A recent study found that toddlers with permissive parents had more than double the risk of internalizing behaviors (having anxiety or somatic complaints) and triple the risk of externalizing behaviors (bullying or being destructive) compared to peers whose parents used an authoritative or authoritarian parenting styles. The fact parenting styles could influence the long term behavior and development of children was first hypothesized by Dr. Baumrind in 1967. She described three styles of parenting: authoritative, authoritarian, and permissive.

Authoritative parents, also known as democratic, are those with high demands and high levels of responsiveness to their children. Their children tend to be happy, confident, independent and have better mental health overall. Authoritarian parents are those with high expectations yet low responsiveness to their children. This style produces children who are unhappy, insecure, and have more behavior problems.

Permissive parents, also known as indulgent, place few demands on their child, yet are highly responsive to every whim. These children have difficulty following rules, poor self-control, and struggle with emotional self-regulation. As a group, they tend to withdraw socially, have the highest risk of developing mental health disorders, and are more likely to become addicted to drugs or alcohol.

Parenting is never easy. It is like navigating one thousand miles through a tunnel with uneven terrain while blindfolded. Sometimes, using our “gut instinct” to wing it is all we can do; the story below is one example which comes to mind.

A little over a year ago, my strong-willed daughter needed a slight adjustment in attitude. We were driving home from the dance studio close to our home. “I don’t like my dance bag and I want a new one.” I was quiet. “You are going to buy me a new one because I said so.” I was pondering a suitable response. “I don’t like you and I don’t like my dance bag. I want a new mom and a new bag.” My reaction to her outburst needed to leave a lasting impression.

There is a park and ride between the dance studio and our home. After turning into the parking lot and swinging a U-turn, I pulled up next to the covered bus stop. Putting the car in park, I opened the minivan side door and tossed the dance bag outside onto the ground. “What are you doing?” she demanded. “You said you did not like your bag, we should leave it here for another little girl who would love a bag like this, so she can take it home.”

Eyeing me suspiciously, she gently unclipped her car seat straps, and got out of the minivan to retrieve her dance bag. I continued, “While we are at it, I think you would be happier if a different mother was raising you. Why don’t you get out and wait here (at the covered stop) until you find another mother you like better who wants to take you home?”

Reaching down to pick up her dance bag off the ground, I began to close the van door, knowing the child safety feature would not allow complete closure. This really got her attention. She grabbed the bag, used her body to block the door, and hopped back into the van. “Wait! I want you as my mother.” She even wanted to go home with me. Skeptical, I clarified, “Are you sure? It means you must commit to being my daughter from now on?” She nodded.

We drove home in silence. I was wondering if my approach had been over the top; she was reflecting on the event also. As we pulled into the garage, she said “Mom, I am sorry for what I said to you. I do want you to be my mother. Can you promise never to drop me off at the park and ride again?” I smiled before responding, “Ok. I promise never to leave you at the park and ride again, but the next time you tell me you want a new mother, I might try the mall instead.” Having an incredible sense of humor, my daughter giggled and gave me a hug. I returned her affection heartily.

While an unconventional example of the authoritativeness, high demands were made; after all, she had to pick out a mother (symbolically, at least) for herself. This was balanced by a high degree of responsiveness on my part in supporting her choice. Be authoritative whenever possible, remember to “mix it up” sporadically to avoid being predictable, and be open to learning a great deal from mistakes along the way. Raising a child who is independent, determined, and clever has many challenges, but I would not have it any other way. Apparently, neither would she.