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Authoritative and Democratic Parenting Programs
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The Big Answer

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Combining Love and Limits in Authoritative Parenting

a book by Robert E. Larzelere

(our site's book review)

This director of Residential Research at Father Flanagan’s Boy’s Home recommends punishment as a backup for unsuccessfully addressed behavior problems. This comes as no surprise considering the fact that the word “Father” connotes Catholicism, which in turn has never been timid about advocating punishments. Add to this the behaviorist slant to Larzelere’s references and you will have a perfect recipe for punitive propaganda.

Catholicism has never been timid about advocating punishments
Catholicism has never been timid about advocating punishments

This article is a perfect example of the misuse of Diana Baumrind’s authoritative parenting research. To elaborate: If a person encountering her research has a conservative, authoritarian agenda and believes that “spare the rod and spoil the child” are words to live by, that person will see Baumrind’s work as a green light to authoritarianism, even though Baumrind herself considers authoritarianism a very bad parenting method, and most people using her results for guidance have sworn off all authoritarianism, punishments, and power trips totally.

But her infamous “parental firm control” terminology (essentially a throwback to the Victorian era that has been obsoleted by the advent of the wonderful successes of the democratic parenting movement) has been exploited by everyone with a child, a paddle, and a yen to introduce the one to the other. Actually, it’s mostly people from the right wing of the Culture War who are engaged in teaching others their “Biblically correct” version of how to parent that have utilized her work in such a distorted way, and these pseudo-experts all need to do four things:

  1. Read Thomas Gordon’s Discipline That Works and find out the real truth about what the bulk of the research has shown us about rewards and punishments.
  2. Read the books here: Authoritative Parenting Programs and ask themselves—ask their hearts—if they really believe that the answer is violence, orders, the promotion of fear, and the pursuit of the false goal of child controlling rather than the healthy goal of empowering children to learn self-control.
  3. Study the enormous successes of the democratic parenting movement on planet Earth, and check out the type of results that are obtained by the following democratic, authoritative parenting methods: P.E.T., STEP, the Ginott method, Active Parenting, Positive Parenting, Unconditional Parenting, Connection Parenting, and Winning Family Lifeskills.
  4. Read Catherine C. Lewis’ classic work The Effects of Parental Firm Control (and our comments about it), which gives an objective scientist’s conclusion about Baumrind’s research.

So what’s wrong with supporting, as Larzelere does, the use of punishment by citing Baumrind, who herself admits that it may sometimes be needed as a last resort? The Gordon book cited above answers this question mostly, but, ironically, so does Baumrind’s research! It turns out that her very own data shows that democratic parenting works great, and she admits that in her research. However, when she, as social scientist observer, sees self-controlled, competent children behaving in ways that display no hint of parent control but overwhelming evidence of children deliberately choosing cooperative and positive behavior due to the reciprocity that has become the trademark of P.E.T. and other democratic parenting methods, she is so surprised that she looks for hidden mechanisms and sneaky covert leverage ([the parents] “had control but didn’t exercise control”) that expose the parental control phenomenon.

In other words, she brought unacknowledged, unconscious, subjective agendas and beliefs into the research arena and used these as a context from which to interpret her findings. The research itself was stellar, but the conclusions she reached, although usually valid and wise, were in such instances as these quite slanted. Her expectations made her see everything as a function of parental control, so, in observing through these parental-control-colored glasses, she found parent control ramifications where there were none, and parent control necessity where the situation required none.

Baumrind sees through parental-contol-colored glasses in evaluating Harmonious, Humanistic, Democratic Parenting (P.E.T.)
Baumrind sees through parental-contol-colored glasses in evaluating Harmonious, Humanistic, Democratic Parenting (P.E.T.)

The saddest aspect of all this is that Baumrind, the mother of the authoritative parenting term and the author of classic parenting studies, never once investigated the realities of the democratic parenting movement and its many remarkable accomplishments. Rather than checking out the realities of the parental control issue in the clear light of the real world by extensive studies of those involved with Solter's (Aware Parenting) or Kohn's (Unconditional Parenting) or Leo's (Connection Parenting) type of parenting, or P.E.T.-type families where democracy prevails and parents empower rather than control their kids, she continued, decade after decade, propagating her “parental firm control” ideas—which is a shame, especially when authoritarian parenting spokespersons exploited it.

And these latter naturally led her and others to subscribe to the need for occasional mild punishment as the ultimate weapon in the parental control arsenal. Granted, those whom she studied that utilized her punitive brand of authoritative parenting had cognitively and socially competent, responsible kids, while authoritarian and permissive parents had kids low in these areas. But when she ran into data from democratic families that showed that her parental control ideas were biased, and that authoritative parents need no firm control or punishments, she stuck her head in the sand, and from that moment on, she gave us slanted science.

Baumrind, once 'firm control' was exposed as a myth, stuck her head in the sand, and from that moment on, she gave us slanted science
Baumrind, once 'firm control' was exposed as a myth, stuck her head in the sand, and from that moment on, she gave us slanted science

Lewis, above, clearly saw that the Baumrind data did not lead to the conclusion that authoritative parents need firm control of their kids, and just as clearly saw that Baumrind’s idea that “children must be punished for nonconformity” was simply a bias that didn’t follow from the data and had no place in Baumrind’s work on authoritative parenting.

In Larzelere’s article, he takes Baumrind’s objective science about authoritative parenting as well as her biases about punishment, interprets these through a punitive Catholic context, and comes up with the following: Kids need lots of nurturance but also lots of firm control that includes punishment. He concludes that reasoning and punishment combined work better than either alone, and that punishment enhances the effectiveness of reasoning used in child training. He advocates the “two-swat spank” rather than abusive discipline. His whole framework is built upon the issue of compliance and noncompliance. (Perhaps he missed his calling as a dog trainer!)

Larzelere’s whole framework is built upon the issue of compliance and noncompliance—perhaps he missed his calling as a dog trainer!
Larzelere’s whole framework is built upon the issue of compliance and noncompliance—perhaps he missed his calling as a dog trainer!

The problem with Larzelere’s context on child behavior is that it’s Second Wave, it relies on lowest quality power—coercion—to function, and on the old, mechanistic-reductionistic paradigm for worldview, and it reductionistically lowers the child to the behaviorist level of a complying/noncomplying organism, not a human being. Instead of reliance on the best science available and Third Wave thinking, it incorporates older science, other scientist’s proven biases, disguised authoritarian agendas, and irrational, simplistic conclusions.

Since when is the combining of authoritarianism and reasoning into an unnecessary hybrid as adequate a response to the parenting challenge as the dialectical transcendence of the authoritarian-permissive continuum in the form of a nonpunitive authoritative synthesis? The simplistic type of formulation represented by this unnecessary hybrid is not unusual in the behaviorist camp, and reducing real people to the level of complying/noncomplying rats is par for the course for them as well. Not that behaviorism hasn’t made a wonderful contribution to science—it has. But behaviorists often miss the point.

Reducing real people to the level of complying/noncomplying rats is a behaviorism trademark
Reducing real people to the level of complying/noncomplying rats is a behaviorism trademark

And that point, of course, is that parenting is about empowering kids to learn self-control and autonomy, not about getting good compliance scores regarding children’s obedience behavior. Consult Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd, Putney and Putney’s The Adjusted American, or any of Fromm’s treatises on conformity, and you’ll quickly see that if you punitively train for compliance, you’re raising someone for the First or Second Wave who’ll have a hell of a time making it in the 21st century Information Age and Third Wave. You’ll create an other-directed seeker of indirect self-acceptance (e.g., Facebook) who will not know how to choose but will only know how to please. What type of person fits this profile? Prostitutes do, for one. After reading enough Gordon and Kohn and Solter and Adler and Maslow and Riesman, you’ll see why obedience is a foolish goal and autonomy is the goal that best serves parent and child alike.

A whorehouse is the best place to find those who know only how to please, not to BE
A whorehouse is the best place to find those who know only how to please, not to BE

It’s humorous to read words like autonomy and self-control in parenting documents from behaviorists and parenting documents from the Religious Right, since their reward-and-punishment methodologies inherently undermine such things. And for extra chuckles, there’s that old oxymoronical saw in which one teaches kids to be obedient and well-behaved and compliant and this is supposed to serve as a great basis from which they can mature into autonomy as they grow older! It’s at least more honest when various conservatives admit that they think that autonomy is a bad goal, and merely manifests selfishness and a nonconforming lack of concern for society. This is ignorance squared, obviously, but they—incredibly—don’t even blush when they spew such drivel!

For other study results involving the comparison of authoritative parenting and other types of parenting styles, see these authors on our website: Gauvain, Baumrind, Maccoby, Lewis, Aunola, Brassington, Hill, Larzelere, Shucksmith, Chao, Ramsey, Strage, Peterson, Fletcher, Gray, Steinberg, Lamborn, Society for the Advancement of Education, Johnson Publishing Company Inc., Berg, Snowden, McIntyre, and Slicker. Then see these books: (and the references in the back) Gordon’s Discipline That Works and Alvy’s Parent Training Today.

Then see our comments on books and/or articles by these authors: Lakoff, Gould, Pugh, Critzer, Popkin, Dinkmeyer, Gordon, Faber, Dreikurs, Solter, Prinz, Kvols, and Nelsen, keeping in mind that this is just the first author listed—many works have more authors and these are listed as well in each of our references.

Finally, check out the real courses (begin with Internet searches) that teach various forms of authoritative and democratic parenting, like P.E.T., STEP (Systematic Training for Effective Parenting, Winning Family Lifeskills, Positive Discipline, Redirecting Children’s Behavior, and Positive Parenting, the Ginott method (see our comments on the Faber and Mazlish book Liberated Parents Liberated Children), Dreikur’s democratic parenting (see our comments on his Happy Children book), and Active Parenting.