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Authoritarian vs. Authoritative Parenting: What’s the Difference?

What's the difference between these two parenting styles? As it turns out, quite a lot.

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Two schools of thought

There’s only a few letters’ difference between the words authoritative and authoritarian. But when it comes to parenting styles, those few letters mean a world of difference between the two schools of thought.

“These are very different styles, different approaches, with very different end goals,” says Alyson Schafer, therapist and author of Honey I Wrecked the Kids. “Authoritarian or autocratic parenting style aims to achieve the goal of raising an obedient child by using external control methodologies—they force the child to behave according to the parents’ will. Authoritative parenting style has much higher faith in the child. The parent believes that the child is teachable, and sees discipline as a teachable moment.” (Don’t miss the 17 forgotten manners every parent should teach their child.)

To get a sense of how these two styles differ, here’s a look inside the challenges—and how a parent following each approach would tackle the same common parenting problem.

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Authoritarian Parenting 101

If you’ve ever heard a parent offer “Because I said so” as an explanation for a rule, you’ve heard authoritarian parenting. Authoritarian parenting style resembles a dictatorship, according to Fran Walfish, PsyD, a psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent. “Rules, regulations, consequences, and punishments are in place and rigidly enforced,” she says. (This is the one sentence you should never say as a parent.)

The downside to that? Kids may not learn the skills they need to thrive when the authority figure isn’t around. “This parenting style results in one of three types of adults,” Schafer says. “You’ll get a pleaser who needs the approval of an authority figure, you’ll get a rebel who says ‘I’ll have nothing to do with this kind of control,’ or you’ll get the sneak, somebody who goes about achieving their own end purposes without getting caught.”

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Authoritative Parenting 101

“Authoritative parenting is the optimal goal because it requires balancing warmth, love, and nurturing with boundaries, setting limits, following through, and taking action to make sure their kids complete their responsibilities,” Dr. Walfish says. “This promotes raising confident, happy, flexible, and resilient children.”

The key here is not to fall too far toward the permissive side. “Parents confuse authoritative parenting with permissive parenting, where the kids have taken over role of authority, and parents are being walked on like a doormat,” Shafer says. “It is not at all the same. In authoritative parenting, there is mutual respect between parent and child, but parents still lead the family and make decisions.”

Let’s look at how these dynamics play out in common scenarios:

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When your child won’t go to bed

Authoritarian Parenting Strategy

“If you’re an autocratic or authoritarian parent, you have two tools—either reward or punishment,” Schafer says. “So it’s either, ‘If you go to sleep and you don’t bug me and stay in your room without coming into our bed you can have extra time on the iPad,’ a classic bribe. Or it’s punishment—you lose your iPad time this weekend, or if you come out of your room I’m going to spank you. These are both opposite sides of same coin.”

Authoritative Parenting Strategy

“In the democratic approach, you know that you can’t make a child go to sleep,” Schafer says. “Depending on the age of your child, you could have a meeting about creating a bedtime routine and doing research to see what’s a reasonable amount of time your child’s body needs, so it’s not about ‘my way, my say.’ For younger children, you might say that if they have trouble staying in their room, you can put up a baby gate to help them do that. You can tell your child, ‘I’m not available to socialize after bedtime, and if you come out, there will be no social engagement with us.’ If they don’t get that interaction, boredom will put them to sleep.”

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When your child is a fussy eater

Authoritarian Parenting Strategy

“An autocratic family would force the kid to sit at the table and not leave until they finish their plate, even if it means stuffing down peas and throwing up,” Schafer says. “It’s a brutal power struggle. Or they might just sit there for 2 hours, until the parent gives up in defeat, and lets them leave.”

Authoritative Parenting Strategy

“The authoritative approach would take into consideration that different people have different likes and preferences,” Schafer says. “We’ll try to accommodate variety, but nobody’s time will be squandered—so you’re not getting to custom order your meal.” The parents will expect that their picky eater kids will take enough food and variety to eat healthfully. “There may always be something plain on the table, but also vegetables, meat, other things that are easy to put out. Parents would put energy into noting and commenting on what’s right and good: ‘I see you’re eating broccoli! It’ll make your muscles big.'”

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When your child tantrums

Authoritarian Parenting Strategy

“The authoritarian parent might deal with a tantrum-throwing child by further extending his punishment for acting out or might attempt to quickly ‘hush up’ the child by saying, ‘Stop screaming and making that awful noise!'” Dr. Walfish says. These are 11 ways to stop tantrums in their tracks.

Authoritative Parenting Strategy

“The authoritative parent would acknowledge their child’s struggle and even empathize out loud with compassion,” Dr. Walfish says. “Then, the authoritative parent might help direct the child to move forward by engaging the child in another activity.” Teaching self-soothing skills and giving them time to calm down can also help reduce tantrums going forward.

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When your kids are arguing

Authoritarian Parenting Strategy

“An autocratic or authoritarian parent would step in and play the role of police officer and find fault in one of the children’s transgressions,” Schafer says. “There would be punishment for the transgressor and pity for the child who played the victim role. And that will actually perpetuate the fighting, believe it or not.”

Authoritative Parenting Strategy

“In the authoritative household, the parent will proactively teach their child social skills for sharing and taking turns—like setting timers, ways to solve conflicts together—so there’s going to be more skills training done,” Schafer says. “Parents will trust that with those skills, kids will be caretakers for their relationships on their own. If things escalate, both parties are required to suffer the same consequence. They both lose the iPad, until they tell you plan for how they can share without fighting.”

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When your child lies

Authoritarian Parenting Strategy

“Lying happens more often in an authoritarian household,” Schafer says. “It’s often in order to avoid being punished. If you’re going to spank me, what kid in their right mind won’t lie in order to evade that punishment?” Dr. Walfish says that shaming is often part of the consequences for lying. “An authoritarian parent is likely embarrass and humiliate the child by calling her names such as, ‘Liar’ or ‘Bad Girl.'”

Authoritative Parenting Strategy

“The authoritative parent would frown upon the lying behavior, but use it as a golden teaching opportunity,” Dr. Walfish says. “He would teach ‘accountability’ to the child by rewarding the truth telling, no matter how terrible the confession is.” That doesn’t mean there won’t be consequences for the bad behavior. It’s a balance.