In the world of parenting, there are few absolutes—especially as we all have to chart our own courses in raising unique children. But research shows the sweetest spot for all families seems to be somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of parenting styles, as they were defined by developmental psychologist Dr. Diana Baumrind in the 1960s.
On one end of the spectrum is authoritarian parenting, which is characterized by strict rules and little compassion toward children. On the other end is permissive parenting. Unlike authoritarian parenting, permissive or “passive” parenting has one big thing going for it: It’s rich in warmth toward children.
As good as that is, studies have shown that kids are more likely to experience self-regulation deficits, bouts of aggression and trouble with authority figures if there isn’t also some structure defined by parents.
“Children who grow up with passive or permissive parents typically become one of two types of adults,” Kristen Shane, LMSW, tells Motherly. “Either they crave structure and can become rigid about rules in their home and workplace or they feel anxious or stressed in environments with rules.”
The sweet spot: authoritative parenting
In the middle of the extremes is authoritative parenting, which assumes all of the benefits of permissive parenting (lavish that love!) without the downfalls.
“Authoritative parenting is most widely associated with positive outcomes for children because it gives children the boundaries and structure they need to thrive and become good citizens,” says licensed psychologist Crystal Lee. “But [it] also provides the warmth, love and nurturing needed to learn how to self-regulate themselves, learn pro-social behavior and build positive relationships with others.”
Create opportunities for self-expression and responsibility
Lee explains authoritative parents encourage free-will within reason, unlike permissive parents who do not offer rules and guidance for their children whatsoever.
For example, she says it could be healthy to allow a child to ride his bike to the local library—if he agrees to go there and back by a certain time of day. In contrast, a permissive parent wouldn’t specify any boundaries or curfews.
“Parents should definitely give their children opportunities to exercise free will and learn to be independent,” she says. “But this does not equate to passive or permissive parenting.”
In a recent article for Motherly, Amy Webb, PhD., said some people are beginning to think of this style as free-range parenting, which encourages confidence and resilience among kids within reasonable limits.
“Free-range parenting is basically the antithesis of helicopter parenting,” Webb says, describing it as a callback to the popular parenting styles in the 1960s and 1970s. “In response to what they see as the cultural trend toward over-parenting and over-protection among parents, free-range parents allow much more independence for their kids.”
Secure attachment means building a safe space for kids
At the same time, children crave the security that comes when they know their parents are looking out for them. As Dr. Deborah MacNamara said, “When children can take us for granted, they can leap into new surroundings of their own making. They are free to discover new places knowing there is always a home to return to. We all need to feel anchored and relationships are the things that hold us in place.”
Such a significant part of loving our children is creating room for them to learn and grow—that just doesn’t have to be all the room in the world.