You want to raise a happy, well-adjusted and independent child who is equipped with skills to succeed in life. The question is, how? The answer depends on who you ask. From my-way-or-the-highway parents to those who treat their children as equals, everyone has an opinion and their own reasons to back it up.
But what does the research say? For over four decades, study after study has linked an “authoritative parenting” style (a balance of high standards and emotional sensitivity) to superior outcomes for children.
What Is Authoritative Parenting?
Authoritative parents set developmentally-appropriate limits, enforce reasonable behavioral expectations, respect their children as independent beings, and nurture their children’s emotional development. Rather than harsh punishment, they use consequences that aim to teach their children skills.
Parenting advice from renowned organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Harvard Center on the Developing Child is in line with authoritative parenting, which includes these key characteristics:
A hallmark of authoritative parenting is creating a loving and supportive relationship with your child. “Without this foundation,” says the AAP, “your child has no reason, other than fear, to demonstrate good behavior.”
Aside from good behavior, a strong parent-child bond promotes independence, emotional intelligence, and better language, social and executive functioning skills.
Perhaps most important, the meaningful interactions that spring from bonding with your child during the first five years of her life are critical for optimal development of her rapidly-evolving brain.
Authoritative parents are demanding. They set rules and limits, and expect their children to adhere to them. Their expectations are reasonable and in-line with children’s development (they do not expect a 2 year-old to sit still through dinner, for example). They explain the logic behind rules and limits (we don’t bite because it hurts and is not kind), and encourage open communication about them.
Authoritative parents do not use harsh verbal or physical punishment, which the Harvard University Center on the Developing Child notes can interfere with the foundational brain development of the early years. The AAP also notes that spanking and physical punishment “only teaches aggressive behavior, and becomes ineffective if used often.” In addition to being ineffective, it can result in poor self-esteem, mental health issues and substance abuse in older children.
When authoritative parents discipline, they use tactics like natural and logical consequences and removal of privileges. They are consistent with discipline and follow through with warnings. They acknowledge feelings, avoid shaming, and help their children problem-solve alternative behavior choices.
Another tool authoritative parents use is praising their children when they are behaving in-line with expectations.
Authoritative parents allow age-appropriate opportunities for children to make their own decisions. For a toddler this could be offering choices at snack time or when getting dressed, while older children are given freedom to choose after-school activities or how they want to wear their hair. Allowing choices helps children gain independence, self-esteem, responsibility, and problem-solving skills.
Authoritative parents also do not shield their children from failure, but rather help them understand the its value and how to bounce back from it.
What You Can Do
Authoritative parenting requires thoughtfulness, especially as children mature, test limits in increasingly complex ways, face tricky social situations at school, and enter adolescence. It takes practice to know how to keep your cool, consistency follow through with consequences, and talk with your child in an emotionally sensitive way.
As a parent of a baby or toddler, you can start by building lots of positive interactions into your time together (hint: our BabySparks program is great resource for this!). As your baby becomes a toddler and the drama of big emotions and testing limits starts, popular books like this and this can help you learn strategies for balancing discipline with emotional support.