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Different Parenting Styles - Does It Matter?

It’s been one of those interminable days of constant negotiation with your children over the tiniest details, about treats, attention, manners, TV. Then in waltzes your partner, and throws it all to the wind. It’s indulgence time. And it’s worse when the grandparents arrive, bags stuffed to the brim with chocolates and softdrinks, melting at the sound of every infantile grunt, and responding to every whim.

It’s the source of resentment and countless arguments, and can range from minor squabbles to major breakdowns where relatives will suddenly find themselves out of the children’s lives. But this clash about the right way to parent is all about the “grown ups”. What about the children? How do differing styles, especially between partners and within the family group, affect children?

Arguments about parenting are relatively recent, as is the whole concept of childhood. In England, for instance, right into the nineteenth century children were seen, dressed and treated as, small adults. They were even sent to the gallows! Times have thankfully changed, but not always consistently or with consensus. Living in 21st century Australia, we are exposed to diverse histories across many cultures with different child-rearing practices. So what is best?

In the late 1960s psychologist Diana Baumrind set out to answer the question of the best parenting approach, and came up with 4 broad styles:

Authoritative parents: are tuned into their children’s feelings, but importantly set clear and consistent boundaries.

Permissive parents: are tuned into their children’s feelings and rarely or never set boundaries or discipline their children.

Authoritarian parents: are strict, don’t tolerate argument, and are often punitive. Rules can also be arbitrary, and reasons for discipline are rarely given.

Indifferent parents: are insensitive to their children’s needs and often inconsistent in their discipline.

Baumrind found Authoritative parenting to be the best. Indifferent and Authoritarian parenting produced the worst outcomes in children’s happiness and adjustment.

Authoritative parenting is now accepted as an ideal parenting approach, but psychologist Dr Marc de Rosnay from the University of Sydney, says the concept of Authoritative parenting and what makes it effective is often missed, as most people simply see it as a disciplinary approach. In fact it is a lot more nuanced than that.

The success of Authoritative parenting hinges on the combination of consistent and fair rules on one hand, and being sensitive to your child’s needs and feelings on the other. Both discipline and understanding emerge from being able to tune into your child’s point of view.

When we hand out rules, says de Rosnay, explanations that take account of your child’s point of view are extremely important. Discipline is not arbitrary or immoveable, but involves explanations and negotiation. This gives the child an ability to understand the bases of discipline, and adds to the child’s sense of autonomy and responsibility. More importantly, children are learning about how others feel and operate. They are developing their emotional and social competencies. “Children need to develop their own internal guidance system”, says de Rosnay.

So, what happens to this process when there’s inconsistency between parents? What happens if Mum is stricter than Dad, or vice versa, or if the grandparents operate in an entirely different way? Can this be confusing for the child?

      “Children are extremely context sensitive”, says Dr de Rosnay. Children understand different people as different contexts; they understand that different people have different limits and rules and what is appropriate with mum may not be appropriate with dad, for instance.

“All of us have different boundaries,” says de Rosnay. What is important is that caregivers have appropriate respect and engagement with the child’s feelings and are consistent. Inconsistency between caregivers is in fact nowhere near as important as consistency within the caregiver, especially the main caregiver. “The danger occurs if the context is the same but  the same caregiver is inconsistent”, de Rosnay emphasises, “this has a far more potent effect on the child”.

While de Rosnay warns that there can be a problem when parents feel undermined by each other, and it’s extremely important to avoid this, he also cautions about seeing all differences as undermining, pointing out that some of us are over-sensitive about people who do things differently with our children.

    It’s unreasonable to expect, he says, that other caregivers won’t have their own ways of relating to your child. What is important in any child-adult relationship is respect and understanding, and if this is present and consistent, then you needn’t worry.

Marc de Rosnay reminds us that infant research has shown that interactions between mother and infant are amazingly rich. Mothers and infants communicate and learn from each other in a startling dialogue of gestures, sounds and touch; moreover this is natural. When we are naturally tuned into our children, we do best; yet we are all a little different. As the child grows and starts developing her sense of others and self, she is learning both how she is different and similar to others. De Rosnay suggests that this is best promoted in a home environment where everyone is heard and understood, and where a culture of listening and taking other’s points of view is encouraged. And central to that is tolerance of difference.

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Comments (5)

YvetteVignando's picture

Authoritarian versus Authoritative

Totally get your point there Walter about the confusion between the names of the two styles. I agree.

I also do leadership development coaching for senior executives and have to explain this difference regularly. Daniel Goleman (who is prolific on the topic of Emotional Intelligence) wrote an excellent article in the Harvard Business Review called the "7 Styles of Leadership". In that article he discusses how each of the different styles impact on the workplace environment and people. Unsurprisingly leaders are expected to use a variety of styles depending on the situation but the style that is the most effective in most situations is - Authoritative.

And as I said, senior excutives get the terms confused too and having read the article, later say things like "I know I am not supposed to by 'Authoritarian' but aren't I supposed to be something similar to that?" !

It's easy to confuse the two terms.

So I'm loving your comment and trying to think of a good alternative term that encompasses a kind of visionary, respectful, inspiring kind of leadership ( as a parent and a leader in the business world).

walter's picture

Perhaps the categories add to the confusion

Good article and the different styles/same rules makes sense. I found it's difficult to have to keep cross checking between "authoritative" and "authoritarian" perhaps these categories need different names. I'm sure on a TV program explaining this people would end up confused. I'd call the authoritative group "Leadership parents" for example.

The different style thing IS an interesting dynamic, as sometimes too different a style can lead to variations of the rules. And when the rules are applied differently the kids not only know how to differentiate between the styles of the parents they exploit those differences AND the different rules. I've seen friends break up over these "different rule" issues.

As for me I have enough trouble bringing up my dog - I try to be "authoritative/leadership" but the dog treats me as her buddy yet she respects my wife as "authoritative/leader". The dog can even differentiate our styles so I'm sure the kids can!!

Walter Adamson

SarahLiebetrau's picture

Different parenting styles

Yes a very interesting article. Carol your situation sounds infuriating! Hopefully your kids will realise that it's you and your husband that call the shots and grandparents opinions are null and void! Get them to read the fine print on any competition rules, and explain that mum and dad are the judges, all decisions are final and no further correspondence will be entered into. Easier said than done. It is really awful when relatives seek to undermine the balance of an harmonious family - whether intentional or not, due to jealousy or control issues or whatever. It sucks!

Once I was saying to a friend that I was anxious about my husband being 'tougher' on the kids than me, and that I although I understood where he was coming from, I didn't feel that I had it in me to emulate that kind of black and white thinking. I was also over-sensitive about him being too hard on them. She pointed out that kids can adapt to knowing that mum and dad have different limits and different ways of dealing with particular situations (much as you have illustrated in this article). I analysed what was at the core of my concern and I realised that I had been subject to overly authoritarian parenting at certain stages of my childhood and as a result I was over-reacting on behalf of my children to the slightest echo of any such behaviour from my husband. But when I looked at the actual rather than the imagined interaction between my husband and kids, and the impact it was having on my kids, it was nothing like the scenario I had experienced as a child. I had superimposed my own childhood experience over the current one, and in my eagerness for my husband to parent the same way as I do, or for us to 'meet in the middle', me trying to be 'harder' and trying to make him 'softer', I was in danger of not allowing either of our natural styles/personalities to come through. He was overcompensating for my perceived lack of firmness by being extra-firm, and I was overcompensating for his lack of softness by being extra soft! Once I let go of this I realised that within reason, we can both be 'ourselves' (it's what makes us work as a couple after all) and the result is we both move closer towards the middle! I can be firmer without worrying that he'll come down too hard, and he can be softer without worrying that he's got to do all the discipline.

YvetteVignando's picture

Love a Party

Carol's comment reminded me of my decision to offer a party every second year to our three kids. I changed my mind without any pressure purely because the sentimentalist in me thought they were all growing up too fast and we should party while we could. The night before each party I remind myself that I should never have changed my mind.

But back to the article - I found Dr de Rosnay's advice comforting because it also matches reality - are there any families out there with a true consistency in styles among the parents (and as Carol points out, the grandparents)? It seems much more achievable to work on our own consistency in style as long as we are all enforcing the same rules.

That's perhaps where Carol's in-laws (loving a party as they do) went wrong - one of the rules must be surely that the consistency and fairness in the rules can't be maintained if well-meaning party-hat lovers interject their own rules without prior consultation (and an offer to plan the party, pay for the party and run all the party games).

CarolDuncan's picture

Parenting styles vs grandparents

What an interesting article! Our two boys respond very differently to parental authority, and differently to each of their parents! There's a lot of 'good cop, bad cop' goes on around here and it all seems to work well in the end.


The grandparents 'did things differently' in their day and it drives me to distraction.

Most recently, one of our family's 'traditions' was thoroughly usurped and I'm very upset about it.

When the boys were very little, we always had friends around for birthday parties. Now that they are a little older and like to go places and see things, we offer a choice: birthday party at home or a weekend away somewhere. For the last couple of years, the boys have chosen the weekend away option, and we've been to some wonderful places. This has worked well for us as parents as we both work fulltime so, quite frankly, it's easier to go away and more fun for all four of us.

But the boys came home from a visit with grandparents recently and informed me that Grandparent X informed them they should be allowed to do BOTH! Have a party AND have a weekend away!

I feel totally undermined and now that the kids have the idea in their heads, it isn't going away.

I am furious!