Tag Archives: parenting style

The Economics of Parenting Style

I’ve written before about the four parenting styles, about other parenting labels like helicopter parents, free range, and tiger moms, and how parenting style might affect how we handle choices in our families.

Yesterday, there was an article in the NY Times called Is Education No Longer the Great Equalizer, and it quoted extensively from “The Economics of Parenting,” by Doepke, Sorrenti, and Zilibotti, that is a fascinating way to think about parenting through an economists’ lens. They say the “basic parent-child conflict is that the parent attaches a higher weight to the future utility of the child” versus the child places a higher weight on their “full enjoyment” of the moment.

They say that parenting styles “come down to whether, and how, parents interfere with the child’s choice.” The permissive parent lets the child have their way, and may go out of their way to offer a wide range of choices. The authoritative parent attempts to shape the child’s preferences, by offering choices but also educating about why they believe particular choices are the best ones for the child’s long-term well-being. The authoritarian parent offers few choices, dictating what will be done. Their emphasis is on what children do, not what they think, so there’s no need to persuade them that it’s the right option… it’s the only option.

They also state that permissive parents value either independence or imagination, authoritative parents value hard work, and authoritarian parents value obedience.

Doepke, Sorrenti, and Zillibotti then look at the interaction between the economy and parenting styles. In societies with a wide array of career opportunities and a low degree of income inequality, “the gap between the top and the bottom is small… Parents are less concerned about children’s effort, and thus there is little scope for disagreement between parents and children. Therefore, most parents adopt a permissive parenting style, namely, they keep young children happy and foster their sense of independence so that they can discover what they are good at in their adult life.” If parents believe that their child can be financially successful no matter what, it’s easy to let them pursue their talents and their joys.

In societies where there’s little social mobility, where most children will have the same profession as their parents, the parents have little incentive to be permissive and let their children discover something they’re good at (they may see talent as irrelevant in a world where there aren’t career choices available) and or to be authoritative and convince their child of anything. If the parents’ experience is that you need to do whatever work that is available to survive, they tend to be authoritarian – conveying ideas like “you just have to follow the rules – you don’t have to like it.”

In a society with a high degree of income inequality, the choices a child makes could have a big impact on their economic well-being. The parents know their children have a wide array of job opportunities and want to persuade them to choose the one that will give them the best chance of success. So, a larger share of parents are authoritative. They also tend to be highly involved, ensuring that the child is taking the best advantage of any available opportunity and learning to make “good choices” (as the parent defines them). The authors acknowledge that authoritative parenting requires more effort on the parents’ part than the other options.

The parents’ current economic status also influences parenting style. “richer parents can use monetary rewards to persuade their children to comply with their wishes. Poor parents lack the resources… and may be more likely to resort to authoritarian methods such as corporal punishment.”

Doepke, Sorrenti, and Zillibotti were discussing how this might be see on a country by country basis, but it clearly also comes into play in micro-societies of neighborhoods – for example, a neighborhood with few economic opportunities might tend toward authoritarian values.

For parent educators and others who work with families, I think these ideas add to a deeper understanding of influences on parenting style. Understanding a family’s culture and socioeconomic class, especially if it is different from our own, increases our empathy and ability to communicate.

Parent Educators, here’s a handout you can share to introduce parenting style.

Your Safety Style as a Parent

safetystyleDo you imagine taking your child rock climbing, bungee jumping, and white water rafting? Do you enjoy big bold play like tossing them up in the air and spinning them round? Or do you wish you could keep your child in a soft padded room full of soft padded objects so he need never get hurt?

It is helpful for parents to reflect on their own tolerance for risk as they safety-proof their house, teach their child safety skills, and allow for some risk-taking. Where you strike the balance between protecting your child and allowing exploration is influenced by your gender and theirs, your age and experience and theirs, your temperament and theirs.

Gender: Men lean toward risk-taking, women lean toward being protective. Talk to your partner, and agree what limits you will set, so you can be consistent. Try to understand the value of each others’ views.

Boys tend to be bigger risk-takers than girls, who are a little more likely to look before leaping. If you have a risk-taking boy, you may need to focus on removing most hazards; if you have a cautious girl, you may be able to adopt a wait-and-see approach.

Age & experience: Older first-time parents tend to be more cautious than younger first-timers. Experienced parents of many children tend to be less cautious over little hazards, but stricter about the big rules. If you wonder whether you’re being over-protective, or too lax, try watching other parents (on the playground, at your child’s school, etc.). It’s a good way to “sanity check” yourself. Are you setting about the same kind of limits others are? If not, do you think they’ve got the right idea and you need to adapt? Or does it reinforce with you that what you’re doing is what really feels right to you?

For children – the older they get, the more dangerous situations they are capable of getting themselves into, but hopefully they’ve also started to learn caution and safety behaviors. They need wider boundaries, so you will need to adjust safety rules as they grow. Do you feel like you’re striking the right balance?

Temperament: Some people are inherent risk-takers, some inherently cautious or fearful. Your limits need to balance your temperament, your partner’s, and your child’s. Set limits that are within your comfort zone, and set rules you can enforce consistently even if you’re tired or stressed.

There’s no right or wrong answers here, just things to be learned from self-reflection…


photo credit: safety zone – http://www.freeimages.com/photo/1422766; Jump – *vlad* via photopin cc

Four Parenting Styles

Developmental theorists categorize parenting styles as authoritarian, authoritative, permissive and uninvolved. Let’s look at those categories and the possible benefits and downsides of each approach. We’ll start with this illustration to summarize the idea, then walk through the details.


Two Gradients of Parenting Style

Responsiveness. The horizontal line addresses how much attention a parent pays to the child’s needs, demands, and unique temperament. Highly responsive parents attempt to foster individuality and independence by being attentive, supportive, and responsive to the child’s needs and the demands of the moment. A non-responsive parent applies the same rules / expectations to all children and all situations.

High Expectations (aka Demandingness), is how high the parent’s expectation is for obedience and “fitting in” to the family rules or to social norms. Demanding parents set clear goals and expectations, confront a child who disobeys, and disciplines when limits are crossed.

Four Parenting Styles

Note, for each I list potential benefits – how things can work out if this style of parenting is done well, and potential pitfalls – if you’re aware of them, you can work to avoid them.

Authoritarian (aka “The Boss”)

The parent is in control, the goals are obedience and reaching high expectations. Parents provide structured environments, set strict rules, and don’t explain rules beyond “I know what’s best for you.” Children may face consequences if they don’t meet standards, and may or may not be rewarded when they do. Children are scolded for showing negative emotions. Parents may not show overt affection. Potential Benefits: Children may perform well in school and not get in much trouble, and may excel at skills that require focus and discipline to learn. Potential Downsides: Some children may rebel and have poor relationships with parents. Some children may experience low self-esteem or an inability to make their own decisions.

Authoritative / Democratic / Balanced (aka “The Friendly Boss”)

The focus in on teaching decision-making, the goal is finding a balance between personal happiness and accomplishment. Democratic parents provide clear, reasonable expectations, explain why they expect children to behave that way, and monitor behavior in a warm and loving manner. Mistakes are used as a chance to teach important lessons rather than as an opportunity for punishment. Parents give limited choices based on developmental ability, balancing freedom with responsibility. Potential Benefits: Children are self-regulated, self-determined, cooperative, and socially responsible. Potential downsides: This style is harder work for the parents than the other styles.

Permissive (aka “The Friend”)

The focus is on meeting the child’s desires in the moment, the long-term goal is a happy life rather than specific accomplishments. Permissive parents have an indulgent laissez-faire attitude. They make few rules and routines, and may not consistently enforce the rules and routines they do establish. They want children to feel free, and have as many choices as possible. They may not have specific expectations for appropriate behavior, and accept their child in a warm and loving way, no matter how the child behaves. Potential Benefits: kids may have high self-esteem, good social skills, low depression, and be creative. Potential Downsides: Might perform poorly in school/work due to challenges with following rules, may alienate people by over-stepping boundaries.


Uninvolved parents may not give any guidance, punishment, or rewards. They may simply be detached, and un-interested in their children and their activities. Most provide the basic needs of life, but shrug off responsibility for their child’s activities and concerns. In extreme cases, this might include rejection and/or neglect. Children tend to be rebellious, irresponsible, perform poorly at school, and show signs of emotional distress.

Inconsistent Parenting (aka Wishy-Washy)

We’re all guilty of this at times… Some days you’re tired so you’re overly permissive and let your child do anything they want; then you over-correct and are overly authoritarian and set strict punishments. This is confusing and stressful for children. Children want to do well, and when the rules change it makes it hard for them to know how to do so. When setting family rules and expectations, be realistic with yourself about what you can consistently enforce.

choices grid

Parenting Style – Approach to Choices

Your parenting style may effect how many choices you let your child make. The authoritarian parent makes the choices for the child, dictating what should be done and what the consequences will be if it’s not done. An authoritative / democratic parent offers limited choices and teaches the child about the consequences of each choice. The permissive parents offers a wide range of acceptable options. The uninvolved parent leaves it to the child to figure out their own way in the world. Learn more here and in my post on how to effectively offer choices.

Learn More about Parenting Styles

Parenting Style: Are You a Helicopter Parent? Free Range Family? Tiger Mom?

Popular media likes simple, black and white labels for more complicated ideas. For this post, I’ve gathered some trendy labels for different parenting styles. For five topics below, I’ll give two statements… decide which one comes closer to representing your feelings, and then see what “label” that would get you. I include links to resources where you can learn more about that parenting style. I often find that reading about other people’s philosophies helps me clarify what my own parenting philosophy is, and thus live it more effectively.

How should you care for a young baby? (under 6 months)

A: Parents should determine a schedule for baby’s feeding, diaper changes, and nap times. Parents provide structure, a predictable environment, and a consistent response style to train baby’s internal clock. They may leave a baby to “cry it out” as it learns self-soothing behavior.

B: Parents watch baby for hunger cues and feed on demand. They watch for toileting cues to know when a diaper change is imminent. When tired cues appear, they settle baby to sleep. Parents always respond to crying. Parents focus on being responsive to the child, and the family’s schedule adapts around baby’s needs.

If you chose A, that’s “parent led” style. One proponent of parent-led style is Gary Ezzo, author of On Becoming Baby Wise.

B is “child led” style. One proponent of baby-led style is the Sears family, authors of The Attachment Parenting Book.

Here are articles comparing a daily schedule for Parent-Led vs. Baby Led families

How much do you schedule enrichment activities (for your preschool age child)?

A: “Children are exposed to enrichment videos… from early infancy as well as specialized books and toys [and enrichment activities] designed to ensure that they are well-rounded and adequately stimulated for excelled development… considerable family resources are being invested to ensure that the children have what are marketed as the “very best” opportunities.” [Source]

B: “He doesn’t need toys… He sometimes picks up a stick and one moment it’s an airplane. Then it becomes a car, then a train, then a monster from the lagoon. What amazes me about this is his creativity and delight as he plays… In order for a child to be able to play like this and be inventive, he needs unscheduled time.” [Source]

These are the Scheduled vs. Un-Scheduled Parents. It may be best to find a good balances between the two sides. Here is an AAP article on the importance of play (and unstructured time): http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/119/1/182.full

How much do you intervene in your child’s conflicts? (for 5 year olds on the playground)

A: “I tried to be prepared and attentive. I would get up mid-conversation to help my boys negotiate and share if I sensed trouble was brewing. I parceled out snacks, helped them on the swings, and watched over my kids… being on top of things… was what good parents did.”

B: “Adults didn’t impose their notions of correct behavior onto the children’s natural, boisterous play. Play fighting was considered [normal]… Fighting, crying, and making up again were normal ways of figuring out how to get along… it was important not to interfere in this…”

These summaries are taken from Parenting without Borders by Christine Gross-Loh. A describes her observations about American parents versus Japanese parents. She goes on to discuss research that shows that at age 12, the Japanese kids are more empathetic and respectful of their peers. They treat other people right because it’s the right thing to do, and they know people will be unhappy if they do otherwise. Kids in America report that you need to be nice to others, because if you’re not, you’ll get caught and you’ll get in trouble with your parents or teachers.

How much do you protect your child vs. allowing free exploration?

A: These parents have a high level of oversight and supervision, providing frequent advice, reminders, and assistance. Parents protect from harm and upset, and help with decision making. Parents “smooth the way” by being actively engaged with teachers, coaches, etc.

B: These parents encourage children to actively and independently explore their worlds. “We don’t want our kids to fall off a bike. But we do want them to learn to ride. We can [either] hold onto handlebars forever, or wish them luck and then let go.”

A is the Helicopter Parent. Learn more at http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/03/04/in-defense-of-helicopter-parents/; http://www.schoolofsmock.com/2013/08/19/helicopterparenting/  – Your Hovering Doesn’t Help

B is a Free Range Parent. Learn more at https://time.com/3828533/free-range-parenting/ and http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/03/hey-parents-leave-those-kids-alone/358631/

How would you approach school, homework, and piano practice? (for a 10 year old or so…)

A: “What [these] parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences… Once a child starts to excel at something—whether it’s math, piano, pitching or ballet—he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun.”

B: “[This] includes trusting your child in what they choose to learn; you extend that same trust to other areas of your child’s life, like foods, media, television, bedtime. Parenting is supposed to be joyful, and it can be when we learn to connect with, rather than control, our children. The focus of our life is on happiness and pursuing our interests with reckless abandon together. We totally immerse ourselves in our passions every single day.”

A describes a “director” approach to parenting. Amy Chua, self-described “Chinese Mother”, describes this in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother: Learn more: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704111504576059713528698754.html  or Video: www.youtube.com/watch?v=TlHLyHw47AU

B is Radical Un-Schooling. Read more from Dayna Martin at Radical Unschooling: https://daynamartin.com/the-evolution-of-childrens-rights-radical-unschooling/ , https://learninghappens.wordpress.com/2011/09/24/unschooling-is-not-child-led-learning/  Or Video: www.youtube.com/watch?v=aFgVgRvmSeM

Another perspective on parenting styles

Researchers in psychology and child development often refer to 4 styles of parenting: Authoritarian, Authoritative, Permissive, and Uninvolved. (Learn more here.) On that scale, all the A choices above (Parent-Led, Helicopter Parent, etc.) lean toward the Authoritarian – high on demand, low on responsiveness.

All the B choices (Child Led, Free Range Parent, Radical Unschooler) lean toward Permissive – high on responsiveness, low on demand.

You may have heard the phrase “all things in moderation.” That definitely can apply to parenting. Any of these approaches can work well if applied with a light touch. But they could all be taken too far. Parents who go too far in the authoritarian direction may end with children  who follow rules and don’t get into trouble, but might be less creative, and less happy. Parents who go too far in the permissive direction may end up with kids who are creative and happy, but have a hard time succeeding in school, peer relationships, and work.

Wherever you stand, it may be helpful to moderate a little toward the center of the spectrum between these extremes… an authoritative parent tries to find a good balance between challenging their kids to help them succeed while at the same time honoring them as individuals.

Parent Educators, here’s a couple options for a free printable handout on parenting style spectrums1. Parenting Style

Also check out this article on: 23 Parenting Philosophies and Methods Explained.