Some Parenting Styles are More Conducive to Raising Critical Thinkers

Parenting Styles and Critical Thinking

We’re all familiar with the concept of a “parenting style”. Some parents are more strict disciplinarians than others. Some are more involved in their children’s lives than others. Some are warmer and more nurturing than others.

We all have our own views (prejudices?) about which parenting styles are preferable or superior.

These judgments are often based on assumptions about the positive or negative impacts of different parenting styles on children — their psychological well-being, their social skills, their prospects for success, etc.

Here I want to ask a more specific question: are some parenting styles more conducive to raising critical thinkers than others?

Our intuition says “yes” (mine certainly does). But I was curious whether there was any research to support this intuition, so in this post I’m going to summarize some of the key concepts and findings in the empirical study of parenting styles and their impacts on child development and adult outcomes.

In some circles the categories of parenting style that I’ll be reviewing are very well known. It shows up in almost any discussion of child development and personality, and parental influences on childhood outcomes.

With this background under our belts we can talk about how different parenting styles relate to skills and attitudes associated with critical thinking.

Psychological Studies of Parenting Styles

We shouldn’t expect any simple one-to-one relationship between specific actions of parents and later behaviors and personalities of children. We all know children who share a home but grow up to have very different personalities, and children raised in very different environments who grow up to have remarkably similar personalities.

However, developmental and social psychologists have been studying correlations between parenting styles and various attributes of older children and adults, for decades.

Four Styles of Parenting

There is no single categorization scheme for distinguishing parenting styles. Any categorization used will depend on what aspects of parenting and child development one is interested in studying.

However, a categorization scheme that has received a lot of attention distinguishes four parenting styles:

  1. Authoritarian parenting
  2. Authoritative parenting
  3. Permissive parenting
  4. Uninvolved parenting

Authoritarian parenting emphasizes blind obedience, stern discipline, and controlling children through punishments. Children are expected to follow strict rules established by the parents. Authoritarian parents often fail to explain the reasoning behind these rules. If asked to explain, the parent might simply reply “Because I said so”.

Authoritative parenting is similar to authoritative parenting in that parents establish rules and guidelines that their children are expected to follow. But authoritative parents are much more responsive to their children and willing to listen to questions. When children fail to meet expectations, authoritative parents are more nurturing and forgiving than punishing. Authoritative parents want their children to be assertive as well as socially responsible, and self-regulated as well as cooperative.

Permissive parenting is sometimes referred to as “indulgent” parenting. Permissive parents impose very few demands on their children. They rarely discipline their children because they don’t expect children to demonstrate the kind of maturity and self-control they associate with adulthood. Permissive parents are non-traditional, lenient, allow their children great freedom, and avoid confrontation. They are generally nurturing and communicative with their children, but they prefer to relate to them as friends rather than authority figures.

Uninvolved parenting is sometimes referred to as “neglectful” parenting (when pushed to extremes). An uninvolved parent makes an effort to fulfill the child’s basic needs (food, clothing, shelter, etc.) but places few demands on children, avoids communication and is generally detached from their child’s life.

Researchers have sometimes re-framed these parenting styles in terms of two dimensions—“responsiveness" and “demandingness."

  1. Responsiveness is the extent to which parents intentionally foster individuality, self-regulation, and self-assertion by being attuned and supportive of their children’s needs and demands.
  2. Demandingness refers to the expectations parents place on children to become integrated into the family whole, to demonstrate maturity and independence. It also reflects a parent’s willingness to confront and discipline the child who disobeys.

The four different parenting styles involve different combinations of these elements.

  • Authoritative parenting is both responsive and demanding.
  • Authoritarian parenting is demanding but not responsive.
  • Permissive parenting is responsive but not demanding.
  • And uninvolved parenting is neither demanding nor responsive.

Just to show that I'm not making this up ...

Impact of Parenting Styles

Many studies have been conducted that attempt to measure impacts of these different parenting styles on children.

Here is a brief summary of some generally accepted results:

  • Authoritarian parenting styles generally lead to children who are obedient and proficient, but they rank lower in happiness, social competence and self-esteem. They tend to be conformist, quiet, and often suffer from depression and self-blame. Strict parenting increases a teen’s risk of participating in heavy drinking.
  • Authoritative parenting styles tend to result in children who are happy, capable and successful. They are better liked by those around them, more generous and more capable of self-determination.
  • Permissive parenting often results in children who rank low in happiness and self-regulation. They tend to be more impulsive and as adolescents may engage in more misconduct. These children are more likely to experience problems with authority and tend to perform poorly in school. In the better cases they are emotionally secure, and independent.
  • Uninvolved parenting styles rank lowest across all life domains. These children tend to lack self-control, have low self-esteem and are less competent than their peers. They develop the sense that other aspects of their parents’ lives are more important than they are. They are prone to emotionally withdrawing from social situations. In adolescence they may have problems with skipping school and delinquency. Without a nurturing source of parental love, children of uninvolved parents may try to get love from whatever sources they can.

This is not an exhaustive list of parenting styles by any means, but these four categories have come to dominate a lot of the discussion.

Discussion: Authoritative Parenting and Responsiveness to Reasons

The research reinforces many intuitions we have about good parenting. We’re not surprised to learn that “authoritative” parents who provide their children with a proper balance of nurture, independence and firm control, have children who are more socially skilled and proficient, better at maintaining close relationships, and more self-reliant.

It’s also no surprise that these positive personality traits are also important for effective critical thinking.

We’ll elaborate on this more as we go along, but consider the psychological disposition known as “responsiveness to reasons”.

If a person is responsive to reasons, that means they identify as someone who acts on the basis of reasons, who wants to have good reasons for believing and doing what they do, and yet who is also open to being persuaded by reasons.

Being responsive to reasons is an essential attribute of critical thinking.

Imagine having a conversation with someone who is NOT interested in engaging with reasons, who is NOT open to having their views changed through critical and open reflection about the rational basis for their beliefs.

Actually I’m sure you’ve had many conversations like this. We can all come up with examples in our own experience fairly easily.

Authoritative parenting nurtures responsiveness to reasons.

Authoritative parents define boundaries and set expectations for the behavior of their children, but they also desire that children understand the reasons behind these boundaries and expectations, and are willing to explain those reasons to their children (where and when this is appropriate).

Authoritative parents are also open to critical push-back from their children. This doesn’t mean that they defer to their children’s countering opinions all the time (obviously).

What it means, fundamentally, is that parents create a space in which children are not afraid to voice a countering opinion or ask for a reason; a space where asking questions and offering answers is encouraged rather than discouraged.

Children of authoritative parents understand that parents are the boss (again, where appropriate — this will vary with the issue and the age of the children), but through their parents’ example, they come to value their own critical rational faculties, because they see their parents acknowledging and valuing those faculties — in themselves, in their spouses or partners, in other people, and in their children.

So, here’s the takeaway. Parents can lay the foundation for raising critical thinkers by modeling the attributes of critical thinkers, including being open and responsive to reasons.

All of this needs to be developmentally appropriate of course. Children are not little adults, their capacity to engage with reasons is something that develops over time.

But long before they can engage in critical analysis of arguments, children can learn to recognize and value respectful communication that acknowledges their autonomy and the value of their unique perspective on the world.

Parents lay the seeds of critical thinking in their children by modeling this behavior and these values.