For decades, pop psych has embraced the premise that there are three basic parenting styles: authoritarian (“Follow my rules because I say so!”), permissive (“OK, you can stay up to 11 p.m., but you’re going to be really tired tomorrow!”), and last but not least, authoritative (“I know other kids are doing it, but we think it’s too dangerous, so no, you can’t.”). It’s that approach — a combination of no-nonsense limit-setting with understanding and concern — which experts say is ideal. (A fourth parenting style, uninvolved, is for parents who check out entirely.)
“Authoritative parents certainly make demands, but they also take time to listen to their kids, empathize with how they might feel and explain why they think their decisions are best for them in the long run,” says Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. This kind of parenting style produces the most emotionally healthy children, she adds.
Not sure where you fit in? Check out these scenarios:
Scenario No. 1
You find out your child, who’s not allowed on Facebook and is under the age-13 limit anyway, has been checking it out at her friend’s house.
- Authoritarian “You not only broke my rules, you broke Facebook’s rule. I am taking away your computer privileges for two weeks, and you won’t be allowed at Sara’s house until I speak with her mother.”
- Permissive “I’m really disappointed you went behind my back. But I guess you must be very curious about this stuff so why don’t we open an account together?”
- Authoritative “I’m not happy that you broke the rules. Were you tempted because it seems like everyone else is Facebooking? Let me explain again why I don’t think it’s appropriate or safe for you right now. And if you do break the rules again, you will lose your computer privileges.”
Scenario No. 2
Your 8-year-old wants you to move his bedtime from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m.
- Authoritarian “Sorry, but you need eight hours of shut-eye. Period. Now let’s go read a story before bed.”
- Permissive “Just because your friend Joey is allowed to go to bed at 9 doesn’t mean you should. I tell you what, though: Let’s compromise and make it 8:30. Does that work for you?”
- Authoritative “I know it must drive you nuts that Joey gets to go to bed at 9, but you need your sleep to have enough energy and focus for school. What is it that you want to do with the extra time you’re awake?
Scenario No. 3
You ask your 11-year-old to empty the dishwasher. An hour later, he’s still playing his guitar … and the dishwasher is still full.
- Authoritarian “This is the third time this week you’ve ignored my requests! You can forget allowance for this week, and we’ll have to see what happens next week.”
- Permissive “Hey, didn’t you hear me? I asked you three times to empty the dishwasher. I took care of it, but can you please take the garbage out after dinner?”
- Authoritative “I know how much you love guitar. And I’m thrilled to see you’re practicing. But I’m going nuts downstairs getting dinner on the table so we can all eat before midnight. To do that, I need your help. That means if I ask you to empty the dishwasher, you need to do it.”
Authoritarian parents aren’t meanies, and permissive parents aren’t pushovers. But the middle ground, experts agree, works best for kids.
“Children raised by authoritative parents grow up feeling that they are heard, that they are worthy of having rules explained to them,” says Dr. Laura Markham, a clinical psychologist and editor of the Web site Aha Parenting. “They understand and ultimately appreciate their parents’ limits and demands because they believe their parents are on their side.”