Have you ever had a bad boss? If you’re like most people, more than one sub-par manager comes to mind. Bad bosses are quite common, but they’re not all alike. They tend to fall into two distinct and in many ways opposite categories: authoritarian and permissive.
Authoritarian managers are what we usually think of when we imagine a bad boss. They are strict rule enforcers and micromanagers. Their rules often seem arbitrary and designed just to see if you’re willing to submit to their authority. They tend to be unfriendly and quick to anger. They often fire people for very small reasons or treat people so badly that employees want to quit.
The other, somewhat less common type of bad boss is the overly permissive boss. These managers might be fun and friendly, but they tend to be woefully ineffective. The rules that make sense and are necessary for the success of the business simply don’t get enforced, so things fall apart. People who should get fired keep their jobs, and good employees tend to leave because they’re tired of picking up all the slack.
Now, if you think about the best bosses you’ve ever had, they probably fell somewhere in between these two extremes, finding a balance between the need for rules and obedience with the need for employee autonomy and friendliness. This management style is known as authoritative and falls in the middle of the spectrum of management styles:
Authoritative bosses take the good features of authoritarian and permissive management while discarding the bad features. They’re neither overly strict nor overly permissive. They listen to everyone’s input and then make smart, fair decisions. They’re respected because they do their job well and empower others to do the same.
The three management styles I just described are a caricature of parenting styles. There is a parallel spectrum that applies to parenting, and, as with management, the middle of the spectrum is better.
Although I used the words “bad boss” to describe the two ineffective extremes of the management spectrum, I’m sure no one reading this is a bad parent. I’m simply offering this model as a way to think about the difficult balancing act all parents must play. There are many differences between managing employees and parenting children, but there are enough similarities that the examples of bosses serves as a familiar introduction.
How you choose to raise your children is entirely up to you. My role here is not to tell you what to do, and I’m in no position to judge your parenting style. I am happy to offer suggestions, and many parents do come to Northwest Educational Services for advice. As always, that advice is based on modern psychological research and empirical evidence. In this case – and whenever I write about parenting – I am partly writing as a voice for Greg Smith, sharing the wisdom of his three decades of experience working with children, which includes one decade of raising his own daughters.
What follows is heavily drawn from The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles by Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatté, a pair of PhD psychologists who were colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania. I will quote heavily from their book because, frankly, they’ve said much of this better than I can. I’ve seen the same framework laid out by other experts, and it aligns with Greg’s experience, so I’m confident in its validity.
While there are countless ways to raise children, nearly all parents, like the managers we examined earlier, fall into one of three broad categories: authoritarian, permissive, or authoritative.1 Reivich and Shatté offer definitions:
An authoritarian parenting style is restrictive and cold. A permissive parenting style is indulgent and sometimes neglectful. An authoritative parenting style is warm and sets limits. Hundreds of studies have investigated the effects of these styles. The consensus is that an authoritative style of parenting is most effective in promoting competent, successful, resilient children.2
As you read through the descriptions of each, please reflect on your own parenting style, as well as those of your parents and other parents you’ve observed. Remember, these aren’t black and white categories. You might be mostly authoritative but slightly permissive. Or you might be authoritarian in some situations and permissive in others. Every family is different and will probably need its own unique blend of styles. Raising kids is complicated, so it should not surprise you to learn that your own parenting style changes from child to child, and from situation to situation.
The visual of the spectrum is just a reminder that, in general, shifting toward the center is a good choice.
This framework of parenting styles should prove helpful when you’re developing strategies for parenting, when you’re wrestling with difficult decisions, and even when you’re just talking with your children about school.
Let’s explore the three styles in depth as a way of understanding where they come from and why the blended, middle-of-the-road approach is usually better.
Children need rules and boundaries in order to survive and become accepted members of society. Without parental regulation, many kids would hurt themselves, hurt others, or get into trouble. The authoritarian parenting style is characterized by focusing too intently on this need. Reivich and Shatté explain:
Rules and control are very important to authoritarian parents. They are demanding and have strict and inflexible expectations for their children. Expressions of empathy are infrequent, and helping children express their emotions is not a priority. Authoritarian parents do little to encourage their children to pay attention to their beliefs and feelings, nor do they help their children to think flexibly about solutions to problems.3
This style of parenting could also be called “because I told you so parenting” because rules are laid down without giving reasons. The only reason given for obedience is the threat of punishment.1 This does not teach children to behave well. Rather, it teaches children not to get caught.1
In his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini explains that external pressure “may get us to perform a certain action, but it won’t get us to accept inner responsibility for the act. Consequently, we won’t feel committed to it. The same is true of a strong threat; it may motivate immediate compliance, but it is unlikely to produce long-term commitment.”4 Responding to incentives and punishments, in other words, is not morality but rationality. Carrots and sticks only work for as long as they’re being used. External pressure can be part of a balanced approach to discipline, but it shouldn’t be the only tool parents have at their disposal.
As Reivich and Shatté make clear, the results of this authoritarian extreme are far from ideal:
Authoritarian parents tend to have children who are more fearful, nervous, and moody than children of authoritative parents. As preschoolers, they are more vulnerable to stress, they move about the classroom more aimlessly, and they are more sulky and unfriendly with peers. Studies show that adolescents who are frequent drug users have parents who were more critical and unresponsive when they were young children.3
What the authoritarian parenting style ignores is the that children also need the freedom to explore, learn, test their own limits, and set their own goals. This freedom gives kids a sense of autonomy, and it instills in them the belief that they are trustworthy. The permissive parenting style is characterized by focusing too intently on this need.
Reivich and Shatté explain that permissive parents “are warm, loving, and accepting of their children, but to a fault. … These parents rarely exert firm control. They do not set many rules, nor do they supervise or monitor their children closely.”5 You might call it “laissez-faire parenting.” Children of permissive parents essentially grow up thinking, “I can do whatever I want!”
Permissive parents allow their children to express their emotions in any manner, anywhere, anytime. They do not teach their children how to manage their emotions or how to express them in ways that are appropriate and helpful.1 Emotional regulation is a critical life skill that is rarely taught in schools. If parents don’t teach it or at least lead by example, then children won’t know what to do with their feelings.
This approach has some unfortunate consequences:
Research indicates that permissive parents tend to have children who are more rebellious, impulsive, and lacking in self-reliance and self-control. They tend to be aggressive and domineering with friends and don’t do as well in school as peers who were raised in an authoritative manner. Adolescents of permissive parents are more likely to be heavy drug users.5
The authoritative parenting style seeks to find the happy medium between the two extremes described above, so you might call it blended parenting. Authoritative parents recognize that their kids need rules and boundaries and the freedom to explore and experiment. The boundaries are set in such a way that exploration is reasonably safe.1
The rules are given alongside logical reasons, so kids know not only what to do, but also why they should do it. Because these children understand the reasons why they should follow the rules, they’re much more likely to follow them when no one is watching.1 Authoritative parents teach their children to be aware of their emotions, to express them appropriately, and to control them when necessary.1
Reivich and Shatté describe this approach in detail:
Authoritative parents set clear limits and then monitor and supervise their children to make sure the rules are followed. Unlike permissive parents, they are closely involved in the daily lives of their children, even when their children become adolescents and spend more time away from the family. … It’s not strict obedience that is valued; instead, these parents want their children to understand the ‘why’ behind the rules and to develop the ability to question and negotiate when it is appropriate to do so. When rules are broken, authoritative parents enforce rules appropriately and consistently. They are neither indulgent nor punitive or coercive. Additionally, authoritative parents communicate openly and warmly with their children. These parents value give-and-take in family discussions and want the input of their children when making family decisions.6
This style of parenting typically has a huge, positive impact. According to Reivich and Shatté, children raised by authoritative parents
clearly do best in terms of academic and social competence. As preschoolers, they show better social and cognitive skills. They are more self-reliant and self-controlled. They cope well with stress and approach problems with curiosity and a sense of purpose. With their peers, they are more cheerful and friendly. With adults, they are cooperative and expressive. As adolescents, children with authoritative parents are less likely to use drugs.6
This style is the most successful because it encourages children to become active agents in their lives; it helps them become more response-able. Authoritative parenting involves situationally appropriate rewards and punishments, instills moral values, and provides reality-driven feedback, all of which facilitate the development of the right kind of self-esteem.
Raising kids is incredibly difficult, and this is merely a framework you might use to make a positive shift. If upon reading this you find that your own parenting style isn’t ideal, relax. Don’t be hard on yourself; give yourself permission to be human. There are no perfect parents, and perfectionism is harmful anyway. All parents can improve. Every interaction with your child is an opportunity to make an incremental change in your parenting style. Everything counts.
Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014.
Chris also offers habit coaching, helping busy adults with habit formation and productivity.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons.
He lives in Issaquah, WA, where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.
1 Reivich, Karen and Andrew Shatté. The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. Harmony, 2003.
2 Reivich, Karen and Andrew Shatté. The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. Harmony, 2003. Pg. 259.
3 Reivich, Karen and Andrew Shatté. The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. Harmony, 2003. Pg. 260.
4 Cialdini, Robert B. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Revised Edition. Harper Business, 2006. Pg. 93.
5 Reivich, Karen and Andrew Shatté. The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. Harmony, 2003. Pg. 261-262.
6 Reivich, Karen and Andrew Shatté. The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. Harmony, 2003. Pg. 262-264.