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Parents-in-Chief: Does Authoritarian Parenting Work?

Photo by Beatrix Boros / Stocksy United / 513722
Photo by Beatrix Boros / Stocksy United

By Ann DeWitt and Kim DeMarchi

We absolutely believe in parenting with high expectations and firm boundaries. But there’s a big difference between firm, loving parenting and an overly “strict,” authoritarian approach.

Far more common 50 years ago, strict parenting is a commander-in-chief approach to managing behavior—it’s the you-will-do-this-because-I‘m-the-parent-and-I-said-so style of parenting. Kids are expected to obey orders and rules, no questions asked. 

You’ve probably seen it in action. The authoritarian parenting often relies on the threat of consequences to control behavior. In its worst iterations, it can be quite harsh.

Authoritarian parenting can be good at getting children to obey in the short term, but the long-term effects can be less than effective.

Here are a few of the ways that an authoritarian approach to parenting can thwart a family’s positive intentions and even undermine the very things your family really values:

1. Authoritarian parenting emphasizes obedience over an understanding of right vs. wrong.

To develop their own internal sense of what is right and wrong, children need the chance to talk about the tough situations they encounter in their lives, and to make the choices for themselves. You want children to demonstrate good and kind behavior because it’s the right thing to do—not because they are afraid of consequences.

2. Authoritarian parenting doesn't encourage independence.

Many children of strict parents don’t develop the ability to think for themselves. They may simply learn to follow authorities without even questioning—or they may rebel.

3. Authoritarian parenting can teach children how to bully.

When children are managed with fear or control, they may use the same approach with their peers to get what they want—because this is what they know.

4. Children who have very strict parents have more depression.

University of Texas study showed that children who are parented by very strict parents get worse grades and show more signs of depression than kids who are parented in a more supportive way.

5. Authoritarian parenting can block connections with our children.

Imagine being three years old, waking up, going to daycare all day, and then…. being expected to sit quietly at the dinner table for an hour because that’s the “rule.” Children have hard days, too.

How to turn it around: Focus on “connection before correction.”

We absolutely believe in limits and expectations, but the best limits are supportive and loving.

Imagine two families at a park. When it’s time to go, the kids are happily playing and not at all interested in leaving. To get their children to leave, the strict parents might threaten punishment if they don’t get in the car "right this instant!"

But a kind and firm parent would first stop and connect with the child, and empathize with the fact that they’re having fun and don’t want to leave. The parent would then set a firm limit about what behavior is expected: In five minutes, we’re going to pick up these sand toys together and head to the car; here I’m setting the timer on my phone.

When it’s time to leave, they respectfully keep that limit. It would probably look like there wasn’t much happening, no tantrums from the child and no yelling from the parent.

The time we spend connecting with our children does make situations like these easier. No, it won’t work every time, all the time. But it works quite often—because the relationship is built on empathy and respect for both the child and the parent.

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