Parenting style and child behaviour: Is being democratic always the best option?

RakingWe’ll be talking in an upcoming episode about parenting styles, but after seeing information about this study at the Canadian Psychological Association conference last week, I thought it would be worth discussing now, while it’s fresh.

Although I won’t go into detail about the 4 commonly accepted styles of parenting (I’ll save it for the show), you might have heard about “democratic” or “authoritative” parenting. These parents tend to have high expectations for their children’s behaviour and maturity, and they expect their kids to comply with their rules. What makes them democratic is their willingness to discuss these rules and behaviours. When a child is punished for failing to comply, democratic parents explain their motives. Punishment is never arbitrary. Contrasting with this is the authoritarian approach that values unquestioning compliance, prefering control over an open dialog. Typically, research has shown that a democratic approach is linked to the development of a number of positive skills, and it is considered to be the preferable style of parenting.

But does the democratic approach always work best? This is the question posed by Keeley White and Dr. Paul Hastings at Concordia University in Montreal. I spoke with Ms. White at the CPA conference, where she presented a poster based on her research. She and Dr. Hastings looked at a number of factors that might influence the relationship between parenting style and compliance. After measuring mothers’ parenting styles and their children’s ability to inhibit inappropriate behaviours using questionnaires, the moms were asked to have their children tidy up the toys in the lab. The kids’ behaviour was monitored by the researchers to determine whether their compliance was committed (they wholeheartedly followed the direction with little intervention from their mom) or situational (cooperative in general but requiring more parental involvement and control).

Based on previous parenting research or your own knowledge of parenting, you might expect children of democratic moms to be more likely to show “committed compliance,” and this was true to an extent. Six year-olds were more likely to be committed when their moms were democratic, and required more direct parental control (situational compliance) when their moms were not democratic – no surprise there. Here’s the interesting part – four year-olds were less committed when their moms were democratic, and more committed when they were not – the opposite pattern from the one seen in older kids! The researchers proposed that six year-olds who have had opportunities to develop independence in a democratic home require less prompting to carry out instructions, whereas four year-olds are likely to require more structure. Four year-olds often need instructions to be given in small steps, necessitating more frequent direction from parents,.

What does all this mean? It’s possible that parents who want their kids to benefit from a democratic parenting style should realize that their kids might require more direction when they’re small; young children of democratic parents might be more likely to question parents’ instructions or to get off-task because they’re used to being a bit more independent than other kids. It’s possible that democratic parenting requires a greater initial investment (of time and effort giving instructions and discussing expectations) in order to get a payoff of greater independence and other benefits that we’ll talk about on the show. On the other hand, less democratic parents might have more immediately compliant young children whose independence doesn’t develop in the same way as it does in their democratically-raised peers.

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3 Responses to Parenting style and child behaviour: Is being democratic always the best option?
  1. Gina Chen
    June 16, 2009 | 1:22 pm

    This makes a lot of sense to me. I’m an advocate of what you call “Democratic” parenting and try to do that with my two, who are now 9 and 6. But I did find by making my own mistakes that when they were very young — 2, 3, 4 — the Democratic part was lost. (I remember trying to explain why you can’t have another cookie because we’re trying to eat healthy or why you can’t throw all the Popsicle sticks all over the kitchen floor because that will make a mess and make mommy sad.) I met bewildered looks from my kids, who clearly were too young to understand what I was saying. Or maybe it was too much for them to process.

    So I resorted to the phrase I heard my own mother say a million times that I swore I’d never utter: “Because I said so.”

    The thing is: It worked, and I don’t think it made me a bad parent or ruined my kids.

    Now that they are older, I find explanations can help because they are mature enough — at moments — to understand some level of logic. But sometimes, the bottom line is still: Because I said so.

  2. Annie @ PhD in Parenting
    June 16, 2009 | 1:59 pm

    THANK YOU! This is a great post.

  3. Sam @ babyREADY
    June 16, 2009 | 9:27 pm

    Really interesting post. My children are older now and it seems foggy to me. I honestly think that I was democratic all of the way through. I look at the example they use as odd and wonder if they chose something that was more reasonable, would their results be different? What I mean is this: who wants to clean up toys? No one. Parents may want them tidied up to clear the floor but that is projection on the part of the parent. How is a child to understand the “why” behind putting toys away? If it is that important to me that the toys be put away, why am I not doing it? I can’t think of another example that seems more “reasonable” to me but I am interested in the findings you’ve reported and intend to read further (and listen more).
    Thanks for posting this!