The Best Way to Raise Children? Use an Authoritative Parenting Style

 A four-year-old has a meltdown because he doesn’t want to wear his fancy new clothes to his cousin’s wedding. A 8 yr old doesn’t enjoy doing schoolwork at home, and whines incessantly about the smallest task.  Or a 7th grader quits soccer after an exchange with the coach and announces she wants to change schools.  These types of situations, and many more, challenge every parent. And it seems that parents looking around for advice today are met with a barrage of conflicting information.

But one parenting model has withstood the trends and changing times. It’s an approach backed by four decades of developmental research showing that it is the very best style of parenting for all ages.  And it works well for all different kinds of families, regardless of their ethnicity, income, education, or structure.  It’s called Authoritative Parenting. And it deserves more attention.

Developed by Diana Baumrind in 1966 at the University of California at Berkeley, the authoritative parenting model has evolved over the years. But most importantly, studies show that children raised with parents or caregivers who use this style are the most psychologically well-adjusted. They are creative and intellectually curious, and intrinsically motivated to achieve. They have good social skills and remain connected to those around them. And they manage themselves well–they are self-reliant, self-confident, they take initiative, and they have good self-control.  They become what Drs. John and Julie Gottman call “Emotionally Intelligent.”

What is an Authoritative Parenting style?

As Baumrind explains, authoritative parenting artfully combines two qualities vital to raising children:  Responsiveness and Demandingness.

  • Responsiveness, or nurturance, refers to the warmth, love, understanding, and most importantly the empathy that a parent offers a child. Responsive parenting accepts the child’s unique needs, abilities, and perspectives, taking age and temperament into account. Responsive parents stay attuned to their child’s feelings.
  • Demandingness, or control, refers to age-appropriate limits, boundaries, and expectation that parents set for children. Behavioral guidelines and standards are best clarified through discussion and explanation, preferably ahead of time, which exercises the child’s ability to reason rather than blindly obey. Power-assertion is a last resort, and best reserved for issues of safety. Children become more autonomous as they get older (the end goal is they manage their lives themselves), so the authoritative parent celebrates the child’s small steps toward independence. Again, skilled authoritative parents keep their expectations appropriate, taking into account the child’s developmental skills and temperament while making great use of empathetic limits.  
    • An empathetic limit is a boundary that is set for the child combined with compassion from the parent regarding the child’s perspective regarding the limit. 
      • For example, a 5 year old does not want to wind down and begin his bedtime routine. 
        • “No!  I don’t want to go brush my teeth!  I don’t want to go to bed!”  Rather than meet this merely with insistence, mom shows empathy and says something like, “Oooh, it looks like your having a hard time starting our bedtime routine.  It’s disappointing because you’d really like to stay up a bit longer, is that right?” 
        • Child:  “Yes, I want to stay up all night” 
        • Mom:  “I know what that feels like.  I used to want to stay up all night too when I was a kid.  And growing kids need their rest so that can get big and strong.  Let’s try again.” 
        • At this point, Mom continues to hold an empathetic space for the child’s resistance, even though the limit is firm.  Mom takes as long as is needed to ensure the child understands that this is the direction they are to go.  On this view, there are no threats, disrespectful tones, or punitive physical consequences.  We want the child to develop “internal motivation” to cooperate, rather external through feeling compelled out of fear or loss of privilege.  At a certain point, Mom might present choices like, “Would you like to walk to the bathroom, or would you like to be lovingly carried?”  Many times, a child at this age merely needs some connection to reinvigorate his natural inclination to please his Mother.  

Another important aspect of Authoritative Parenting is maintaining flexibility.  As developing human beings, children need to have a modicum of control over their preferences and choices.  In the case of the preschooler above who did not want to wear his wedding clothes (a true story).  The family had just completed an 18-hour car journey, and the parents could empathize with the child’s distress. They knew he tended toward a sensitive temperament–that he might have been overwhelmed by the new situation and new people. (Children with different temperaments react differently to situations.) They knew, too, that children this age are just developing the neurological ability to manage and inhibit their own behavior. So the parents decided it was more important to have good memories for the family regarding the event, rather than negative ones.  How he looked, they reasoned, was less important than his comfortable participation in the happy events. So they allowed him to wear what he wanted, and the family met their bigger goal of connecting with and enjoying their extended family celebration.

What Authoritative Parenting is NOT

The two dimensions of responsiveness and demandingness can intersect in at least four ways. Each way yields different parenting behaviors and leads to different child outcomes.

  • Authoritarian parenting uses too much control and not enough nurturance. This style is usually presented as  “my way or the highway.” An authoritarian parent might force the preschooler to wear the uncomfortable clothes or punish him for resisting. These parents want the child to “suck it up” without exploring what it feels like for the child. They value rules, obedience, and conformity, and they tend to be punitive, inflexible, and controlling. They do not value a child’s growing independence but rather restrict his autonomy–often creating increasing conflict as the child grows. Authoritarian parents are not interested in their child’s point of view since they are sure they know what’s best. In the extreme, this type of parenting can devolve into abuse. Children raised by authoritarian parents tend to become more dependent and passive than those raised by authoritative parents. They have fewer social skills and are less self-assured. Not used to following their own initiative, they also tend to be less intellectually curious.
  • Indulgent or permissive parenting, on the other hand is high in nurturance but low in control. These parents are child-centered to the point of indulgence, offering a lot of freedom but too few expectations or boundaries. Indulgent parents are often overly concerned with their child’s happiness, or they may see any behavioral control or demand as an infringement on the child’s “rights” (a position popular in the sixties). This approach can also describe the classic helicopter parent: Rather than helping the child to develop her own skills, a parent will overcompensate, doing her child’s homework or running interference for a college-age child who doesn’t get along with a new roommate. In the example of the middle schooler who has an altercation with a coach, the indulgent parent is sympathetic, allows the child to drive the decisions, but does not help the child cultivate skills: A middle schooler, however, can be better supported by helping her speak up, advocate for herself, or come up with alternative ways to solve her problem. Avoiding the problem, by leaving the school should be a last resort only when the benefits clearly outweigh the costs.

Children raised by indulgent parents tend to be immature, with little self-reliance or self-confidence, and they take less personal responsibility than children raised with authoritative parenting. Lacking their own strong internal compass, they are also more easily vulnerable to peer influences.

  • Indifferent parenting is low on both nurturance and control. These parents are neglectful, “checked out.” They are self-centered and take little interest in the child. Children raised by indifferent parents have some of the worst psychological adjustment second only to hostile or abusive parenting. With little parental oversight or monitoring, these children tend to precociously experiment with sex, drugs and alcohol. They are more likely to be involved in delinquent behavior.

Why does authoritative parenting work?

Some behaviors and relationships are protective “developmental delivery vehicles,” and authoritative parenting is one. It packages together a lot of elements that promote healthy development.

Responsiveness, for example, promotes the attachment bond, and when children have a strong attachment they naturally want to be more aligned with the parent.

Then, too, the discussion- and explanation-based approach helps children understand why to do things a certain way. As such, it promotes intellectual development by helping children to understand, and reason about, how relationships work, and to develop moral judgment and empathy. Back-and-forth discussion that respects the child’s perspective is the best way to help her develop thoughts and ideas. In this way, she grows an internal compass of her own–one that will guide her when a parent isn’t around.

High expectations are good, but children need the supports to achieve these. I insisted that my children learn to write thank-you notes but I let them pick out their notepaper and we made the writing session fun. They’ve continued the habit into their twenties. The same holds for the development of bigger skills: taking responsibility, being safe, gaining independence, learning assertiveness, and achieving psychological autonomy. These abilities come step by step, with each step identified and supported. And a warm and light tone helps. 

Authoritative parenting results from a highly effective balance of lovingness and high expectations. Depending on the situation and the child’s temperament and development, this balance constantly shifts. But if parents can keep both dimensions in mind, they’ll hit the sweet spot that enables the best long-term outcomes for the children.

For more information on how to be “Authoritative” in your parenting, see “Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids” by Dr. Laura Markham.


This post was adapted with permission – “The Only Parenting Model You Need,” Developmental Science, accessed March 7, 2019,



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