What “Sensitive” or “Authoritative” Parenting Really Means

Last updated on September 21st, 2016 at 11:57 am

authoritative-parenting-in-actionMany articles you see in the media discuss the positive influence of “sensitive parenting” on children’s development. Sensitive parenting is seen as the gold standard on how to effectively interact with your child to promote their optimum maturation process.

So with all these positive benefits of sensitive parenting, you may wonder what “sensitive parenting” really means. Contrary to what some may think, sensitive parenting does not mean giving in to your child’s every whim or not enforcing rules. Sensitive parenting is often called authoritative parenting.

This approach to parenting involves setting firm boundaries but also emphasizes explaining the reason for rules and meeting children’s emotional needs. This type of parenting is in contrast to permissive and authoritarian parenting approaches. These parenting styles were originally categorized by researcher Diane Baumrind over 40 years ago and they still have relevance today.

As you may have guessed, permissive parents fail to set limits or boundaries on their child’s behavior. On the other end of the spectrum, authoritarian parents run their homes like a dictator and expect children to obey strict rules with little emotional support or explanation. Based on these categories, it is easy to see why authoritative parenting is associated with the best emotional and physical outcomes for children. It serves as a middle ground between being too permissive and overly strict. In this environment, children come to know what is expected of them but are also given the emotional support, empathy, and skills to meet these expectations.

When I first read these descriptions of parenting styles as a graduate student (prior to having kids), I did not think much about it. They made sense and I took note of them in my mind for a later date. Well, now that I am actually a parent, I can really appreciate the usefulness of these categories.

One key aspect of authoritative parenting that I think is often overlooked is the fact that these parents change with their child. Their rules, relationships, and dynamics with their child move and grow as the child develops. It is easy to underestimate how hard this dynamic relationship really is. Authoritative parents, however, aren’t afraid of the challenge. They are in-tune with their child and they know they must grow with their child to meet his/her needs.

In real life, this might mean something as small as allowing your baby to use a fork although you know he/she can’t completely handle it and it will make a mess. Later, it might mean allowing your elementary-age child some freedom, but within certain limits, to travel to a friend’s house on his bike.

This authoritative approach also focuses on skill-building. Through the ability to grow and change with their child’s changing needs, the authoritative parent is inherently building the child’s confidence in themselves and their ability to handle new situations and challenges. If you’ve ever seen a 7-year-old with just a little freedom to ride their bike down the block, you’ve seen the confidence instilled. Inherently, most children know (and most parents too) when they are ready for the next level of skill or responsibility. When given this responsibility at the appropriate time and with the appropriate guidance, a child can flourish.

In contrast, the dictator-type authoritarian approach doesn’t teach the child to think on her own; she becomes crippled by her lack of confidence in her abilities. On the other hand, permissive parenting offers no scaffolding or support—the child just has to figure everything out on their own, which can result in dangerous mistakes. The authoritative approach offers a happy medium between these two extremes.

Now this is not to say that an authoritative parenting approach is easy. As is often the case, the middle approach between two extreme ends of a spectrum is the most difficult. Sometimes it may seem easier to give up and just let your child do whatever they like or bear down and insist on blind obedience. As we have seen with research, however, by sticking with authoritative parenting your children will ultimately reap the greatest benefits.

About the Author

Amy Webb, PhD is a scholar turned stay-at-home mom with two young sons. With her blog, The Thoughtful Parent, she brings academic child development and parenting research into the lives of parents in the trenches of child-rearing. She does not claim to be a parenting expert, but rather a translator of academic research into reader-friendly articles.

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