parents’ feelings, attitudes, and behaviors. Parenting styles have been found repeatedly to explain children’s functioning and performance in a wide range of areas. These cover social competence, emotional well-being, behavior, and academics and schooling.
The Concept of Parenting Styles
Two important dimensions underlie parenting styles. Parental responsiveness taps warmth and supportiveness regarding the degree to which parents foster and promote a child’s individuality, self-regulation, and assertion by being aware of, sensitive to, and supportive of their child’s unique needs. Parental demandingness captures behavioral control around the claims (or demands) parents make on their child to become integrated into the family, expectations about maturity, and supervision and discipline. This second dimension also includes psychological control, which is the extent parents intrude on a child’s emotional development through practices like invoking guilt, love withdrawal, and shaming.
Categorizing being high or low on the dimensions creates four parenting styles. Note that most of us have a dominant style but within this we can fall along a continuum and/or at times may use another style. It’s also important to keep in mind these findings are reliable at an aggregate or summative level for children’s outcomes. As is the case with parenting style, not every child will fit these descriptions exactly.
Parenting Style and Child Well-Being
Authoritative parents are high on responsiveness and demandingness, and low on psychological control. They listen and respond warmly and respectfully to questions and encourage dialogue. Autonomy in thought and action is promoted but with clear standards and expectations based upon the child’s level of maturity. This is related to taking personal responsibility for self-regulating one’s thoughts and one’s personal and social behavior. Reasoning is used and shared when guiding and directing children. These parents monitor and use supportive discipline as opposed to punitive, and show more nurturing and forgiveness when children disappoint. While such parents do not regard themselves as perfect or infallible, they are firm in their adult perspective while acknowledging their child’s outlook.
When children are brought up by authoritative parents they are more likely to exhibit good self-control, fewer problem behaviors, higher self-esteem, better social skills, positive attitudes about school, good academic achievement, and higher-order thinking abilities. The underlying mechanism that supports these positive outcomes is children having appropriate boundaries, meaningful and achievable goals to reach, and the personal skills needed to do so. This allows children to be successful on their own as they move into adulthood.
Authoritarian parents are low on responsiveness, high on demandingness, and high on psychological control. They are not warmly responsive and discourage dialogue, holding the view children should accept and be obedient to parents’ directives without question. Children are not encouraged to think and act independently but to follow strict standards of conduct set down by the parent. Discipline is forceful and from a point of view children’s self-will should be curtailed to keep them in their place. Expectations for responsibility are often well above the child’s current maturity level but expected regardless to build respect for the parent. Such parents believe themselves perfect and the ultimate authority.
When children are raised by authoritarian parents they are more likely to experience feelings of insecurity and anxiety, lower self-esteem, poorer social skills, negative attitudes about school, poorer higher-order thinking abilities but they tend to make good grades and have fewer problem behaviors. For these children the underlying mechanism is being intimidated and fearful to displease their parents or other authority figures such as teachers and suffer harsh consequences. Such children have not had the opportunity to feel valued for their individual potential. Their parents spend time with them but their efforts are put toward instilling in the child they are not capable of making good decisions. They discourage experiences that would expand the child’s world socially and cognitively. Children have a difficult time gaining the skills and confidence to be successful as adults.
Permissive parents are high on responsiveness, low on demandingness, and high on psychological control. They are responsive to their child’s signals and encourage dialogue warmly and openly, however family decisions are made based on the child’s impulses and desires. Such parents are indulgent and act as a resource to meet the child’s whims rather than guiding with their own perspective as an adult. Children are encouraged to self-regulate but not provided standards for conduct. Few parental demands are made for personal responsibility or appropriate behavior. Permissive parents do not discipline actively with consequences but rely more on capitulating or manipulation. Such parents do not see themselves as infallible or as an authority figure.
Being brought up by permissive parents is related to children having poorer self-control, more behavior problems, poorer social skills, negative attitudes about school, lower school performance, poorer higher-order thinking abilities but high self-esteem. The underlying mechanism is not having appropriate boundaries set, and being without goals past getting one’s way in the moment. Permissive parents spend a great deal of time with their children for determining and providing for their wants. This gives children a feeling of acceptance and higher self-esteem but over time promotes a sense of entitlement. The skills needed to be successful as adults are not gained and an inflated sense of confidence undermines them when faced with situations without immediate gratification.
Uninvolved parents are low on responsiveness, demandingness, and psychological control. They are not warmly responsive to their child’s signals nor engage in much dialogue. They don’t set or enforce self-regulation expectations. It should be noted that unless taken to extremes, this parenting style does not endanger children as their physical needs are met. Rather maturity and responsibility demands are not made on the child and discipline is lacking. Such parents believe children can, and even should, manage their own decisions and behavior without parental involvement. Uninvolved parents do not see themselves as authority figures.
Being raised by uninvolved parents is associated with children having poorer self-control, more problem behaviors, poorer social skills, lower self-esteem, negative attitudes about school, lower school performance, and poorer higher-order abilities. The underlying mechanism for these negative outcomes is simply lacking the deep and meaningful interaction with and guidance from their parents, who as adults could provide opportunities to build competence and confidence in the child but choose not to do so. As adults, these children typically struggle to find success.
How is One’s Parenting Style Determined?
The journey begins long before we become parents. It starts with how we were parented. We learn about social interaction through personal experiences and observing others, in this case our own parents. But there’s more to it. Next add in what we observe and learn from models once we become adults. How well we educate ourselves on child development and childrearing matters. Our personality traits such as agreeableness, extraversion, and neuroticism influence our parenting style. A child’s particular temperament can contribute to practicing one style over another. Life circumstances impact parenting style as well, such as our relationship with our parenting partner, finances, and the safety of our community. The good news is because parenting style is about our attitudes and behaviors, we have control over our choice of style.
Tips to Practicing Authoritative Parenting
The authoritative parenting style is of greatest benefit to children through its association with such a wide range of positive outcomes. Many of you reading may have identified yourself as primarily an authoritative parent and want specifics to keep this going. For others, you may find you are inconsistent, or overall are less so but would like to work toward practicing authoritative parenting.
Here are some tips I recommend and as a parent I use for myself:
Be in it for the long haul. Remember it’s what you do cumulatively that counts. If you handled something poorly, don’t be too hard on yourself but use it as a learning experience. Admit it and acknowledge you’ll improve by saying “I didn’t make the best decision.” “I’m going to work on that for a better outcome next time.” If there are certain periods you can’t spend much time with your child or money on expensive activities, look for more manageable ways to provide experiences. For example, perhaps you can’t visit the zoo but could go bird watching in a local park or watch zoocams together. In truth, these can be just as, if not more, meaningful to your child.
Take your time. Often we react quickly. While sometimes necessary, frequently this sense of urgency is one we or our child creates. But if you get in the habit of saying “I need to think about it” or “We need to talk about it,” you’ll train your child to expect this. This is important for you to hear your child’s reasoning and share yours. Taking your time also means getting really immersed in a few high quality experiences. A strength of authoritative parenting is the attention to building competence. Learning about a topic or becoming great at a skill takes time but the cognitive, social, and/or emotional benefits to your child are immense.
Anticipate and Follow Through. Having a general set of reasonable expectations means you aren’t flying blind on discipline with each new situation. But don’t get carried away with so many rules you don’t allow your child autonomy to practice figuring out and applying what they know about one situation to another. Rules without follow through have no real meaning and undermine a child’s growing ability to take personal responsibility and feel contrition. When you consistently follow through you’ll eventually be able to just reference the impending consequence to be effective.
Genuinely Praise and Reward. Children benefit most when they reach a meaningful and challenging goal and then receive praise that is genuine and not inflated. Children need recognition to know what they’re doing is of value but external rewards put the spotlight on the reward not the action. So rather than a cookie for picking up toys, allow your young child to take a picture of how great the bedroom or playroom looks and send it to Grandma. Instead of paying for good grades, post the report card on the fridge and comment on it frequently. If your teen has been handling peer pressure well, set up a fun outing they help plan with friends who are a positive influence.
In the end, the answer to ‘What makes a good parent?’ is that a child thrives. He is able to have meaningful and positive relationships. She successfully self-regulates and shows appropriate autonomy in thoughts and behaviors to become self-sufficient. He has a healthy sense of self-esteem and feels confident and fulfilled. With its foundation of warm responsiveness, appropriate demands, and low psychological control—the authoritative parenting style is a reliable, worthwhile approach for fostering the well-being of children, both now and for a happy adulthood.
Bornstein, L., & Bornstein, M.H. (2007). Parenting styles and child social development.
R.E. Tremblay, M. Boivin, & R. Peters (Eds.), Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development.
Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Development.
Darling, N. (1999). Parenting Style and Its Correlates. ERIC Digest.
Grusec, J. E., & Davidov, M. (2014). The Role of Parents. In J.E. Grusec & P.D. Hastings, (Eds.),
Handbook of Socialization: Part IV: Socialization within the Family. Guilford Publications.
Lilla Dale McManis, M.Ed., Ph.D., uses her training and experience as a psychologist, child developmentalist, educator, and parent to promote positive child outcomes through informed and effective parenting. Dr. McManis is President & CEO of Parent in the Know, a parenting-role and child social-emotional assessment and reporting service. She believes strongly in translating parenting research into meaningful practice. Read more about Dr. McManis at her website.
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