Authoritative parenting is praised as one of the most effective parenting styles. Get the definition, learn about its effects and get tips on how you can apply it.

By Tracy Guth Spangler
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We all want to find balance in all areas of our lives, including how we take care of our kids. It turns out that the best and most effective parenting style, called authoritative parenting, focuses on just that.

What Is Authoritative Parenting?

Authoritative parenting is characterized by both high expectations and emotional responsiveness. It incorporates clear limits and fair discipline as well as warmth and support, and it’s an approach in which neither the parent nor the child has the upper hand.

In the 1960s, developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind studied child-parent interaction in families with preschool-age children to determine the most common and effective parenting styles. Her groundbreaking research defined three main styles, contrasting the authoritative parent with those who are authoritarian or permissive. Authoritarian parents are highly demanding but offer little emotional support; they simply demand obedience, and are harshly critical when their kids fall short. Permissive parents are warm and loving but don’t set enough limits, and can be reluctant to make rules or follow through on punishments. The child is left with unclear boundaries and expectations and ends up regulating his or her own behavior.

What Is the Authoritative Parenting Style?

The authoritative approach is more moderate, including high standards but also nurture and responsiveness, and engaging in a relationship with the child as an independent-minded being. Authoritative parents don’t let kids get away with bad behavior; they enforce rules and have expectations. But they are also gentle and rational, explaining the reasons for the rules and the consequences for not following them, and even asking for and listening to the child’s opinions about them. According to Baumrind’s research, authoritative parenting is the optimal parenting style, based on the positive effects it has on children.

Authoritative parents share some common characteristics: They set clear and consistent limits. They have high expectations but are warm and nurturing in encouraging their kids to meet them. They listen to and talk with their children, giving them the opportunity to be independent in their thinking and actions, encouraging their opinions, and discussing options with them. They are flexible and reasonable, and their kids know this and can depend on it. When it comes to consequences when expectations aren’t met, they are fair and, again, consistent with discipline.

What Are the Effects Of Authoritative Parenting?

All of this benefits their children enormously. “There are thousands of studies showing that kids develop in healthier ways if their parents are authoritative,” says Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Temple University specializing in child and adolescent psychological development, and the author of The 10 Basic Principles of Good Parenting. “They are happier, more competent, more socially skilled and more popular as a result, and achieve more in school. They are less likely to develop emotional problems, like depression or anxiety, and less likely to develop behavioral problems, like aggression, acting out, delinquency, or substance use.” Children of authoritative parents also develop good emotional control and regulation, as well as self-confidence about learning new skills or being in new and different places and situations. They are assertive and resourceful.

The key is that authoritative parents are role models, and their kids learn these effective relational skills from them. The balance of boundaries and loving support creates a secure attachment between parent and child that benefits everyone, and the child takes these qualities into his or her relationships out in the world, and eventually with his or her own children.

How To Apply This Parenting Style

So how can you be sure you’re parenting authoritatively? “Be warm and affectionate with your kids, but also have clearly articulated rules and expectations for their behavior, and enforce them consistently,” Steinberg says. And of course, the amount of independence you grant your child will depend on when you deem them ready: “Gradually increase the amount of autonomy you grant your child, but in an age-appropriate way, and only as he or she demonstrates the ability to handle it.”

Being involved in your kids’ lives is another crucial aspect of being an authoritative parent, according to Steinberg. In order to be supportive and understanding, and to set expectations and limits, you need to know what’s going on in your child’s life—at home, in school, and during after-school activities. Ask questions and monitor progress; initiate discussions about classes, sports, friends, and what your kids are reading, watching, and listening to.

And being present in your own parenting is paramount. “I think the most important thing is to parent mindfully,” Steinberg says. “Try not to make disciplinary decisions when you’re stressed or emotionally taxed; take a breath and think before you act. And always be aware of why you are parenting the way you are—what your goals are and what you are trying to accomplish.”

Authoritative parenting will take commitment on your part: “The problem with permissive and authoritarian parenting is that they are easier to do and require much less self-awareness on the part of a parent,” Steinberg points out. Like anything else worth doing, there’s work involved. But the benefits for your children are more than worth it.

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