PEP Blog


Goldilocks and the Three Parenting Styles

By Kathy Matay

According to many subject-matter experts, there are three general styles of parenting: Authoritarian, Democratic and Permissive.

In the realm of parenting that middle ground is associated with the democratic parenting style. Maybe you already have an idea of which style most closely resembles yours?

To be real, when I first sat down to write this article, the words “Imposter Syndrome” came to mind. My husband and I have three sons, ages 22, 20 and 16. I like to think we’ve done a reasonable job raising them so far, even, and perhaps especially, considering our inherent human imperfections. As I cast back over my 22-years of parenting, I mostly smile to think of the everyday chaos and good times, and I can also think of some cringe-worthy moments. Recently, I was explaining ever-so deliberately to our 16-year-old that it’s important not to offer advice unless it is requested or at least confirmed as welcome. I continued, quite eloquently I might add, to say that it was my intention going forward to spend less time lecturing and to waste fewer words in dispensing wisdom. When I was finished and ready to “drop the mic,” there was an extended pause and Hayden said, “Mom, I think you just managed to give a lecture about not lecturing.” Ha! So much for best intentions.

Am I overparenting? Under-parenting? What does “Just Right” look like?

Good questions, right? I often ponder them myself. In this article – with help from some wise friends – I will attempt to address this quandary. I’ll do this by sharing the sage words of authors, scholars and parents who have gone before and also by exploring some related concepts and considerations.

Ironically and bittersweetly, it is our job as parents to work ourselves out of a job. We can nurture our children’s capacity for independence by giving them opportunities to make decisions for themselves. The difficulty is that children will often make choices different from those we would make, but as they travel the bumpy road to adulthood with plenty of opportunities to experience adverse situations, children develop their own set of shock absorbers and ultimately learn to set their own sensible limits.

The Authoritarian parenting style (Tiger)

The authoritarian parent establishes many rules and regulations without input from the child; the parent rules the roost and aims to control the child. Authoritarian parents are often helicopter parents, making sure the child does everything the parent wants. The authoritarian style is associated with overparenting, where the parent is excessively involved in the day-to-day life of the child, typically striving to promote success, as defined by the parent, that will reflect well on the parent.

The Permissive style (Jellyfish)

The permissive parent establishes few rules or limits of any kind; the child sets the tone. The parent wants to please child, to be their friend, to maintain peace at any price, to be liked. Permissive parents can be very involved with their kids and are often helicopter parents, making sure the child has everything the child wants. The permissive parenting style is also associated with overparenting – getting too involved to shield the children from difficulty or adversity. Permissive parenting is also associated with overparenting. Permissive parents and authoritarian parents are similar in this respect, both can be too involved in their kids’ lives

The Democratic style (Dolphin)

The democratic parent selects limits carefully, establishes limits ahead of time with input from the child and upholds limits consistently. The democratic parent guides children toward independence by encouraging problem-solving and allowing for mistakes to serve as teachable moments. Democratic parents step back and let children explore, bump up against limits, and experience consequences. Democratic parents uphold limits in a firm and friendly manner and strive to win cooperation from the children without punishment or reward.

The positive discipline model of democratic parenting encourages parents to:

  • Ask questions and engage in conversation in lieu of lecturing
  • Give advice sparingly and only upon request
  • Allow children to learn by trial and error while doing for themselves
  • Embrace imperfection
  • Nurture a healthy relationship with mistakes, by remembering that (in the words of Victor Kiam), “Even when we fall on our face, we’re moving forward

Priority One: Preserve the relationship

We hope our children will come back and visit us after they launch and live outside our homes. We hope for the “Open Nest” versus the “Empty Nest.” We can envision a Thanksgiving table of the future with our adult children, their partners and, yes, maybe even grandchildren gathered around.

As we parent through the thick of things, it might be helpful to remember that even at a young age, children crave autonomy and a sense of independence; they want and need to learn how to do things for themselves. They want to feel capable and useful. They want to contribute at an age-appropriate level within the family, the classroom and gradually outward to the community and the workplace. From the toddler who says, “Me do, me do!” to the high school student who says, “Mom, can I take the car?” they are all striving, first to learn by watching and listening to others and later to individuate. As children individuate, they begin to interpret and express what they have learned at home while preparing to move onward and outward.

Our goal as parents is to avoid unwittingly stifling these aspirations. Yes, we need to set and uphold limits, as few limits as possible. Though this might sound counterintuitive, we want to have fewer limits as the child gets older.

Parent as a role model: Actions speak louder than words

Practical experience demonstrates that children may listen to what we say, but they will always watch what we do. It is important that we lead by example. If we ask our child to do, or not to do, something, we must demonstrate that we are also living by the same rules (at an age-appropriate level).

Offer curiosity, desist from lecturing and give advice only when requested

We parents have the best intentions. We want to impart our hard-won wisdom to our children. We hope to enlighten them and to spare them from hardship. To paraphrase Jane Ellen Harrison, a British classical scholar, parents are prone to confuse knowledge with experience. Knowledge is the accrual of information. Experience is that which must be lived and cannot be bestowed. Because we so earnestly want the best for our children, we tend to blur this distinction.

We err not only through ignorance but from sheer selfishness. Parents try to impose their view of life on their children not only to save those children from disaster – that to a certain extent and up to a certain age we must – but from possessiveness, from a desire, often unconscious, to fill the whole stage [our]selves … the truth parents sometimes fail to grasp is that, Youth starts life on the shoulders of Age, and therefore, sees farther and is actually more likely to be right.

In celebration of the breadth and width of parenting parameters, we can acknowledge that there is no one-and-only way to parent. At the same time, we can adopt some of the tools and strategies described here to move us toward the Goldilocks zone in which our parenting is “just right” for us parents and the children we hold dear.

Q: What do Helicopters, Snowplows, Lawnmowers, Bulldozers, Unicorns, Velcro, Tigers, Dolphins and Jellyfish Have in Common?

A: Terms that apply to various approaches to parenting:

Helicopter – A parent who hovers over their children and maintains a high to an excessive level of involvement.

Snowplow, Lawnmower and Bulldozer – Different names for a similar approach – the parent strives to remove all obstacles from the child’s path

Unicorn – A parent who’s not perfect, enjoys alcohol, has a sense of humor, and “couldn’t care less what you think

Velcro – A parent who has difficulty letting go of their child or letting the child out of their sight.

Tiger – Authoritarian style of parenting. “My way or the highway.” Demands respect, does not always offer it in return.

Dolphin – Democratic style, as in democracy, not elephant vs donkey.

Jellyfish – Permissive, acts as a friend rather than the parent

This article appears in the December 2022 issue of Washington Parent magazine.


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