Parenting Styles Essay

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In 1967, Diana Baumrind claimed, based on her research with a sample of California professors and their children, that the child-rearing methods adopted by parents had a profound influence on those children later in life. She identified three different parenting styles, which differ from each other on two dimensions, warmth and control, as follows:

  • Authoritarian—These parents are low in warmth and high in control. They present children with clear rules and expectations and enforce them strictly. These parents are more likely to use physical punishment than the other two kinds, and they tend not to discuss the reasons for rules or punishments with the children. If they do, the reasons given are unlikely to extend much beyond “Because I said so.”
  • Permissive—These parents are high in warmth and low in control. They set few rules and are rather lax in enforcing them, but they give their children lots of support and love. They tend to believe that the children should be allowed to make their own mistakes and learn from them.
  • Authoritative—These parents are high in both warmth and control. They set clear rules and expect them to be followed, but they are also affectionate and flexible and are willing to discuss the reasons behind their decisions and respect their children’s opinions, so negotiation is possible.

These names do become confusing; in a famous critique of this research, Judith Rich Harris somewhat derisively, but less confusingly, renames them Too Hard, Too Soft, and Just Right. Baumrind argued that, of the three, the authoritative parenting style produces the best outcomes for children. Those children tend to perform better academically, and to get along better both with adults and with other children. They also appear to be less likely to fall into delinquency in adolescence.

Other research has not always supported Baumrind’s findings, however. Cross-cultural research, for example, suggests that while the authoritative style might be the preferred style among middle-class white Americans, the same is not necessarily true of other ethnic groups, even within the same country. Asian American children, for example, perform better in school and are more successful as a group in later life than other minorities within the United States, yet their parents are the most likely to use the authoritarian style. African American and Hispanic cultures favor the authoritarian style, and within those groups, the parents of successful children are more likely to use those styles, therefore one might conclude that authoritative parenting is just a prototypically White middle-class American approach to successful parenting.

Actually, it isn’t that simple. Baumrind’s classification of parenting styles and the expected child outcomes seem to assume three things that may often be untrue: first, that a parent will consistently adhere to a single style; second, that the parent will use the same style with all children; and third, that both parents in a family will use the same style. In Baumrind’s original research, only one parent from each family participated, and so data on consistency was unavailable. Other research on parenting styles suggests strongly that parents typically tailor their approach to a particular child’s temperament and needs, and that this is what constitutes good parenting. It is also fairly evident that a parent often has a spouse who adopts a different style. Parenting behaviors will certainly have an effect on child outcomes, but so will many other variables, and to expect one small piece of the puzzle to significantly predict a child’s future success may be too simplistic.


  1. Baumrind, D. “Rearing Competent Children.” In W. Damon, ed. Child Development Today and Tomorrow. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1989, pp. 349–378;
  2. Harris, J. R. The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do. New York: The Free Press, 1998.

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