Understanding Why Authoritative Parenting Is About More Than Parenting

Over the years, I have spoken much about the topic of parenting styles, and specifically about the research related to authoritative parenting as opposed to authoritarian or permissive parenting. Simply put, authoritative parents utilize high levels of acceptance/empathy coupled with moderate to high levels of behavioral control while encouraging psychological autonomy/independence.  While teaching children values and ideals, emphasis is placed on encouraging critical-thinking and problem-solving within a framework of a loving, yet structured household with clear rules and expectations.  Authoritative parenting differs from authoritarian parenting in that the latter utilizes less acceptance/empathy in regards to each unique child while also tending to use more psychological control (instead of independence/autonomy).  Authoritarian parents tend to expect that children will both do and think as they say; there is generally little room for discussion and negotiation.  In contrast, permissive parents often show much love/empathy for their children, but demand little in the way of certain behaviors or development.  Even if values/ideals are expressed, they are commonly not reinforced through rules/demands in the household, and children are often allowed to “take the lead” as they grow.

As noted previously, over a half century of research has found that children raised in authoritative households have better outcomes in almost every imaginable domain that we consider important. Whether it is in regards to compliance or academic/occupational success or relationships with others, research continues to find that these children generally excel.  But as a parent who strives to utilize authoritative techniques, I must admit that there are times when being permissive or authoritarian seems (or is) much easier, at least in the short-term.  When my children attempt to negotiate with me about a particular interest or when they disagree, I find myself either wanting to unequivocally declare “because I said so” [for unclear reasons] or just let an issue go that I feel too tired to take on.  For all of us, it is often difficult to discern when we are allowing too much or giving too little.  That is simply what I will call a “perpetual parenting problem”.  And there are definitely times when I think a parent simply has the right (and need) to declare that a decision has been made—end of story.

But to truly embrace an authoritative parenting style, I think we need to understand more about why this style so often works well, beyond simply the rather obvious idea that regular love/empathy, consistent rules, and good problem-solving leads to good results.   For starters, let’s consider the primary motivators and tools that make each style unique.  For permissive parents, one of the primary methods is the enabling of “immediate gratification” for the child.  Children of permissive parents learn that through a little cajoling or negotiation, they are often granted their desires, even if ultimately it does not lead to the best outcomes.  Take food, for example.  Permissive parents may be inclined to allow their children to make their food choices throughout the day.  Short-term, this seems like a great option, and certainly may make dinnertime or snacks less disagreeable.  But over time, these children may adopt practices that don’t encourage good health/well-being, and also may develop more picky habits that end up resulting in less flexibility when it comes to their diet.  In the process of allowing for regular indulgence, the child (and his or her brain) is basically trained to expect that their immediate desires will be met by those around them.  Not surprisingly, this can translate to serious issues when it comes to managing a career, relationships, and various life choices in general.

On the flip side, children raised in authoritarian households are taught a different principal. It is that “might equals right.” Even if what is uttered does not make sense or doesn’t ultimately correspond to the best practices, what the parent says must go.  If not, then there are consequences to pay, and most children fear the wrath of an authoritarian father or mother when he or she has been crossed.  Often, the authoritarian parent does not acknowledge their infallibilities or the many “grey areas” that exist except at times when an occasional apology surfaces as a means of responding to an egregious mistake (e.g., spontaneously hitting a child out of frustration).  Although different than permissive parenting in many ways, there are similarities between the two.  One, children are trained to respond to an immediate (lower-order) emotion (that being of fear or self-gratification) as a means of guiding their responses.  Two, parents themselves struggle to illustrate the two essential sides of love that neurologically take additional time to experience:  empathy and truth (research has indicated that fear and self-gratification register instantly in the brain; experiences of admiration or empathy take much longer).  Love without either empathy or truth is incomplete as it neglects to teach a child that they are both a unique individual of great worth existing where certain universal truths remain—no matter who they are.  For example, if I am a permissive parent who allows my children to go to bed whenever they want, I might love them greatly, but not be teaching them the truth about sleep that will greatly affect the rest of their lives.  But if I am an authoritarian parent who demands that my children not question any decision I make, then I might miss the opportunities to forge lasting, meaningful relationships while not teaching them how to do the same with others.

This is where authoritative parenting converges as the others do not. Instead of learning that authority is ultimately based on size, age, or financial resources, youth are raised to understand that true, healthy authority is based on respect, experience, and knowledge.  Youth grow up knowing that they are loved deeply, but sometimes this love may feel “tough” and not affectionate because the world demands as such.  It is also that they learn that fear and indulgence do not hold the answers we all seek; each might motivate and inform to some degree, but neither possesses the reason that must underlie decisions we ultimately make.  Without reason or purpose, it is very likely that I as an adult will continue to make whatever decisions are presented to me as the easiest or the trendiest or even the safest.  I will live most of life unsure of why much of what I truly desire seems to slide below the surface, and wonder why my decisions seem like a loose, disjointed connection of reactions, not a woven design of a greater livelihood.  For those whom faith/religion matters, and who are taught that both temptations and fear are resistance that prevents a divine pursuit, it is easy to see how authoritative parenting coalesces very naturally into a spiritual ideal.  But even for those who do not see faith as a guide or pursuit, logic alone suggests the intentionality and understanding and connection that authoritative parenting develops is something that allows a family and society to grow, not fester in its own tempestuous, even irrational course.

Consider the rise of the most infamous dictators. President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe rose to power through fearmongering and deception throughout the election process.  In one particular province where he reportedly got no votes, he ordered the death of 20,000 citizens.  Eventually, over three million Zimbabweans lost their livelihoods and homes as he repeatedly bulldozed over villages that dissented his commands.  History is full of horrific, irrational leaders who indulged their desires and used every tactic, including death, to demand compliance.  Whether or not many of them were raised by parents who did not utilize authoritative parenting is a complex subject for another time.  Although most of us will not lead a country (or even a village), all of us as parents will lead a home at one time.  Every single one of us will have relationships with many other people, and will be asked to play a specific role in the society in which we reside.

Parenting is a rewarding, yet tough endeavor. You might think that being a pediatric psychologist (and having a wife trained as a teacher) makes it easier.  Maybe it does, although I think my wife and I would differ at times with that impression.  But I can tell that you regardless of your profession or your experience, there are daily choices that we all can come to understand and execute, if we have the time, motivation, energy, and understanding.  Again, parenting is largely about percentages, not perfection.  But if we understand why we are doing what we do, and why it is worth taking on specific tasks or conversations that seem much easier to defer or dictate, then my hope is that we will further dedicate ourselves to the great cause that is at hand.  There are no guarantees that striving towards an authoritative style will lead to good outcomes, as some youth will continue to struggle for reasons beyond our control.  But when it comes to playing the “parenting odds”, I would suggest that this mode of focus is the least gamble we have.  I guess in the end, though, whether you consider yourself a spiritual person or not, it is ultimately a leap of faith.  When I indulge, no faith is required to see happiness emerge; when I dictate, no faith is required to see fear appear.  But when reason and empathy converge, I must hope that whatever is going on in my children’s minds are inklings of growth and understanding that will someday be the foundation of their daily lives.  It is a mysterious process supported most by the elapse of time.  But when the decades to come bear great fruit and the days upon provide even a little bloom, there is no mistaking the manner in which it grew.

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