Authoritarian vs. Authoritative parenting

We recently left DC1 with my sister for hir first overnight away from home without parents.  My sister asked, “Do you have any rules?”  And really we didn’t have any.  I came up with, “Don’t rob any banks” (Actually, I came up with, “When we’re gone, your aunt is in charge,” turning to Auntie, “Don’t abuse that privilege.  No robbing banks,” back to DC, “If Auntie tells you to rob a bank, tell her no.”) and DH came up with, “Ze is too short to cross the street by hirself.”  Apparently my sister’s friends have a lot more rules for their kids.

DH and I don’t have a whole lot of rules for our DCs.  We don’t say that they must ask to be excused at the dinner table.  We don’t make them clean their plates. We do have a set bedtime, although we didn’t used to.  But practice has told us that if DC1 isn’t asleep by 8:30 ze is difficult to get up to go to school at 7 the next morning.

We do try to guide DC1 (and someday DC2) into the rules for polite society.  Grown-ups don’t have to ask to be excused at the dinner table.  But when they leave, they must leave politely.  We try to model that.  Adults also can’t hit people, but that hasn’t been a problem with DC1 since ze was 2 or 3.  And if DC1 does anything odd, we address that at the time and explain what appropriate alternative behaviors look like.  So DC1 says please and thank-you and is reminded if ze doesn’t.

Our goal is not to have total and unthinking obedience.  The rules we do have (see:  street-crossing) we have for a reason.  DC1 is free to argue with us about said rules, so long as ze does it in an appropriate fashion that could be termed, “discussion” and not the heated kind.  Our primary goal is to guide, and we have authority because we’ve lived longer and know more about the world than DC1 does.

Another form of parenting is authoritarian parenting.  With this form, there’s a belief that the child needs to respect and obey hir elders because they are hir elders.  Blanket training is an extreme and awful example of this.

The ironic thing is that Authoritarian and Authoritative parenting seem to lead to exactly the opposite types of behavior that the parents are trying to instill.

For example, DC1 is a natural rules follower.   Ze trusts us.  If it were our goal to raise someone who questions authority, we’d be doing a pretty poor job of it.  (Fortunately for us, our goal, as always, is just to make things easier for ourselves.)

We haven’t noticed that kids under authoritarian parenting are any better behaved.  In fact, with more rules, there seem to be more rules to complain about.   And that leads to lots more arguing.  The arguments don’t seem particularly valuable either because there’s a lot more, “Because I’m the adult and I said so.”  Authoritarian parenting seems to create rebels in a way that authoritative parenting does not, despite rebellion being exactly the thing that authoritarian parenting is trying to squash (and questioning authority being encouraged by authoritative parents).

How were you parented growing up?  Do you think how your parents disciplined mattered to you as an adult?  If you have children, how do you try to instill lessons today?

36 Responses to “Authoritarian vs. Authoritative parenting”

  1. Leah Says:

    My parents were definitely Authoritative once we hit 10. I don’t remember so much when I was little — I think we had more rules? But I remember my tween/teen years, and it was all authoritative. They never said no, but we always talked about stuff. Typically, if it’s a no something, I ended up coming around to that point of view as well by the end of the talk. We chatted about pros/cons of various decisions and how to approach situations. I must say, it was sometime frustrating because I wanted my parents to make my decisions for me (and continued to want that long into college, sadly), and they always refused to do so. But it was so useful in training me up to think, and think critically, even though my lazier inclinations had me not doing so.

    I only remember one time where my parents completely put their foot down and I disagreed. I wanted to meet someone I knew from online who was getting married in a local park. My friend said my parents could come too. They thought it was horrible and awful. I think I got my revenge when I showed them pictures of him getting married, and it was indeed in said local park. Since then, I’ve met many people from online, and my parents have been considerably more relaxed (I even met my husband online!).

    I like your parenting method. I hope I have the strength to do that, and I also hope I have good natured kids who work well with that method. I suspect most kids will respond well, but I can definitely see that there might be kids out there who just need someone who lays down the law.

  2. Perpetua Says:

    We are authoritative too, or at least try to be. But I do think that the numbers of rules also corresponds to the child’s personality. (I say this because our kids are very high energy, very physical – though never aggressive except with each other, so they need a few more rules than quieter kids.) We have some basic “rules” about being polite, public behavior (not running away from us, etc), and helping to keep the house neat. We definitely have less rules than a lot of other parents. We were sitting with my Authoritarian relative and pre schoolers and we were amazed by how many rules they had for his meal time behavior – he had to clean his plate for one. I agree that authoritarian parenting creates rebels. One imposes power and order on a child, or one works with a child to guide them to socialized norms. I think in the US we have a very strong bias towards authoritarian parenting, and I think of it every time people on the internet freak out about parents who don’t “control” their children in public. (Though again, I’ve noticed that the parents I know with authoritarian styles often have children to act out more than authoritative.)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Yeah, I’ve seen little hellions both with permissive parents who completely ignore their acting out in public and those with authoritarian parents who seem to be completely ineffective. Often I’ve wanted to go up to a parent and say, “get down to the kid’s level, look hir in the eye, drop your voice, and then tell them to knock it off because they’re bothering other people.” But I don’t.

      Some of those hellions are quite well-behaved when away from their parents though. They have large reserves of being able to behave themselves that some parents have no idea about. (Exception: Obviously some kids have behavioral disabilities that require special training to manage.)

      • undinenotofgeneralinterest Says:

        Good advice, nicoleandmaggie. Our rules were pretty simple: be polite, and, as one of them said to us later, “your rule is ‘don’t be stupid.'” Our rules for ourselves were “address manners as well as content” and “don’t nag; say it once.” That is, if you say “put down the scissors” and the child doesn’t put them down, you go over there and intervene-get down on the floor, as you said.

      • Rosa Says:

        My experience working in child care is that almost all children are better behaved when they’re not with their parents. I always assumed it’s a combination of feeling very safe and secure with the parent, and having the ability to figure out the real limits of a parents tolerance, since most kids have so much time to study their parents.

        The exceptions are the ones who are really afraid of their parents, which goes back to your “intended outcome” – a parent you really think will hurt you is scarier than just about any other authority figure.

    • A Says:

      One of the few things more annoying than an out-of-control kid in a closed-space social situation (e.g. a flight) is an out-of-control kid constantly yelled at by his authoritarian parents.

      More to the topic, one shouldn’t confuse a laissez-faire style with an attempt to authoratative parenting. Setting no boundaries at all seems to be completely different from negotiating boundaries drawing from a long experience as human beings.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        *cough cough* this post may have been inspired by something like that closed-space social situation

        Definitely re: laissez-faire, which I think is probably the permissive style other folks are talking about. Technically we have rules like bogart has for hir kid, but we don’t think of them as rules or treat them like they’re rules (for example, if my sister has different rules at her house, then DC1 should follow those rather than what ze does at home). It’s guidance… I like that phrase “negotiating boundaries drawing from a long experience as human beings.”

  3. Cloud Says:

    One of the frequent commenters on AskMoxie’s site (which I read a lot when I was a new mom) who goes by Hedra has essentially one rule: behavior has to be safe, respectful, and kind. I really like that formulation. We don’t try to make a rule for every situation, we just talk about how certain things aren’t safe, or kind, etc.

    There is actually some really interesting research comparing outcomes in authoritarian parenting, permissive parenting (having no standards for behavior), and whatever the term is for what we try to do, which is having high expectations, but in developmentally appropriate ways, lots of warmth in the family, and being open to discussion of our expectations- i.e., our kids can argue back. Or something like that. Anyway, the research found higher levels of “good” outcomes (where “good” = produces a well-adjusted kid). But I can’t find the link right now, probably because I can’t remember the name for the third type of parenting. I also vaguely remember that there was less research into the outcomes of permissive parenting, and that those seemed more variable than the outcomes of authoritarian parenting. So I won’t try to say more, since there would be a high probability I got it all wrong. Really, what I remember most strongly is that authoritarian parenting has a high probability of producing exactly the opposite result from what it is trying to achieve.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Interesting! When DC1 was about to be born, there was a NYTimes article about how different social classes have different environments for their babies– baby-proof and they can explore anywhere vs. not baby-safe and the kid is put in a play-pen. In typical NYTimes parenting fashion, they claimed causation from exploratory play to social class.

      Hedra’s 3 things maps well to the three words we used when DC1 was small to explain why certain things were allowed or not… “Dangerous, Polite, could hurt X” with the occasional, “yucky” thrown in, though we’ve been pretty lax on the yucky.

    • oilandgarlic Says:

      I remember reading that research. If I remember correctly, both authoritarian and permissive didn’t have good results. As in anything, balance is key. Plus the personalities of the child must be taken into consideration.

  4. Janette Says:

    A study that I followed was longitudinal. The outcome was that children who were raised in consistent homes were happier. It concluded that as long as authoritarian homes were not abusive and athorative homes were did not give full license, both produced children who were creative and productive.
    I have no idea where that study is since I read in my first Masters program in early childhood ed when we found studies in book stacks not computer key boards. Since reading it I have observed my friends. My anecdotal findings are that consistency in a loving manner, without abuse on either end, seems to be the key.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I think the outcome of interest is probably important. With these parenting styles, my immediate thought is not long-term, but whether or not I can trust my kids to go out in public with me. But there do seem to be long-term effects, even if not in terms of creativity etc. Also some parents really do want their kids to not question authority and other parents really do want their kids to question it.

      There’s a famous economist who has a SAHW and he has written one study that “shows” that daycare is bad for all kids. His outcome of interest, “whether kids have the same beliefs as their parents” … apparently kids who go to daycare are less likely to share the same beliefs. And he takes that to mean that daycare is bad. Many of us would not consider that to be a bad thing at all. (The bizarre thing is that he got the article published.)

  5. chacha1 Says:

    I don’t actually know how my parents’ kid-training style would be classified. To me in retrospect, it seems pretty laissez-faire. That is, certain expectations were communicated, and various more or less subtle pressures were applied to get us to behave up to expectation; but beyond that, we had a LOT of “free” time and weren’t expected to account to the folks for our every moment and thought the way it seems some kids are now. Also, what WE wanted to do was given significant weight, and our parents tried hard (even when they were broke) to give us the tools to do what we wanted to do.

    All that said: we learned to set a table, do laundry, help out in the kitchen, eat dinner with adults, converse with adults, observe basic safety protocols, and entertain ourselves in ways that didn’t drive the parents crazy, by the ages of 9 and 11 at least. My memories of childhood are fairly indistinct but the overall tone is consistent.

    My parents maybe had a built-in advantage to getting us to act the way they wanted us to (i.e. like miniature adults): they were educated, and we were isolated. From ages 6.5 and 8 we were in a culturally dissonant environment and our family unit became a nation unto itself. It stayed that way until we went off to college.

  6. bogart Says:

    We have any number of rules. Shoes come off before feet go on the furniture, TV is off during dinner, lunch does not equal a granola bar, dogs stay out of the living room, clothes go in the hamper. And yes, one (not merely children) asks to be excused if one wants to depart the table before the conclusion of a seated meal. I would hardly characterize us as authoritarian, though; all general rules are explainable (this is not to say that our household has never experienced a “because I said so!’ moment), and the consequences for breaking most of them most of the time lend themselves to (a) having to hear something ranging along a continuum that has as one endpoint, “Remember [state rule here]” and on the other “Oh for Pete’s sake!” and (b) exhibiting the desired behavior. Available data suggest this is not proving unduly onerous. Bedtime routine starts around 7:30 on a school night, but only in the sense that I say, “It’s time to start getting ready for bed.” Assorted misbehaviors entail assorted defined negative consequences: whining during tooth brushing means I get to choose which bedtime books I read to you (i.e. you don’t get to choose). Don’t say you weren’t warned. If you’re really whiney, I may choose which order to read them in, also.

    Consistent with @Janette’s comments above but extending them, I work with a researcher who finds, basically, that corporal punishment has few if any detrimental effects if it is applied consistently and is a part of the childrearing tools accepted by the larger community. So if all parents spank bad kids (but not excessively or cruelly), the kids understand this to be part of what parents do to teach them how to behave and not a problem. Though I’m not 100% convinced by this, I do see the logic (also, becoming a parent has led me to see corporal punishment as a far bigger grey area than the spanking opponents would suggest, and I say that in the context of someone who’s very anti-corporal-punishment. But there are plenty of times I’ve stood in a doorway to prevent my kid from going somewhere or hoisted him bodily into a car, either of which would be a crime if I did it to an adult).

    My kid behaves like an angel with everyone except me, but I don’t actually take this to mean that I am unduly permissive and need to be stricter with him, I take it to mean that he works hard to follow the rules 90% of the time and lets his guard down with me. That’s not perfect; I’d like him to question other adults a bit more and question/challenge/ignore me a bit less (or at least select different instances), but I figure it’s a work in progress.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      For us shoes don’t go on the furniture because we want to keep the furniture nice. Lunch isn’t a granola bar because it is important to be healthy (though breakfast often is just a cereal bar…). Clothes go in the laundry basket so they can get washed so there’s clean clothes for later.

      They’re not so much rules as cause and effect.

      As in, DC1 could choose to not put hir laundry away, but then there would be no clothes for later. Ze could also put hir shoes on hir own furniture in hir own room, but probably has never thought to do so. (The cats, though, only have one rule, at least only one rule they ever test: No hitting the children or me. Big cat came from a household with lots of rules and would often scatter guiltily when up on a countertop– took many years for her to realize we didn’t care.)

      • bogart Says:

        I don’t think my DC places any value on nice furniture, health (in the abstract, long-term version achieved by eating a healthy diet), or clean clothes (as a kid IIRC I spent virtually all of two entire summers clad in nothing but a Speedo — one single Speedo that I rarely removed for any reason — quite contentedly), so I suspect for him those are not cause and effect, but rules. Of course they are motivated by my understanding of cause and effect, and I can and do articulate that to him. But I don’t expect him to internalize that stuff at his age.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        We also don’t care much about clean clothes, so that works out for us. Our DC doesn’t have to care about nice furniture, but ze does have to know to treat other peoples’ stuff nicely. Because that is polite.

      • bogart Says:

        Sure, I think we’re actually saying substantively the same thing, except that I appear to be more willing to embrace the label “rules.” I’m definitely not obsessive about cleanliness. DS sleeps in his clothes (he will NOT wear pajamas), which has significant advantages (no need to get into school clothes in the morning) but does at the margins probably increase the burden on me to insist that clothes must sometimes be changed. My general rule (gasp there’s that word again ;) !) is that even if something isn’t obviously dirty, it should not be worn more than 48 hours straight, and no single outfit should be worn completely unchanged to school twice running (it is OK to wear the same pants twice or the same shirt twice but not both). Mostly in making that rule I’m trying to protect my kid from the possibility that others will notice and care, though at his age and for a boy that may be unlikely.

        We’re totally down with the idea that there are different rules in and for different places, and even that rules in the same place vary with circumstances (rules get relaxed or bent during illness, holidays, when an especially exciting new thing, e.g., toy, book, pair of shoes, has come into the house) and more quietness is needed by some household members and some guests than others.

  7. Linda Says:

    What if one was raised in a two-parent household and each parent had a different style? ;-)

    I’d have to say that overall I was raised in an authoritarian household, but my mother was sometimes more authoritative. Father was definitely the rule-maker and rule-enforcer. I was growing up in the 70s and early 80s when it wasn’t unheard of for children to get spanked, and I often was until about age 10. It’s sort of odd that I was also encouraged to study and learn as much as possible, considering that it would lead me to think and probe the rules, though, so maybe father wasn’t quite as authoritarian as I recall.

    I decided not to have kids so I don’t have a parenting style. But I must ask: why is it important to get down to the child’s level when trying to correct behavior? (See, that right there is a sure sign that I really have no kids!)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That sounds a lot like my parents. :)

      “why is it important to get down to the child’s level when trying to correct behavior”

      I have no idea, but it works. I think it makes them pay attention, though the childcare books say it respects them or makes you not as scary or something like that. Who knows.

  8. Rosa Says:

    My kid is on the autism spectrum, so we have a lot of specific rules – “be polite” is just not something he can do, he needs “look at people” “don’t stick your fingers in your nose” “say thank you”, etc. One of the key differences between spectrum vs. non-spectrum is the ability to pick up the locally-relevant rules from social cues.

    But to that end, our rule for other people’s houses and public places has always been “follow the rules of this place”. So there are gym rules, restaurant rules, birthday party rules, grandma rules (actually each grandma has separate rules), school rules, playground rules… that’s pretty much true for everyone but our kid needs them explained, and to make things easier for him we go over basic ones just before we get to each place. Because he’s never, ever, ever going to notice just from Grandma’s pained faces and constant sweeping that the rule at her house is “food is only eaten at the kitchen table.”

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Yeah, there are several kinds of behavioral disabilities (or different abilities, depending on one’s perspective) in which kids respond differently and need different rules and different care than what neuro-typical children need. I definitely am not up to task on them.

  9. Rosa Says:

    We do have different food rules than most of the parents around us, though. There are two. One is, he can eat anything he wants, if people offer it.

    The other is that when someone offers you food the two acceptable answers are “Yes, please” and “No, thank you” and you are not allowed to say the food the other person offered you is gross, fake, wrong, unhealthy, or immoral, etc.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We have that rule too! Fortunately we haven’t had to enforce it in a long time.

      • Rosa Says:

        My kid is pretty good about it but a lot of adults we know are bad models so we end up having to talk about that rule every once in a while.

      • bogart Says:

        Yeah, my DH is among those bad-example adults if not appropriately supervised, though ironically, he would object strenuously to anyone telling him his food choices are fake, wrong, unhealthy, or immoral. But my love of soft cheeses? Gross!

        Don’t worry, we review this point (not OK to tell others that) regularly :) .

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        It’s amazing how much better one’s own behavior/eating etc. is when one is Setting an Example to Others. We’ve already played that card on poor DC1. (Siblings without rivalry be damned.)

  10. becca Says:

    *My parents were essentially authoritative, but leaned very permissive, especially as I got older. I mean, unschoolers generally are. (NB: My parents also deemed me tall enough to cross the street by myself at 5. We had a very quiet street. Also, I’m persuaded by the new research linking *roaming area* and spatial abilities, but then I am biased against thinking it pertains to gender.)

    *I think I have a lot more trust in people’s fundamental drive to learn/be productive/be excellent to each other than a lot of people I know, which may have partially been a consequence of seeing my parents put so much faith in me and my ability to design my own education and life. However, some of it was surely intentionally constructed by my Father’s input on trying to see the best in people. He was good at that. So my parents choices mattered a great deal to me as an adult, but it’s not possible to pull out just ‘style’ as a definitive influence.

    *My kid has an authoritative/strong permissive sympathies mother and an authoritarian/some authoritative sympathies father, so I’m actually really interested in the mixed parenting models. With a quick google scholar search, I didn’t see anything that suggested *both* parents have to be matched for good child outcome (though probably it does lead to parental conflict which itself probably has problematic outcomes if extreme).

  11. plantingourpennies Says:

    Very interesting. We don’t have kids – but reflecting back on my childhood it’s tough to say which branch my parents would have fallen into. My siblings and I were generally terrified of my father’s reactions, but there was never active rebellion from us. In fact, in high school, we never actually had rules (no curfews or limits on where we could or couldn’t go or who we could spend time with), because it was fully expected that we wouldn’t do anything that was bad. Basically we knew how awful the consequences for small screw ups were that we didn’t ever want to test the limits.

  12. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    Blanket training is an extreme and awful example of this.

    Jeezus motherf*cke, thatte is f*cken horrible! I had never heard of blanket training before!

  13. hush Says:

    The one rule I seem to enforce with the most consistency is my rule that my kids are not allowed to use a present they’ve received until they’ve written the thank you note for it first.

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