The hallmark phrase of an authoritarian parent is "Because I said so!"
Now, while I'm pretty sure that all of us have heard these four words escape our mouths in a moment of exasperation, it doesn't mean we are all authoritarian parents. A true authoritarian parent demands immediate and complete obedience without any explanation, all the time.
In the 1960s, developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind classified parenting styles into three basic categories that are still used today: authoritarian parenting, permissive parenting, and authoritative parenting. The three categories are based on how much a parent demands of their child and how responsive the parent is to the child.
Authoritarian parenting involves high parental demand and low parental responsiveness.
Permissive parenting is characterized by low demands being placed upon the child, while at the same time being very responsive to the child.
Authoritative parenting combines the high parental demand of authoritarian parenting with the high responsiveness of permissive parenting. Baumrind concluded that authoritative parenting was best for children.
I interviewed several therapists who specialize in working with children, as well as some experienced elementary school teachers, and all of them agreed with Baumrind: from a child development standpoint, authoritarian parenting is not the optimal way to parent. After my interviews, here are the top four reasons I'm not using authoritarian parenting.
1. I want my kids to be able to self-regulate.
I don't want my kids to only do the right thing when someone is watching. I want them to learn to do the right thing because they have a deep understanding of why it's the right thing to do. If they have learned to follow rules only to avoid a consequence, then they have missed a valuable learning opportunity.
I talked with Dr. Don Williams, a child psychologist whose practice has a focus in the area of self-regulation disorders. This is his explanation of why using authoritarian parenting can inhibit the development of self-regulation:
"Authoritarian parenting tends to use shame and fear, which stir up the stress centers in the lower and mid-brain. It can be very effective at achieving short-term results and does develop cause and effect, which is driven by the control center of the brain (this is why speeding tickets are effective).
But self-regulation involves activation of the frontal lobes in much broader ways, such as the need to repair when you've done damage to a relationship, nonjudgmental self-awareness, morality, and valuing self-control itself. These are capacities that need to be taught and cultivated over a long period. Excessive shame and fear will inhibit the development of some of these capacities."
2. I want my kids to be able to practice self-care.
The first step in self-care is self-awareness. You have to be able to notice what it is you need before you can care for yourself. The second step to self-care is being able to effectively communicate with others about what it is that you need. If children are routinely not allowed to articulate how they are feeling or what they are thinking, then they lose valuable opportunities to develop self-awareness and communication skills.
Hannah DuVon, LMFT, is a children's therapist whose work focuses on child development and healthy attachment. She explained to me that these skills are imperative for long-term social and emotional development:
"The authoritarian parent style has been discouraged more and more over the last decade. Research has shown that the authoritarian parenting style, although often effective at getting obedience/compliance in the moment, still has its drawbacks. . . . The authoritarian style of parenting may also breed a feeling of powerlessness and resentment as children feel angry that their thoughts and feelings aren't heard and confused on how to express themselves in a way that feels like they matter. In my experience with working with children, it comes down to the human need to feel important and be heard. Parents need to maintain rules and limits; however, taking the time to listen to their kids and then offering an explanation of why allows children to feel respected even if ultimately they do not get their way."
3. I want my kids to be responsible.
Authoritarian parenting can make the child overly dependent upon the adult. The child learns that all they have to do is follow the instructions of the adult. They learn that they don't really have to think through the whole situation for themselves. If something goes wrong, they can end up feeling that it is not really their fault because they were just doing what they were told.
Amanda Dungan, a grade-school teacher for over 18 years at Escondido Elementary in Stanford, CA, explains how this can happen:
"While the authoritarian style of parenting sets high expectations for behavior, it does not usually explain the reasoning behind the expectations. Punishments are also often given without explanation. The child does not have a chance to make behavioral choices and experience natural consequences. Children need practice making their own choices in order to find out they are capable of handling hard situations — leading to resiliency. Authoritarian parenting may inadvertently teach children that they are not responsible for their own behavior and are incapable of making good choices."
4. I want my kids to form healthy relationships.
I don't want my children to get used to the pattern of doing things out of fear. I want them to have lots of practice while they are young and at home with relationships that are based on love and trust. I want them to know that if there is fear in a relationship, then that is a red flag that something is wrong and needs attention.
Linda Ikeda, MFT, is a therapist who has been working with children for over 25 years. This is her take on authoritarian parenting:
"Any of us can MAKE our children obey, but when we do, that usually means a child is obeying out of fear of the parent rather than out of love or trust. The question you must ask yourself is, 'Do you want your children to obey you because they are afraid of you or because they love you?'"