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.”

Encourage confidence

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.

When I was expecting my first child, I wanted to know everything that could possibly be in store for his first year.

I quizzed my own mom and the friends who ventured into motherhood before I did. I absorbed parenting books and articles like a sponge. I signed up for classes on childbirth, breastfeeding and even baby-led weaning. My philosophy? The more I knew, the better.

Yet, despite my best efforts, I didn't know it all. Not by a long shot. Instead, my firstborn, my husband and I had to figure it out together—day by day, challenge by challenge, triumph by triumph.


The funny thing is that although I wanted to know it all, the surprises—those moments that were unique to us—were what made that first year so beautiful.

Of course, my research provided a helpful outline as I graduated from never having changed a diaper to conquering the newborn haze, my return to work, the milestones and the challenges. But while I did need much of that tactical knowledge, I also learned the value of following my baby's lead and trusting my gut.

I realized the importance of advice from fellow mamas, too. I vividly remember a conversation with a friend who had her first child shortly before I welcomed mine. My friend, who had already returned to work after maternity leave, encouraged me to be patient when introducing a bottle and to help my son get comfortable with taking that bottle from someone else.

Yes, from a logistical standpoint, that's great advice for any working mama. But I also took an incredibly important point from this conversation: This was less about the act of bottle-feeding itself, and more about what it represented for my peace of mind when I was away from my son.

This fellow mama encouraged me to honor my emotions and give myself permission to do what was best for my family—and that really set the tone for my whole approach to parenting. Because honestly, that was just the first of many big transitions during that first year, and each of them came with their own set of mixed emotions.

I felt proud and also strangely nostalgic as my baby seamlessly graduated to a sippy bottle.

I felt my baby's teething pain along with him and also felt confident that we could get through it with the right tools.

I felt relieved as my baby learned to self-soothe by finding his own pacifier and also sad to realize how quickly he was becoming his own person.

As I look back on everything now, some four years and two more kids later, I can't remember the exact day my son crawled, the project I tackled on my first day back at work, or even what his first word was. (It's written somewhere in a baby book!)

But I do remember how I felt with each milestone: the joy, the overwhelming love, the anxiety, the exhaustion and the sense of wonder. That truly was the greatest gift of the first year… and nothing could have prepared me for all those feelings.

This article was sponsored by Dr. Brown's. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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My husband and I always talked about starting a family a few years after we were married so we could truly enjoy the “newlywed” phase. But that was over before it started. I was pregnant on our wedding day. Surprise!

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