Angela Oswalt, MSW, Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.
As described in our Early Childhood article, there are three basic parenting discipline styles: Authoritarian, Permissive, and Authoritative.
Authoritarian parents create expectations and rules for their children to follow and expect their children to understand and to follow those rules absolutely and without deviation. Such parents have a "What I say, goes!" attitude. Often, parents who adopt this discipline style are comfortable using corporal (physical) punishments, such as spankings, to remind children to follow rules and to discourage them from breaking those rules in the future. These caregivers provide children with very strict limits and not much freedom.
Permissive parents create loose expectations and rules for their children. Some parents do this intentionally, in the hopes that freeing children to behave as they desire will help them become independent minded, free-thinkers who are comfortable approaching parents as friends and confidants. Other parents adopt permissive parenting practices because it is easy or convenient to do so; because they they do not have the physical or emotional ability or energy necessary to set and enforce consistent rules. Permissive parents enforce discipline irregularly. Children are given lots of freedom and few boundaries or limits.
There are problems associated with both authoritarian and permissive discipline styles. Children raised in permissive families experience too much freedom with multiple negative consequences. Such children may not learn how to keep themselves safe and healthy and injure themselves in some capacity (either dramatically by taking foolishly dangerous risks because they don't know better, or quietly by failing to learn how to eat nutritious food or neglecting to brush their teeth until they decay). Such children also are typically not well socialized and may fail to learn or respect society's rules, sometimes with dire consequences. Such kids may make unhealthy choices such as poor eating or hygiene habits or use drugs; or they may not appropriately prepare themselves for a career and thus remain economically disadvantaged as a result.
Children raised in authoritarian families, in contrast, do not experience enough freedom and as a consequence may become over-socialized, inhibited, unhappy people who do not know how to express themselves; or they may become reactively angry rebels who, in a knee-jerk fashion, engage in dangerous behaviors as a means of getting back at their parents. Children raised in authoritarian families are not encouraged to develop their own independent judgments and therefore run the risk of becoming overly dependent adults who can easily fall victim in later life to various abusive predators and petty dictators.
In order for children to learn how to make successful decisions on their own, they must be granted both the proper amount of freedom and the proper amount of limitation. Neither authoritarian or permissive discipline styles are good at balancing these two competing needs, both being rather polarized to emphasize one side of the equation over the other.
The Authoritative discipline style combines the better aspects of both the authoritarian and permissive discipline styles, while avoiding the more extreme aspects characteristic of each. Authoritarian discipline provides children with some freedom but also enforces appropriate limitations and boundaries necessary for safety. Parents teach their children about family and societal expectations and consistently reinforce these rules through discipline practices that connect children's good and bad decisions with consequences and accomplishments. In this discipline style, children understand that their parents make the rules and guide how the household operates, but within those limits, they are also encouraged to develop their own judgment abilities and to develop and follow their own interests; characteristics that will serve them well as adults.
Setting the foundation for loving and effective authoritative parenting starts with creating a loving, supportive relationship between parents and children. Simply put, young children will not willingly follow house rules unless they first feel safe, loved and cared for. Providing this sort of loving environment is something that must be practiced, not just talked about. On a regular basis, parents should turn off their computers, cell phones, and the television, and spend uninterrupted "quality" fun time focusing solely on their children. Playing, tickling, and being silly with children is fun for all and can show kids that adults have a lighter side and aren't just serious or frightening all the time.
Parents can play board games, use blocks or toys, participate in make-believe scenarios, put together a puzzle, or read a book in order to build a family bond. parents can also plan pleasant and fun family traditions such as Thursday night game night, Monday night movie time, a picnic in the park on Spring weekend afternoons, or building a snow fort after a fresh snowfall. These sorts of regular family activities can make for pleasant rituals that children will anticipate. Having dinner or a weekend breakfast together as a family as often as possible is another great way to encourage strong family bonds to develop. The goal is not for parents to become their children's "best friends" but rather, to show care, affection, love, and a desire to be a part of their children's lives. Adults' gift of time and attention towards their children forms the foundation of children's healthy self-esteem. For more ideas about how to strengthen loving bonds among family members, please read our article on child nurturing.
Along with demonstrating a willingness to be silly and loving, and to play in ways that are meaningful, fun and developmentally appropriate, parents should also communicate their unconditional love and acceptance of their children. Expressing love and acceptance helps children to feel safe, secure, and wanted. Unconditional love can be a tough idea to wrap your head around at first, as it seems at first glance to be incompatible with setting limits. If you are always focused on expressing loving sentiments, how do you criticize or provide corrective feedback to children when they need it? The trick is to "hate the sin but love the sinner"; to express love and respect for the children even while correcting what they might be doing. Comments like, "You're being bad!" or, "Sammy, you're always so naughty," are conditional statements which suggest to children that they are bad people (as in bad or naughty to the core, or unredeemable) when their behavior is bad. parents who say things like, "Sammy that's a bad choice," send a different message which is critical of a child's choices or actions but not necessarily of the child himself. By criticizing how children act (rather than the children themselves), parents provide children with both the feedback they need to know change is necessary and the support they need to be empowered to decide to act differently because they want to (rather than because they must).
Parents need to consider that they are communicating with their children not only through what they say, but also in how they act and behave. As discussed repeatedly throughout the articles on Preoperational Development to main preoperational development article, young children pay attention to and pick up on behaviors that their parents model for them. In other words, children give more credence to what they see their parents do than to what they hear their parents say. parents should therefore strive to be consistent in their words and behavior. Rules should apply all of the time. For example, if the rule is that teeth should be brushed every morning and every night, parents need to brush their own teeth every morning and night, too. Then, they need to remind young children about the same rule, and not skip it simply because the family is short on time or someone is too tired to follow through. Most children will pick up on the fairness inherent in the even application of the rules to all family members and will not resist following such rules as much as they might other, more arbitrary rules.
Making time and space for regular family communication will show kids of all ages that their parents care about them, are paying attention, and are open to hearing what young people have to say. Nurturing an open and candid relationship with children at a young age will make it easier for children to continue to feel comfortable discussing issues with their parents through later childhood and adolescence.