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Parenting Styles & How Children Interpret Them

'Because I said so'. 'Boys will be boys'. 'Be a good girl'. 'You’re just like your father'. 'That’s how I was raised, and I turned out fine'.

Sound familiar? Most parents have been given or heard some form of parenting advice similar to those listed above. And while offering such ‘wisdom’ is nothing new, the concept of parenting is a relatively modern idea. Prior to the 1900s the term didn’t exist – ‘parenting’ doesn’t appear in dictionaries until 1918. And it wasn’t until the 1970s when the concept of parenting became a part of mainstream conversations.

Today, however, there is a seemingly endless amount of advice and information on the topic. Hundreds of books on various parenting approaches – from ‘Positive Discipline’, ‘attachment parenting’, ‘helicopter parenting’, ‘tiger parenting’, and yes, even Smart Love – line bookstore shelves, all promising to help parents raise their children to become happy and successful adults. But with such an abundance of information, how can parents evaluate and determine the good advice from the bad?

In the 1960s, clinical and developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind identified a general spectrum of parenting styles that is still valid today: authoritarian, permissive, and authoritative.

On one end of the spectrum is the authoritarian parenting style, defined by Baumrind, as an “attempt to shape, control, and evaluate the behavior and attitudes of the child in accordance with a set standard of conduct. [The parent] values obedience as a virtue and favors punitive, forceful measures to curb self-will at points where the child's actions or beliefs conflict with what [the parent] thinks is right conduct. [The parent] does not encourage verbal give and take, believing that the child should accept [their] word for what is right.”* Parenting approaches that tend toward authoritarian include ‘tiger parenting’ and ‘tough love’.

And on the opposite end of the spectrum is the permissive parenting style, defined as “attempts to behave in a non-punitive, acceptant and affirmative manner towards the child's impulses, desires, and actions. [The parent] makes few demands for household responsibility and orderly behavior. [The parent] allows the child to regulate his own activities as much as possible, avoids the exercise of control, and does not encourage him to obey externally defined standards.”* One example of permissive parenting is ’indulgent parenting’.*

So which parenting style is better for children? Authoritarian or permissive? The answer is neither.

Although these parenting styles are polar opposites, research consistently shows that, in fact, both styles “have been linked with a variety of negative developmental outcomes including behavior problems over time.”** Some of these can include children experiencing low self-esteem, demonstrating aggressive behavior, becoming withdrawn or depressed, or struggling socially.

So if these two parenting approaches look so different, why do both have such negative effects on children? The answer lies within the child’s point-of-view.

Children who are met with authoritarian style responses experience their views, wishes, and feelings being dismissed. Children who are met with permissive style responses experience avoidance of their views, wishes, and feelings. In both scenarios, the child is left alone with their troubles, leaving them only with their immaturity to help them feel better - which may lead to unhealthy patterns or coping mechanisms.

There is however a style with the most successful outcomes which lies in between authoritarian and permissiveness: authoritative parenting. Research shows that authoritative parenting produce the most successful outcomes; children tend to be content, are independent and self-reliant, develop good social skills, have good emotional regulation and self-control, and are competent and assertive. Braumind defined the authoritative parenting style as “attempts to direct the child's activities but in a rational, issue-oriented manner. [The parent] encourages verbal give and take, shares with the child the reasoning behind [their] policy, and solicits his objections when he refuses to conform. Both autonomous self-will and disciplined conformity are valued. Therefore [the parent] exerts firm control at points of parent-child divergence, but does not hem the child in with restrictions.”*

In other words, authoritative parents are warm and responsive, acknowledging their child’s feelings while providing structure and guidance that is appropriate for the child’s age and development.

But how do parents know what kinds of limits, boundaries, and expectations to set? For example, is it reasonable to expect a toddler to safely empty a dishwasher just because their older sibling can? Or for a preteen to scream and cry on the floor of a department store just because their younger sibling behaves in the same way? The key is understanding what drives those behaviors. Smart Love’s approach uniquely offers parenting advice grounded in a positive view of child development and its stages throughout childhood.

Understanding a child’s development – their biological, psychological, and emotional changes over time – is key for parents’ ability to see their child’s point-of-view. With this knowledge parents can respond in ways that are appropriate, providing structure and guidance without negatively affecting their child’s self-esteem. When parents regulate their child’s behavior in calm, patient, and caring ways, avoiding coercion and added distress, children’s belief in being loved by their parents is not damaged. This approach, which Smart Love’s authors Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D. call “loving regulation”, helps to build close relationships between parents and children. And when children feel understood by their parents and have a strong connection, their happiness and therefore behavior improves.

The alternative is that when children feel like they can’t meet parents’ expectations – which is a potential result of authoritarian parenting – their sense of value and confidence suffer. Or if their feelings are never addressed, a potential result of permissive parenting, children never gain the needed guidance to manage their emotions effectively. But by seeing the world through their child’s eyes parents are nurturing their child’s development to grow into happy, healthy, and functioning adults.

“You can provide your child with a reliable, enduring core happiness that is unwavering even in the face of life’s unavoidable disappointments and misfortunes. This accomplishment is made possible by establishing a pleasurable relationship and not by frustrating your child’s needs or depriving her of your attention. Your child’s inner well-being rests on her certain knowledge that she has caused you to love caring for her. Smart love establishes a more realistic, less pressured timetable for your child’s emotional development; introduces you to new developmental milestones and shows you how to help your child reach them; and offers you a way to shield your child from the consequences of her immaturity without resorting to permissiveness, disciplinary measures, or rewards – all of which are counterproductive. With the help of smart love guidelines, you can raise a successful, well-regulated, and most important, truly happy child while loving and enjoying her to your heart’s content.”***


*Effects of Authoritative Parental Control on Child Behavior. Diana Baumrind. Child Development 37, no. 4 (1966): 887-907. 1966

**Role of Parenting Style in Children’s Behavioral Problems through the Transition from Preschool to Elementary School According to Gender in Japan. Rikuya Hosokawa and Toshiki Katsura. US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, Dec. 21, 2018

***Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child. Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D. Harvard Common Press. 1999




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