In fact, from the moment your baby is born you’re running the gauntlet of competing ideals of how best to raise it.
Do you go the Gina Ford way and impose a strict family regimen? Or do you favour attachment parenting, feeding on demand and co-sleeping?
It’s no wonder most of us worry we might be getting it wrong.
So what are the key types of parent, which is deemed best – and where do you fit in?
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The most famous theory of parenting was devised in the 1960s by New York psychologist Diana Baumrind. She drew up three broad categories of parenting, later extended to comprise four:
The authoritarian parent
This type maintains strict control via rigid rules, without debate. Has high expectations for his/her children, is often interfering. Constantly issuing commands, criticism and only very occasional praise (it may lead to the children becoming “full of themselves”). Lacks warmth, frequently uses emotional pressure (e.g. guilt, shame). A ‘good’ child is seen as undemanding, non-emotional, participates in house chores and develops a sound work ethic.
The authoritative parent
Keeps a close eye on children, sets firm boundaries, but grants considerable freedom within them. Intervenes only when necessary. Sticks to what they say, and does not shy away from conflict when enforcing rules. Loving, supportive, but not over-indulgent. A key aspect is flexibility: adapts responses after listening to and taking into account both their own perspective and that of the child.
The permissive parent
Also dubbed ‘indulgent’ - tries above all to maintain friendship with his or her child. Responsive but undemanding, warm and loving but lax, setting few boundaries and usually giving in to their child’s wishes. Punishments are seldom threatened, let alone carried through. Shies away from conflict. Offers little guidance and discipline and has few expectations. Any discipline is usually in the form of bribes (e.g. ‘if you do this I will buy you that’).
The uninvolved parent
Generally is unresponsive, undemanding, permissive and sets few clear boundaries. Neither warm nor firm and does not monitor the children. Provides the basic necessities (food, warmth, housing, etc) but is otherwise disengaged and offers little to no guidelines or discipline. May argue this forces the child to mature faster and become independent.
Unsurprisingly, the type that experts say breeds the most well-rounded and happy children is the ‘authoritative’ style.
As behavioural scientist and author of Making Happy People Dr Paul Martin puts it: “Most people would like to be an authoritative parent, whether or not they actually are.”
He adds: “On average, the children of authoritative parents are happier, academically more successful, emotionally better adjusted and have better personal relationships than children of authoritarian, indulgent or uninvolved parents.
“The key is that authoritative parenting promotes many of the personal characteristics that typify happy people. These include good social and emotional skills, freedom from excessive anxiety, a sense of control, resilience, self-esteem, optimism, playfulness and freedom from excessive materialism.”
But authoritarian parenting, say experts, tends to lead to children with less social competence because they have always been told what to do.
Children of permissive parents may be more impulsive, fail to learn to control their own behaviour and expect to get their own way. And children of uninvolved parents may become emotionally withdrawn and develop problem behaviours.
The truth of the matter, of course, is that few parents fit neatly into any single category – but, broadly, they may find their usual tactics tally more with one.
There are also complex arguments that suggest there may be benefits to less extreme versions of all of the above four ‘types’.
In some cultures, for instance, more authoritarian parenting styles appear to work. In positive cases of indulgent parenting, meanwhile, the child may be emotionally secure, independent and able to live life without the help of others.
In recent years, various experts have also defined a wellspring of other parenting styles. They include ‘attachment parenting’ – which avoids physical punishment and is based solely on nurturing and warmth for the child – ‘slow parenting’, which encourages parents to plan and organise less for their children, instead allowing them to enjoy their childhood at their own pace, and ‘helicopter parenting’, where the parent is involved in every aspect of the child’s life, stepping in to solve problems.
But, as Dr Martin notes: “These pen-portraits are of course over-simplifications of a complex reality. Most real parents do not fit neatly into just one of the categories, and many display a mix of styles, albeit often with a dominant theme.
“Moreover, the same parents may display different parenting styles on different occasions or towards different children.”
Where authoritative parenting works, he adds, is “unconditional love and acceptance”.
“If nothing else, parents who want their children to be happy should aim to love their children for who they are, not who they would like them to be, nor for what they achieve.”