The Definitive Guide to Parenting Styles

Since “parenting” became a verb in 1958, experts have attempted to define methods and styles for parents to adhere to. For better or for worse.

Up until 1957, moms and dads raised their kids based pretty much on instinct and the influence of their own parents. Or, if they had a particularly troubled upbringing, they raised their kids the opposite of how they were raised. Back then, they were parents  – a noun.

But in 1958, the first known use of the word “parenting” occurred. It remained an uncommon word until some time in the 1980s when “parenting” gained momentum as a verb and became something parents do instead of something they are. (Not coincidentally, “Parenting” magazine, published by Time, Inc., debuted in 1987.)

Since then, all hell broke loose in the mom and dad world, with each decade ratcheting it up a notch, introducing new parenting styles that one-upped previous methods.

Today’s moms and dads can choose from a smorgasbord of parenting styles, with the more extreme methods bookending some middle-of-the-road approaches. From attachment to tiger, parents can feast on an ever-expanding menu of approaches that best reflect their family’s values, beliefs, culture, and lifestyle.

So how is a modern-day parent supposed to sort through this confusion? How do you separate the parenting truths from the parenting trends?

“I think it’s difficult to communicate this with absolute certainty because every parent and every child is different,” says Douglas M. Teti, Ph.D., Professor of Human Development, Psychology, and Pediatrics and Department Head of Human Development and Family Studies at Pennsylvania State University.

“Parenting has to be adaptable for different kids and different temperaments and different strengths.”

In reality, there’s no one right way, but these days, parents are increasingly pigeon-holing themselves into a narrowly prescribed parenting style.

Along the way, some parents feel they’re failing if they don’t rigidly stick to the (parenting) plan. Others feel confused, as new parenting trends seem to pop up every year, sometimes contradicting their own approach and making them second-guess their parenting skills. In the end, many parents feel like a boxer after a TKO – dazed, confused, and filled with self-doubt.

“We’re so very afraid of getting it wrong that we overdo it to try to get it right,” says Julie Lythcott-Haims in an essay titled “Ready. Set. Let Go.” published in the 2016 edition of The Parents League Review.

Lythcott-Haims should know. She’s the former Dean of Freshman at Stanford University, and she’s seen firsthand the results of what overparenting does to kids. She also wrote the 2015 bestseller “How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success,” which serves as an anti-helicopter parenting manifesto.

“When we overstep, overhelp, step in, do for,” writes Lythcott-Haims in her essay, “we essentially supplant ourselves in the role our children must play in their own lives if they are ever to have meaningful lives.”

“The greatest psychological harm to a child comes from the unlived life of the parent.”

–Carl Jung

So, as a parent, how can you effectively nurture and guide your kids without overstepping your parental boundaries?

To help you sort through the information overload and clear up the parenting clutter, provides this straight-shooting, research-backed field guide to help you make an educated choice on how to best raise your kids.

Old family video of mother dragging her child around in a crib

First, a Quick Look Back

Since today’s more narrowly defined parenting styles generally fall under one of three widely-accepted categories of child-rearing methods, it helps to understand what these are and what science says about them.

In 1966, psychologist Diana Baumrind identified three broad categories of child-rearing methods based on two primary aspects of parenting behavior – control and warmth.

By control, Baumrind means the extent to which parents make demands of their kids and manage their behavior. Think of it as a sliding scale, with “very restrictive” on one end, and “very permissive” on the other.

As for warmth, Baumrind means the degree to which parents respond to their kids’ needs, ranging from acceptance and responsiveness (the “warm, fuzzy parents”) to rejection and unresponsiveness (“the stoic, indifferent parents”).

With control and warmth as a foundation, Baumrind then identified three patterns of parenting styles. Think in terms of Goldilocks, with styles being too hard, too soft or just right:

Authoritarian (Too hard) a.k.a. Controlling, Harsh, Strict, Stern, Tough-Love

With a very strict parenting style, these “do-as-I-say” parents bark orders, make a lot of demands, set a lot of limits, restrict kids’ autonomy, dole out plenty of harsh punishments and provide little affection or opportunities for give-and-take dialogue along the way. In a nutshell, they adopt a parent-centered, parent-knows-best philosophy and expect their kids to obey without question.

Although this might work in the short term (producing obedience and sometimes fear), plenty of research over the years shows that this rigid parenting style ushers in a host of negative effects. Some of these include: kids who experience worsened mental health later in life; demonstrating anti-social behavior and a weaker ability to regulate their own behavior and emotions; and facing an increased risk of depression, obesity, and lower academic achievement.

Authoritarian parenting was also associated with kids developing conduct problems, tripling their risk of heavy teen drinking, developing obsessive-compulsive symptoms beliefs, and dysfunctional perfectionism.


Permissive (Too soft) a.k.a. Indulgent, Jellyfish, Lenient, Non-directive

Not necessarily wishy-washy, permissive parents are warm, nurturing, involved, accepting, and responsive (which is good for kids) but lax in setting firm limits, providing discipline, monitoring kids’ activities closely, and requiring age-appropriate behavior (which is usually bad for kids).

Permissive parents often give in to their kids’ wishes, hoping to avoid confrontation and wanting to be their friend instead of their parent. (This might be dubbed the trouble-is-brewing approach.) As a result, studies show both positive and negative effects of this nurturing-but-no-limits method.

On the negative side, research shows kids with permissive parents often struggle to regulate their own behavior and emotions, face increased likelihood of engaging in self-destructive behaviors (such as a tripled risk of heavy teen drinking), demonstrate a higher level of delinquent behavior, spend more time on screens, achieve less at school, and feel academically entitled at college.

On the positive side, studies point out that kids with permissive parents have a strong sense of self-confidence and tend to be more creative, out-of-the-box thinkers.


Authoritative (Just Right) a.k.a. Balanced, Collaborative, Consultant, Positive

This parenting style strikes the right balance between demanding and emotionally responsive. While authoritative parents are warm, nurturing, and supportive, they also set firm, consistent limits; provide reasonable guidelines; and recognize their kids’ independence.

Taking a more child-centered approach, authoritative parents attempt to control children’s behavior not by authority or coercion but by explaining rules, discussing, and reasoning. They give their kids choices, provide necessary structure, encourage kids to think for themselves and listen to their kids’ point of view.

Research continues to highlight the positive effects of authoritative parenting, including kids who show a stronger ability to regulate their own behavior and emotions, share more frequent family meals together (which helps influence kids to eat a healthy diet), practice safer teen driving habits, and demonstrate higher student achievement.

Kids with authoritative parents are also more socially competent and least likely to engage in heavy teen drinking. Authoritative parenting may also play a protective role in keeping kids at a healthy weight, and proves most beneficial for a child’s social, intellectual, moral, and emotional growth. This plays an influential role in keeping their kids safe online.

Perhaps one of the best cut-to-the-chase reviews of authoritative parenting comes from a study cited in Current Opinion in Pediatrics: “. . . parental monitoring, open parent-child communication, supervision, and high-quality of the parent-child relationship deter involvement in high-risk behavior. Authoritative parenting generally leads to the best outcomes for teens.”


Later researchers (Eleanor Maccoby and John Martin, 1983) added a fourth parenting style, “Uninvolved” (a.k.a. Detached, Neglectful, Hands-off), although it’s not one you’ll want to emulate.

So how does this history lesson help today’s parents?

“Competent parenting really does require two basic features,” explains Teti. “One is an emotional climate or warmth/nurturance dimension and the other is a parenting practices component or control dimension that should correspond to the child’s developmental level and should be done without a lot of coercion. So parents who combine the two of these features in optimal ways typically have kids that do very well.”

As further proof, a study published in the July/August 2012 Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics shows higher levels of warmth, characteristics of both authoritative and permissive parenting styles, may be a critical factor in the development of health-related behaviors.

And, in general, “parental involvement and monitoring are robust predictors of adolescent achievement,” according to findings published in the June 2005 Educational Psychology Review.

Now, a Look at Modern Parenting

From over-parenting to under-parenting, today’s moms and dads can take their pick from a variety of parenting styles – and even mix-and-match to suit their family’s needs.

Some of these parenting styles have more staying power, having been around for decades, while others are no more than a recent trend sparked by the publication of yet another parenting “How To” book. The convergence of cultures has also spawned new styles, from Asian to Indian to French.

Realistically, while many parents do intentionally choose how they’ll raise their kids, they don’t always label it or strictly adhere to one “style,” often taking a more balanced, nuanced approach.

“When you look at these different styles of parenting, they seem to emphasize different aspects of those two key features, namely control and warmth,” Teti points out. “Most of these parenting styles have good features about them that parents can potentially incorporate.”

Teti agrees that a lot of these “trendier” styles fall under one of the three broader categories (authoritarian, permissive, authoritative). But the basic foundation of what works (emotional: warmth/nurturance and behavioral: control/limits) transcends any one style.

And, most importantly, there is no one-size-fits-all parenting style that guides parents in raising one type of child from birth through adulthood. Through trial and error, most parents discover the best way to raise a family.

Attachment Parenting

This parenting philosophy focuses on a responsive, nurturing, child-led approach that promotes both a secure emotional connection and a close physical attachment between parents and baby. At its core, attachment parenting relies on natural instinct, with parents hardwired to care for their baby by tuning in to what their baby needs and then acting upon those instincts.

The overarching goal? To build from the ground up – establish a safe, trusting connection with parents from birth, resulting in independent, empathetic adults with secure relationships.


The early beginnings attachment parenting stems from the days of pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock and the 1946 publication of his now-classic “Baby and Child Care.” At the heart of its wisdom, this parenting bestseller tells mothers “you know more than you think you do.”

This nurturing approach gained momentum when author Jean Liedloff wrote “Continuum Concept” in 1975 about her experiences in Venezuela living amongst indigenous people who lived and thrived in a more natural way of life, including the way they raised their children.

Impressed by this parenting approach and the research behind it, well-known pediatrician Dr. William Sears jumped on board in the 1980s. He coined the phrase “attachment parenting” in the 1990s when he and his wife Martha co-authored “The Baby Book,” which many consider the attachment parenting bible.

 Fun Fact: In 1924, Dr. Spock won an Olympic gold medal for rowing at the Paris games!

This parenting philosophy focuses on a responsive, nurturing, child-led approach that promotes both a secure emotional connection and a close physical attachment between parents and baby. At its core, attachment parenting relies on natural instinct, with parents hardwired to care for their baby by tuning in to what their baby needs and then acting upon those instincts.

The overarching goal? To build from the ground up – establish a safe, trusting connection with parents from birth, resulting in independent, empathetic adults with secure relationships.

In it, he outlines the 7 Baby B’s of Attachment Parenting, which include birth bonding, breastfeeding, baby wearing, bedding close to baby, belief in the language value of your baby’s cry, beware of baby trainers, and balance.

The movement mushroomed in popularity and now includes a worldwide educational organization called Attachment Parenting International (API). Piggybacking on Sears’ philosophy, API identifies Eight Principles of Parenting, which parents can individualize and put into action in a way that best suits their family. In other words, it’s not an all-or-nothing approach.

Attachment parenting grabbed headlines in May 2012 when Time magazine ran a provocative cover image featuring a mom breastfeeding her toddler with the headline, “Are You Mom Enough?”

“It’s easier [for the media] to say ‘AP is breastfeeding, bed-sharing, and baby-wearing’ rather than talking about emotional attunement, positive discipline, and secure attachment,” says Barbara Nicholson, co-founder of API and co-author of “Attached at the Heart,” in a Parents magazine article.

Dolphin Parenting

This parenting style focuses on maintaining a balanced life for kids filled with connection, contribution, and purpose while gently guiding them toward long-term health, happiness, and success.

Taking an authoritative yet playful stance, dolphin parents collaborate with their kids, nurturing their spirit, individual passions, self-motivation, and independence while still being firm but flexible. Along the way, they adapt their approach to their changing kids and their changing environment.


In 2014, Harvard-trained child and adult psychiatrist Dr. Shimi Kang proposed a new way of parenting in her book The Dolphin Way: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Healthy, Happy, and Motivated Kids – Without Turning into a Tiger. Serving as an antithesis to the pushy tiger parenting trend kicked off by Amy Chua in 2011, Kang tapped into the latest neuroscience and behavioral research to suggest a more powerful approach to raising kids, using the metaphor of an intelligent, playful, social dolphin.

“Today’s disturbing trend of over-parenting is under-preparing our children for a rapidly changing and ultra-competitive 21st century by interfering with their self-motivation and ability to adapt,” says Kang in a 2014 article in Time.

Research shows that being raised with an authoritative style of parenting is positively associated with competence, resilience and self-esteem. The dolphin way certainly falls under the authoritative umbrella.

Elephant Parenting

In this uber-nurturing method of child-rearing, the focus is on raising kids – especially those under five – in an environment of warmth and encouragement. Citing plenty of time for age-appropriate, “grown-up” expectations, elephant parents just want to nurture, protect, and support their impressionable youngsters, particularly during those precious first few years.


When blogger Priyanka Sharma-Sindhar wrote about elephant parents on The Atlantic blog back in 2014, she might not have realized she’d touched off yet another parenting trend.

Reflecting on her own upbringing in India, Sharma-Sindhar describes elephant parents as those “who believe that they need to nurture, protect, and encourage their children, especially when they’re still impressionable and very, very young. She points out how, in India, parents tap into their softer side by doting on their young kids, nurturing them and allowing them to just be kids without all the parental pressure and potentially age-inappropriate expectations.

How does this doting, nurturing style play out? Elephant parents wouldn’t scold their kid or put him in time out until age five. They wouldn’t let him cry himself to sleep. They’d put on his shoes even though he’s capable of doing it himself. And, with a reigning let-kids-be-kids philosophy, they’d let him run around a restaurant.

In an interview on Good Morning America, parenting expert Dr. Robyn Silverman sums it up pretty succinctly. “That child is going to grow and learn and change throughout their lives… We need to listen to the child and really tune in, we need to listen to our gut and really tune in, because the sweet spot is where those two meet.”

Free-Range Parenting

(a.k.a. Hands-Off, Lenient, Permissive, Under-parenting)

In stark contrast to more overbearing and overprotective parenting styles, free-range parenting takes a laid-back approach, where parents raise their children in the spirit of fostering independence in age-appropriate ways.

By trusting in their kids’ autonomy, free-range parents allow their kids reasonable levels of personal freedom and responsibility while keeping them safe, although it involves taking some personal risks. With the underlying motto of “give kids the freedom we had as kids,” free-range parenting aims to raise self-reliant kids with a reasonable dose of parental concern along the way. Free-range parents focus on teaching kids through trial-and-error, making choices, taking risks and sometimes failing.


Just a few decades ago, kids played outside without supervision, walked to school on their own, took a bus into town, and babysat their younger siblings at the age of 10 or 11. These days, parents might get arrested for allowing their kids such freedom.

Lenore Skenazy knows this first-hand. When she allowed her nine-year-old son Izzy to ride solo on the New York City subway back in 2008, she got a call from the police, questioning why her son was taking this 30-minute journey unaccompanied. Then Skenazy wrote about her experience in the New York Sun, sparking both praise and backlash.

As Skenazy writes on her Free-Range Kids blog, “So my gift today was a lesson: I finally learned that Free Range Kids is a rights movement. We want to reclaim our children’s right to take part in the world, and our right, as parents, to let them.”

In a CBS interview, Skenazy notes that being a free-range parent does not mean being anti-safety. “I love safety: car seats, helmets, seat belts, mouth-guards. I just don’t believe our kids need a security detail when they leave the house.” She also cites how crime statistics are lower today than when most parents were kids, as she often points out in her many speaking engagements to schools, businesses and community groups.

Skenazy offers this advice to parents interested in the free-range-approach: “If you didn’t think that your mom was crazy or negligent to give you some unsupervised time, there’s no reason you can’t give it for your kids. Let your kids do one thing on their own that you used to do. After you do it once and the kids come back and they’re happy and proud, that pride and joy that you feel will replace the fear. Until you let them do it, all you had was what if. Now you have what is.”

Helicopter Parenting

(a.k.a. Cosseters, Drone, Intensive, Over-parenting, Snowplow)

This often-disparaged parenting style reflects parents’ desire to be overly involved in their kids’ lives, sweeping away their obstacles, making decisions for them, solving their problems, and violating parental boundaries.

Aptly named, helicopter parents hover overhead, deeply enmeshed in every aspect of their kids’ lives, especially as they enter adolescence. Technology has further enabled this parenting style by giving 24/7 access to kids’ lives through GPS-enabled cell phones, texts, apps, computer browsing history, and online grades.

Proponents of this parenting style point to their desire to help their kids succeed. Critics highlight its stifling effect on kids’ autonomy and problem-solving skills.


The term “helicopter parenting” got its first mention way back in 1969 with the publication of “Between Parent and Teenager” by psychologist Haim G. Ginott. In the book, Ginott cites one of his teen patients as saying, “Mother hovers over me like a helicopter.”

Then in 1990, the term found its way into the now-classic “Parenting with Love and Logic” by former school principal Jim Fay and psychiatrist Foster W. Cline.

In its infancy, the helicopter movement didn’t really get labeled as such. It just seemed to evolve over time, starting roughly in the 1980s or 1990s (when Baby Boomers started having kids) and gaining steam ever since.

During these last few decades, helicopter parents intertwined their lives with their children’s, overstepping boundaries and robbing their kids of opportunities to problem-solve and (gasp) even fail. They crossed the line of being engaged and vaulted into micro-managing, becoming hyper-focused on every aspect of their kids’ lives and protecting them from psychological, emotional, and physical harm.

They slowly transitioned from baby-proofing their homes to failure-proofing their kids’ lives in an effort to keep them safe, promote their self-esteem, and help them achieve –all good intentions, but in this context, taken to the extreme.

In a 2014 Psychology Today article, Hara Estroff Marano, Editor at Large, points to the spread of helicopter parenting to young adulthood, where parents now insert themselves into their kids’ graduate admissions process.

In the article, psychologist Michael Ungar observes, “It’s so sad… It is always better to empower children to make good choices for themselves rather than having them remain dependent on parents to sort out problems for them.”

Research cites the negative effects of helicopter parenting on kids, including less engagement in school, lower self-worth and higher risk behavior (such as binge drinking), persistent anxiety and depression, and feeling less competent to manage their own lives. Interestingly, in a 2013 article in Time magazine, researchers at the University of Mary Washington found that women who practice such intensive parenting are “less happy and more stressed than those who chill out.” (Helicopter moms, you might want to back off a bit for your own mental health.)

Lighthouse Parenting

Using a lighthouse as a metaphor, this collaborative parenting style focuses on guiding kids as they travel through murky waters, particularly when they reach that rough patch called the teen years.

While providing lots of unconditional love and protection, lighthouse parents understand that kids also need to learn from failure in order to grow. They focus on morality and character, not performance, and strike a balance between guidance and protection.


Lighthouse parenting – a phrase coined by pediatrician Dr. Kenneth R. Ginsburg – represents a cooperative, problem-solving approach, where parents and teens work together. Ginsburg, a professor at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, elaborates on this approach in his research-based book “Raising Kids to Thrive” from the American Academy of Pediatrics. For his book, Ginsburg also tapped into the insights of 500 teens from across the country, including his teenage daughters.

A balanced approach emerged as the way to go, with parents providing unconditional love, high expectations, trust, guidance, and appropriate monitoring while allowing kids to problem-solve, take risks, and fail.

“We want to be beacons of light on a stable shoreline from which they can safely navigate the world,” explains Ginsburg in an interview on Good Morning America discussing his parenting method.

Slow Parenting

At the crux of this parenting style lies balance, simplicity, and mindfulness. Living at a slower, more natural pace, families intentionally carve out time to connect. This approach de-emphasizes electronics and overscheduling in favor of simplistic toys that encourage creativity, playing outside and in nature, spending time with friends and family, and allowing kids the freedom to pursue their own interests.


In the last 25-50 years, a complexity of factors converged (including the explosion of technology, increased globalization, and change in demographics), steering modern-day life onto a permanent fast-track. This hyper-speed way of living crept into parenting as moms and dads rushed through their days dropping kids off at daycare and school; rushing them to after-school activities, music lessons, and sports practices; signing them up for specialty summer camps; and car-pooling their way through their family’s childhood.

But a backlash began brewing as exhausted, time-starved people everywhere looked for ways to put the brakes on this harried way of life. Journalist Carl Honoré chronicles this fast-forward path, as well as the global trend in slowing it down, in his 2005 book In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed.

Applauding those who’ve gotten in touch with their “inner tortoise,” Honoré gave a wildly popular Ted Talk about the light bulb moment in his own life (rushing through and even skipping parts of his son’s bedtime stories) that made him step back, reasses,s and decelerate.

Along the way, an entire Slow Movement took root, including Slow Food, Slow Cities and Slow Parenting. Although Honoré didn’t coin the phrase “slow parenting” or single-handedly start the movement, he is often the mouthpiece for it.

In a New York Times article, Honoré explains how slow parents “understand that childrearing should not be a cross between a competitive sport and product-development. It is not a project; it’s a journey.”

In a similar vein, mindful parenting, idle parenting and simplicity parenting all advocate for slowing down, being present with your kids, promoting play and creativity, spending quality family time together, honoring kids’ natural rhythms and saying no to an overscheduled life.

Tiger Parenting

(a.k.a. Extreme, Coercive, Competitive)

Similar to helicopter parenting but on a more extreme level, this rigid parenting style takes a tough-love approach, hyper-focusing on performance, grades, and achievement. The philosophy expects excellence from kids and discourages social activities such as sleepovers and playdates.


When The Wall Street Journal published an article by Yale Law School professor Amy Chua titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” in 2011, it set off a firestorm of cultural debate, with over 10,000 comments on the article itself and a media explosion of interviews, articles, and analysis.

It even prompted a special issue of Asian American Journal of Psychology titled “Tiger Parenting, Asian-Heritage Families, and Child/Adolescent Well-Being” to examine the prevalence and impact of tiger parenting and to unpack the complexity of Asian-heritage parenting and its relation to child and adolescent well-being.”

In the article, an excerpt from Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Chua asserts, that “the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish, and shame the child. The Chinese parent believes that their child will be strong enough to take the shaming and to improve from it.”

Whoa. You can see why this sparked such controversy, especially among Western parents.

Research shows that fundamental cultural differences play a big role in Asian-American parenting methods versus Western American, with Asian mothers promoting a more interdependent relationship with their children compared to the more independent relationship fostered by Western mothers.

But even so, researchers debunked the myths about the merits of tiger parenting in a July 2013 article in Developmental Psychologist.

The Bottom Line

Going back to the two competency features (control and warmth) originally cited by Baumrind and studied by thousands of researchers since, a balanced approach works best on all fronts.

Teti points to a study he and his Penn State colleague conducted (with results published in a 2008 issue of Journal of Family Psychology). “What this study shows, which is what many other studies are now showing, is that when you look at parenting, you can’t just look at what parents do, you also have to look at how they’re doing it,” he explains. “You have to look at not just the behavior, but also the emotional climate that surrounds the behavior.”

In essence, parenting practices that take place (even disciplinary ones like time outs) are much more effective in impacting a child when they occur against a positive emotional backdrop rather than a very negative one, says Teti. “When parents incorporate both warmth/nurturance and appropriate levels of control, they cut to the chase in terms of what should work for them.”

Control and warmth – boom, there it is again.

The ultimate goal of every parent, regardless of how they raise their kids, is to grow happy, healthy kids. But results from a 2016 National Poll on Children’s Health suggests that adults nationwide think that kids have worse mental/emotional health than when they were growing up. Respondents perceive that today’s kids have less quality family time, lower quality of friendships, and more stress than when they themselves were young.

In light of these survey results, Perri Klass, M.D., cautions parents in a New York Times Well blog post to stop thinking that they’re doing everything wrong.

“So our children aren’t turning out right because we are dangerously overprotective in our parenting or too strict and demanding… Can we really be getting it so wrong at both ends? Can we be this bad at it?” she writes. “It’s time to put an end to the everything-you-do-is-wrong school of parent criticism, which puts us all in an impossible bind.”

In the end, it’s the totality of what parents do over time that shapes who children become. In any given week (and sometimes even in the same day), parents might vacillate between a helicopter parent, an elephant parent, lighthouse parent and a free-range parent. But it’s the cumulative effect of a balanced approach of both warm nurturance and firm discipline that wins out in the end.