A large issue concerning Baumrind’s typology of parenting styles since its conception in 1966 is its failure to define the specific processes that underlie each style, consequently leading to conclusions that tend to be more speculative than empirical. Because of these elusive conceptions of the parenting styles, we cannot fully understand the styles in the context of different ethnic groups, and fail to see how they vary in effectiveness through different times in the child’s development. After all, how do you draw empirical conclusions about Baumrind’s parenting styles when the definitions he offers lack concrete behavioral patterns that help define them?
The problem of defining parenting styles goes back to the emergence of behaviorism and Freudian theory around the 1930’s and 40’s. In a nutshell, behaviorists were interested in how the environment influences development, while Freudian theorists focused on how personality develops out of the conflict between the basic biological “self” and the limiting requirements of society. Since the effects of parenting plays a large role in our environment, research on parenting styles came naturally as an outgrowth of these two movements. But the definitions offered by both behaviorism and Freudian theory again fell short of a more empirical and at the same time wholeful understanding of the parenting styles.
Specifically, Freudian theory concentrated on the emotional relationship between the parent and child, which as a whole influences the child’s psychosexual, psychosocial, and personality development. Notice how this relationship might again prove elusive since back then, emotions were also difficult concepts to empirically define. Such psychodynamic ideas about the libido, the psychosexual stages, and the various defense mechanisms—all of which are core ideas of Freudian theory—are certainly fun to toss around, but many of them notoriously lack empirical evidence. In contrast, the Freudian’s contemporaries, the behaviorists, disregarded the internal events of emotions altogether and preferred only to study observable behavior. They therefore study the specific parenting practices that influence child behavior. However, identifying how these specific parenting practices influence child behavior requires that we also account for the emotional relationship—that is, the emotional context—between the parent and child. It is possible, after all, that a child might feel that their parent’s spanking as the cruelest of things done to them, while it is also possible that the child might still feel so strongly their parent’s affection and love through a great deal of spanking. An analysis of this interaction requires that we understand the emotional context underlying the parental practice. Attributing isolated parental practices to any outcome in child behavior simply cannot do.
Thus we come across a tension between two extremes in the literature on parenting styles. On one hand, there is an effort to develop a typology of parenting styles, with each type as a gestalt, or as a whole comprised of more than the sum of its parts. On the other hand, we see an effort to deconstruct parenting style altogether into unintegrated parts, into isolated parenting practices. It was not until 1966 that Baumrind revolutionized extant models of parenting by developing a typology of parenting styles that incorporated both the emotional and behavioral aspects of parenting.
In doing so, Baumrind expanded and articulated the concept of parental control, which he anchored in the parents’ values and beliefs about their roles as parents as well as their beliefs about the nature of children. Thus, in his conceptualization of parenting, he discerned between three types: authoritative, authoritative, and permissive. Importantly, Baumrind included in the concept of parental control the dynamic between the demands of society, as communicated by the parents, and the child’s need to maintain a sense of individuality. Previously, earlier models assumed a one-way relationship in parenting and neglected how the child might actually contribute to their own development by influencing their parents. Baumrind’s emphasis on the child’s individuality marked a paradigm shift in the thinking about socialization. Equally as important was his ability to create a broad configuration of parental characteristics that were held together by one idea: control. Hence, any one aspect of parenting must necessarily be dependent on the configuration of all the other aspects. In other words, the way in which the parents use their authority, or control, also determines a configuration of their practices and behaviors characteristic of their style.
The problem with Baumrind’s configurational approach to parenting lies in the fact that these characteristics are too intercorrelated. Any developmental outcome in the child’s behavior can be attributed solely to an authoritative parenting style, for instance, and not to any one parental practice. Thus, although it is evident that an authoritative parenting style produces competent children, the specific processes through which it does so is still unknown.
In order to alleviate the confusion that arises from a still too broad conceptualization of parenting, Darling and Steinberg propose a model that disentangles three different aspects of parenting. These are: the values and goals parents have in socializing their children, the parenting practices they employ, and the parenting style which the parents express toward their children.
The first of these refer to the general goals that parents have toward socializing their children by (a) their attempts to instill certain skills and behaviors in the child and (b) to cultivate more global qualities of their personality. Such skills might involve the learning of appropriate manners, social skills, and academic ability, while the qualities of personality might involve curiosity, critical thinking, and independence. In Darling and Steinberg’s model, these goals then directly influence both the practices and parenting style that parents employ. A crucial aspect of their model, in fact, is its distinction between parenting practices and parenting style, responding to the longstanding tension in the socialization literature that arises from the difficulty of empirically defining parenting.
Darling and Steinberg define parenting practices as the specific behaviors of the parent driven by a socialization goal. Attending school functions and spanking are two of such practices. So if the goal of the parent is to show interest in their child’s activities, then attending the child’s baseball games or school functions, asking about the child’s friends, and going to art museums at the child’s request might be different manifestations of the same parental practice of showing interest.
This description of parenting practices distinguishes itself from the concept of parenting style. A primary distinction that Darling and Steinberg make between the two is that parenting style is independent of the content of the parenting behavior. For instance, one authoritative parent might require that the child finish their homework before engaging in any other activity, while another might require outdoor exercise before homework is tackled. Although the style of both parents is the same, the practices through which the parents communicate their values is different. Additionally, parenting style as opposed to parenting practices communicates the parent’s attitude toward the child rather than toward the child’s behavior.
While both parenting style and parenting practices directly result from parental goals and values, the way in which the two influence child development are a bit different. Parenting practices are essentially the mechanisms through which parents directly help their child attain their socialization goals. Parenting style, however, influences child development by first influencing the parents practices. Depending on the parenting style, the practices that are employed and the effectiveness toward which they achieve certain socialization goals will vary. Additionally, since parenting style communicates the parent’s attitude to the child, it will also have an influence on the child’s personality, particularly the child’s openness to parental influence. In this way, parenting style becomes the contextual variable that moderates the relationship between specific parenting practices and specific developmental outcomes.
Through this new model, Darling and Steinberg hope to better the explore the question of how parenting style might vary in the context of various ethnic backgrounds, as well as determine the specific processes through which parenting style influences child development. By focusing on these processes, they also hope to understand how parenting style and practices influences the child’s behavior differentially across the child’s life course.