From free-range parenting to tiger moms: Experts say today's parenting styles stemmed from 3 distinct ideas

·8-min read
Whether you take a gentle parenting approach or make your expectations for your kids crystal clear, experts say there are three main concepts that stemmed the parenting styles we adopt today. (Photo: Getty Creative)
Whether you take a gentle parenting approach or make your expectations for your kids crystal clear, experts say there are three main concepts that stemmed the parenting styles we adopt today. (Photo: Getty Creative)

Whether they know it or not, everyone who spends their days raising (and sometimes wrangling) kids has already chosen a parenting style. And, the way parents relate to and communicate with their kids can vary just as much as the different types of parenting.

Whether it's moms sharing in an online forum or dads chatting at a playdate, parents can be outspoken about their parenting styles and how they relay expectations to their kids. Are they an authoritative parent who expects a great deal from their children? Do they practice attachment parenting, consistently meeting the needs of their infant with a few extra snuggles along the way? Or do they find themselves in the middle, using the permissive parenting strategy of pairing low demands with high responsiveness to kids' needs?

In the sometimes overwhelming landscape of parenting styles, it's normal to wonder whether strict rules or free-range parenting will work best for your family, and to question how a given parenting style may affect kids' mental health and child development.

Where did these parenting styles come from? And how can first-time parents make a decision on which style they prefer before their baby even arrives? Yahoo Life talked to Francyne Zeltser, a child psychologist, certified school psychologist, adjunct professor and mom of two, to decipher the decision.

Where did parenting styles come from?

Parenting styles became a child development construct in the ’60s when Diana Baumrind, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, conducted an experiment about kids and their relationships with their parents. From Baumrind's observations, preschoolers' behavior could be correlated to the way they interacted with their moms and dads.

Baumrind's hypothesis: Different styles of parenting can lead to different child development and behavioral outcomes.

The psychologist conducted extensive interviews with both child and parent, observing them for hours and analyzing her data to identify three distinct parenting styles: authoritative parenting, authoritarian parenting and permissive parenting.

For more than 50 years since, dozens of different parenting styles have come in and out of vogue, including attachment parenting, tiger parenting and free-range parenting. The sheer number of styles can be overwhelming for new parents contemplating who they want to be as parents and how they want to relate to their children.

The good news? "They're all variations on Baumrind's original three styles," says Zeltser. "And as the pendulum swings back and forth between 'children should be seen and not heard' and 'children should be heard and seen,' new styles emerge and fade."

So what does Zeltser say parents should know about Baumrind's three original parenting styles?

Authoritarian parenting

What it is:

Zeltser explains parenting styles all fall somewhere on a scale between warmth and control.

"In the case of authoritarian parenting," she explains, "it's on the low end of warmth and the high end of control."

Zeltser says parents today might think of this kind of parenting style as typical for their parents or grandparents' generations. "It's like the 'my way or the highway' mentality," she explains.

Variations of the authoritarian parenting style include "tiger parenting," where children are steered only toward high-achieving, high-status jobs where academic excellence is paramount and other careers are seen as lesser or not ideal. "Helicopter parenting" is another variation on this theme, with its main goal of controlling a child's outcomes in every aspect of their lives — from the soccer field to college applications.

How it affects kids:

Positively, children of authoritarian parents are goal-driven, risk-averse when it comes to safety situations and generally on their best behavior especially in social and public scenarios. However, "authoritarian parenting can lead to negative long-term outcomes in kids," says Zeltser. "These children tend to be withdrawn or insecure, always worrying about making a misstep. Mental illness can be prevalent, especially anxiety and depression."

Zeltser adds that poor life satisfaction and inadequate coping skills are common among kids with authoritarian parents.

Permissive parenting

What it is:

Baumrind observed permissive parenting to be the opposite side of the style spectrum from authoritarian parenting, characterized by a high degree of warmth and low degree of control.

"In this parenting style, we're just letting children explore and we let them follow their interests and explore the world," says Zeltser, "it's a child-led approach rather than a parent-led approach."

Zeltser explains there are some benefits to this type of parenting style: "It lends itself to removing the judgment from parenting," she says. "You're allowing your child to be themselves and figure out what they like and don't like."

The problems begin, according to Zeltser, when there's no structure at all. "Kids do need guidelines to follow," she offers.

"Free-range" parenting is a variation on permissive parenting, when parents allow their children to explore but also allow them to experience the consequences of their actions, the opposite of the "helicopter parent." "Indulgent parenting" falls even further from the controlling end of the spectrum, when parents typically allow children to do what they want and offer limited guidance or direction. Some characterize this style of parenting as being a "friend rather than a parent."

How it affects kids:

Children of permissive parents are generally less fearful than those of authoritarian parents and are curious and interested in new things. "The negative side of this is that many children of permissive parents are less aware of the limits of acceptable behavior," says Zeltser, "since there's not much regulation coming from the parent, parents might also observe low academic achievement, poor decision making and aggression."

Authoritative parenting

What it is:

Not to be confused with authoritarian parenting, Baumrind's observations placed authoritative parenting as the ideal combination of control and warmth between parent and child.

"It's a balanced approach," says Zeltser, "between setting structure and guidelines and supporting children and solving problems with them instead of for them."

Authoritative parenting proposes that children shouldn't just be seen and heard, they should understand and be understood. "You have an open and honest dialogue with your children and often you can come to a compromise or at least they'll understand better where you're coming from when you set a rule in place," says Zeltser.

There are about as many variations on authoritative parenting as there are stars in the sky, including: "attachment parenting," "mindful parenting," "slow parenting" and "respectful parenting," also known as "resources for infant educarers" or "RIE" parenting, which focus on collaboration rather than authority and respect rather than punishment.

How it affects kids:

Zeltser explains that children of authoritative parents have some of the best outcomes, being more likely to become independent, self-reliant, academically successful and generally well-behaved.

"These children learn the limits and why those limits exist," she says. "So they're more prepared to make life decisions when they already know what might be the consequences of those decisions."

Mentally, Zeltser says, children of authoritative parents are less likely to experience depression and anxiety or show antisocial behavior and aggression.

Dorothy Creek, a mom of three in Pocatello, Idaho, chose an authoritative parenting style for her children. "I have made it a point to let my children know how much I love them for who they are, not what they do," she says. "But we are clear about expectations as well as the consequences for not doing those things."

A mom of six and piano instructor from Rock Springs, Wyo., BreAnn Alvey and her husband also chose an authoritative style when they started to grow their family. Still, Alvey admits as more children came into the picture and their kids grew up and changed, their parenting style had to be adapted.

"As the oldest kids have gotten older and as I've developed as a person, I've relaxed a bit more," she says. "Observing many parenting styles to see what bothers me about them and what about them might work for my family has been helpful."

Zeltser says because there's so much information out there, it may take parents a bit of trial and error to find what works for their family. "Reflect on your own childhood experience and if you have a partner in parenting, ask them as well," she says. "What did you like and not like about the way you were parented? How would you do things differently?"

She also suggests utilizing parenting workshops and podcasts to learn more about the styles of parenting that are available.

And, above all, Zeltser says parents should be patient with themselves and their kids.

"You have to give it time," she says. "Three to six weeks of consistent practice [in one parenting style] will show you what's working and what isn't. [If things don't work out] give yourselves a break and understand that everyone's only human, even your kids. We all have to do the best we can and that's it."

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