Authoritarian and authoritative parenting styles share similar names and emphasize authority, but they are quite different from one another in their approaches. In this Parade article, Mindpath Health’s Zishan Khan, MD, discusses similarities and differences between authoritarian and authoritative parenting.
Before becoming a parent, questions about your style typically referred to aesthetics. Are you coastal grandma chic, preppy, vintage, or boho? In the home world, do you lean toward mid-century modern or farmhouse? You get the point.
But once you become a parent, “style” is less aesthetic, even if it’s on full display at the playground or as your child melts down at the store. And the question “What’s your style?” can feel far more loaded. It can also be exhausting—do we have to label everything these days? But three parenting styles have been around since the 1960s, and two of them—authoritative vs. authoritarian—sound similar but are very different in reality.
“Diana Baumrind is a developmental psychologist that identified three in particular: authoritarian, authoritative, and permissive parenting styles,” explains Dr. Zishan Khan, MD, a board-certified child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist with Mindpath Health.
Researchers later added a fourth: neglectful.
But let’s hone in on authoritarian and authoritative. The words look and sound the same. It almost looks repetitive having both in there. What gives?
Khan and another expert explained the differences and why no parenting style is all or nothing.
What is authoritarian parenting?
Dr. Khan says the hallmarks of authoritarian parenting are strict, demanding, and low responsiveness.
“These parents tend to be cold and are not nurturing,” Dr. Khan says. “The feedback these types of parents provide is often quite negative, and mistakes result in harsh punishments.”
There’s often little room for discussion or compromise in these parent-child relationships.
“Parents are viewed as the ultimate authority that children must obey,” says Kimberly Berens, PhD.
For example, a teenager wants to go to a party. She asks her authoritarian parents for permission. Dr. Berens says she might be told “no,” and there’d be no further discussion.
What is authoritative parenting?
Authoritative parenting also involves rules and structure. But Dr. Berens notes authoritative parents provide their children with warm, nurturing, and supportive environments.
“Authoritative parents tend to be less rigid and more flexible in compromising with their children,” says Dr. Berens.
Dr. Khan agrees—authoritative parents give children a voice and are willing to lend an ear.
“These parents will discuss with their children instead of taking the ‘it’s my way or the highway’ approach,” says Dr. Khan. “Compared to authoritarian parents, they tend to be more significantly involved with the child’s life and do a much better job providing structure, guidance and sharing their expectations.”
What are other parenting styles?
In addition to authoritarian and authoritative parenting, researchers generally focus on permissive and neglectful parenting. But there are also subgroups that you may be more familiar with, like “gentle” or “helicopter.”
- Permissive. Dr. Khan says the third parenting style identified by Dr. Baumrind, permissive, is generally associated with few rules and little structure. “Parents tend to view themselves more as their child’s friend than a parent,” Dr. Khan says.
- Neglectful. This style is exactly what it sounds like—parents are unresponsive, uninvolved, and disinterested in their children.
- Gentle. A “subgroup” of parenting styles, gentle parenting has become more popular in recent years, though it’s not new. “Gentle parenting focuses on fostering desirable qualities in children by being compassionate and ensuring consistent boundaries,” Dr. Khan says.
- Attachment. Coined by pediatrician William Sears, attachment parenting also focuses on empathy and responsiveness. But it focuses more on physical closeness than gentle parenting, such as skin-to-skin immediately after birth and sleeping close to a little one, explains Dr. Khan.
- Free-range. “Free-range parenting stresses teaching children essential life skills but allows them to explore and develop these skills based on their developmental level,” Dr. Khan says. Parents might let a seven-year-old walk to their friend’s house two blocks away by themselves. But they still emphasize safety, such as looking both ways when crossing the street and wearing a helmet when biking.
- Helicopter. This parenting style involves hovering like a helicopter. “These parents go overboard in paying attention to their child’s experiences and overseeing every part of their child’s life,” says Dr. Khan, adding that these parents are also described as “overprotective.”
Authoritarian vs. authoritative parenting
Should you be an authoritarian parent? Authoritative parent? Something else? The stakes feel so high when raising the next generation. But experts recommend not pressuring yourself to be one thing or another.
“Although both parenting styles involve establishing rules and limits, authoritarian parenting emphasizes punitive consequences and lacks the supportive, nurturing, and loving characteristics of authoritative parenting,” says Dr. Khan.
What would a child psychiatrist do?
“Parents should focus on something other than perfecting one parenting style and instead try to approach their child individually and decide what they feel would work best depending on their intrinsic traits and demeanor and the situation,” says Dr. Khan. “I focus on being as supportive, empathetic, and reassuring as possible toward my son while attempting to foster independence and self-confidence.”