Parenting Styles & Labels From the Last 3 Decades

Updated on December 13, 2018
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As both a mother and a stepmother, Michelle explores the complicated dynamics of modern parenting and stepparenting.

The Categorization of Parenting

The idea of categorizing different parenting "styles" has made it to the nightly news and sold millions of parenting books worldwide. It's also a highly-marketable topic on the internet with hundreds of online-parenting publications.

But when did parenting become such a categorized event?

There is a psychology behind labeling methods of parenting and, certainly, there are some worth reading about and experimenting with. But the addiction to labeling everything we do as parents has exploded in recent years.

I am a mother. Some days I exhibit an "authoritative" style of parenting with strict rules and consequences. Some days I am exhausted and display a slightly more "permissive" style of parenting because I'm tired and just don't feel like fighting one more battle. Some days I am somewhere in between.

Does every move we make as parents really have to fit into some type of box so we can go around the internet and the world pointing our fingers at parents, eagerly judging them?

Depiction of the results of "Permissive" parenting
Depiction of the results of "Permissive" parenting | Source

What Are These Labels Accomplishing?

The need for us humans to put everything in a labeled box in order to organize it and make sense of our world is understandable.

However, parenting is not one of those things you can neatly pack away as categorized and then be done with it. Parenting changes over time.

Parenting changes from the first child to the second, and so on. Parents learn they evolve. Most of them anyway. I'm not sure that any parent - even the most organized of the bunch - could stay in line with only one form of parenting 24/7.

Do parenting labels really help us in some way to better understand how to raise good people? Do we need these labels and do parents actually take heed of what psychologists have evaluated in their studies of children and parenting? How much of this is useful when we are immersed in the daily challenges of parenthood?

I've taken a look at what developmental psychologists published back in the 80s and 90s, and then at how labels of parenting styles have changed in the present day. Here's what I've found:


Traditional Categories of Parenting Styles

According to developmental psychologists in the 80s and 90s, there are four traditional types of parents; authoritarian, authoritative, permissive, and uninvolved. Here's the gist:

Authoritarian:These types of parents are incredibly strict and have a zero tolerance for misbehavior. They leave little room for affection or nurturing and do not practice a lot of positive reinforcement. According to developmental psychologists, children brought up in this manner are successful, obedient, yet unhappy and have low self-esteem. I think the term for this would be "scary parent".

Authoritative: This type of parent seems to be perfectly balanced between levels of strictness and levels of nurturing. This style offers rules but with affection and forgiveness. Psychologists have determined that children brought up by parents such as this are among the most well-balanced performance-wise in school and emotionally well-adjusted. I assume we are all supposed to aim for this one.

Permissive: This type of parenting pertains to parents who do not scold their children or have very low expectations of their children. There are often very few rules and the parents are somewhat indulgent. They offer leniency and often act more as a friend than a parent. Psychologists suggest that children with permissive parents grow up to rebel against authority and have low performance academically. I'm thinking maybe these parents are just exhausted.

Uninvolved: These parents are usually not very involved in their child's day to day life and are generally unresponsive and don't communicate well. Children with permissive parents are said to have very low self-esteem and do not do well in school or with their peers. I'm guessing no one wants this label.

Attachment Parenting on the cover of TIME magazine
Attachment Parenting on the cover of TIME magazine | Source

Do You Think We've Over-Analyzed Parenting?

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Modern Categories of Parenting Styles

Below we will look at how ideas about parenting styles have changed over the years and how labels have evolved.

Attachment Parenting: This style of parenting is pretty much what it sounds like.The child is attached to the parent at all times from birth - primarily attached to the mother, as this style of parenting uses breastfeeding as a way to increase the bond between mother and child.

The Term, "Attachment Parenting" was coined by Dr. William Sears, and includes bonding, breastfeeding, bed-sharing, baby-wearing, and boundary-building.

Attachment parenting involves letting the child decide when they are ready to eat, sleep and make their milestones, rather than the parent. The parent will take cues from the child as to when they are ready to perform certain functions. The parent believes in the reward system, time-outs, and role-modeling.

This style of parenting is intensive and challenging, and has been widely criticized in the media for imposing too much stress on the mother, and also being potentially dangerous to babies in regards to bed sharing. Attachment parenting has also been shown as a positive and healthy way to enhance the bond between parents and children, and the breastfeeding factor is a plus, both nutritionally and financially.

Helicopter Parenting: This style of parenting has been much talked about in the media. Parents who subscribe to this method do everything within their power to make sure their children are safe and sound at all times. They do not leave their child's side and do not want their children to have to deal with obstacles or challenges that might diminish their innocence.

Basically, helicopter parents hover around and seek to protect the child from experiencing anything that would traumatize or injure them. Some people say that this type of parenting increases the bond between child and parent.

Other people have expressed the concern that these children who are over-parented will rebel down the road seeking independence as well as never learning to do anything for themselves. Many say this style of parenting is "fear-based" and sets a child up for failure in the "real" world.

Tiger Parenting Theory
Tiger Parenting Theory | Source

Free-Range Parenting: No, it's not chickens, it's children. This style of raising children involves children being able to have the freedom to ride their bikes, walk to school, or take the bus on their own. Many people would refer to this style as how they grew up minus the label.

The goal of this method of parenting is to teach children how the real world works by exposing them to potential failure and dangerous situations so they can figure out how to deal with those situations on their own.

Many people disagree with this type of parenting, claiming it's neglectful and lazy while increasing the chances of children being harmed in some way. Of course, most parents these days are very concerned with adult predators being able to have access to a child that is unsupervised.

Tiger Parenting: This term was actually coined by a mother, Amy Chua, who wrote a book called, "Battle Hymn of The Tiger Mother". The idea behind Tiger Parenting is to have children follow strict rules and to have extremely high expectations as to how well children perform academically.

Children of Tiger Parents must meet success at every level in their lives and are often punished if they do not meet the set requirements. The goal is to be the best at everything they do.

Tiger parenting is popular for those parents who want to push their children to the next level and grow up to be strong and fierce, like a tiger. In this parenting method, the parent is in charge and the child must perform up to the highest of standards.

Naysayers believe that this form of parenting is both suffocating and overly regimented which could result in high levels of stress and anxiety in a child, as well as low self-esteem from being shamed at points of failure.

Tiger Moms on the cover of TIME magazine
Tiger Moms on the cover of TIME magazine | Source

How Do We Tell the Difference Between Extreme and Balanced?

Now that we have all of our categories summed up, let's think about this. Where do we draw the line between what is "extreme" parenting, what is "normal," or "balanced" parenting?

Is it just a matter of a parent having parenting guidelines that they devoutly follow no matter what the circumstance?

Committing to any one form of parenting would inevitably be incredibly difficult during the long-term process of raising a child.

I find myself cringing whenever I hear someone talk about "helicopter parenting" or "free-range parenting". I hear moms as the park or school gossiping about so-and-so and how they, "over-parent" or are "too permissive".

Can't we just be parents who have good days and bad days, organized days, and messy days, strict days and indulgent days?

Often, when at the park watching my toddler happily playing, I begin to wonder, "Am I sitting too far away from her? Should I be hovering over her? Can I look at e-mails on my cell phone, or would that look too neglectful? Should I let her fall and learn her own lesson, or be there every step of the way?" It goes on and on. I know I'm not the only mother who does this.

Depiction of "uninvolved" parenting
Depiction of "uninvolved" parenting | Source

Perhaps the issue is just the insecurities of parents themselves. The children are really oblivious to our fear of looking bad to other parents or our inclination to judge other parents.

Children couldn't care less about those things. In fact, some recent studies have claimed that it really makes no difference how children are raised or how much time we spend with them; that they will turn out a certain way no matter what.

I know that as a mom (and stepmom) I am not a tiger, a helicopter, or some sort of dictator. I'm human, and I'm doing my best. I appreciate all the studies, and articles on how best to raise children, since, of course, they are our future.

Catch a short clip of Bravo's "Extreme Guide To Parenting." This show is fascinating and each episode covers a different "extreme" parenting style.

It's not productive or appropriate to physically or emotionally abuse a child.

It's not okay to expose a child to situations that are knowingly dangerous such as not wearing a seat belt, breathing in cigarette smoke regularly, or drinking alcohol.

Those are obvious things. Although, some people would say that some of the categorized methods of parenting are actually abusive.

We do need to make sure our children know how to survive on their own and face the consequences of life, learning accountability, and responsibility.

Where do we draw the line between having children because you want a family and having children in order to create a specific type of person that performs or functions in a certain way?

Until we that get figured out, most of us will keep on muddling our way through parenthood, trying our very best to model what a decent human being looks like to the future generation of our world.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2015 Michelle Zunter


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    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      4 years ago from The Caribbean

      Good parents always wonder whether they're good enough. Your article helps to ease their anxieties. I admire the research and the very effective presentation.


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