Parenting style refers to the differences in how parents try to control and socialize their children. Diana Baumrind, known in the field of Psychology for classic, empirically-supported research on parenting styles, found that parents tend to exhibit one of three parenting styles:1
- Authoritarian parenting is associated with low warmth, high control, frequent use of punishment, and lack of consideration of child views. They expect their rules to be obeyed without being questioned.
- Permissive parents are unconditionally accepting of children’s behavior and are very lenient. They also tend to be avoidant of confrontation.
- Authoritative parents are warm, involved, consistently enforce developmentally appropriate expectations, and favor reinforcement over punishment to control behavior.
Maccoby and Martin expanded on Baumrinds’ findings, and suggest a fourth parenting style identified as uninvolved or neglectful. These parents are neither directive, nor responsive, and instead tend to ignore their children.2
Although there is no "wrong" way to parent, research shows that children raised by authoritative parents fare better on virtually every indicator of psychological health than their peers who are raised by non-authoritative parents.3, 4 More »
Do You Know Your Parenting Style? Take this online quiz.
One way to address bad behavior is through contingency management. Contingency management refers to the strategic use of reinforcement or punishment to change or maintain the behavior of others. The basic principles of behavior change are as follows:
All of us like receiving recognition for our accomplishments. While it may be second nature for us to identify bad behavior, it is also important for us to “catch individuals being good.” By praising your child or providing reinforcement and incentives for a desired behavior, you will increase the likelihood of your child repeating that behavior.
- Provide reinforcement or incentives for behaviors that you want more of.
- More attention (e.g., interacting, noticing, commenting)
- Praise (e.g., "Good job!" "I like that!")
- Concrete rewards (e.g., favorite treat, book or toy)
- Privileges (e.g., going to the zoo, a movie or having a friend over to play)
- Removal of negatives (e.g., "If you keep up with your school work and keep your room clean this week, then you can be excused from yard work this weekend.")
- Provide punishment for behaviors you want less of.
Reinforcement and punishment must be applied in specific ways to be successful:
- Time out
- Critical feedback (e.g., "No," "I don’t like it when you do that")
- Removal of privileges (e.g., television viewing, time with friends)
- Ignoring or withdrawing attention (e.g., not responding or reacting to a child when he or she whining or throwing a tantrum)
- Enforcing consequences (e.g., additional chores or homework assignment)
- Reinforcement and punishment must be consistent. If you put a child in time-out for hitting another child, but your partner, a teacher, or other disciplinarian allows this type of behavior to go on without a time-out consequence, the hitting behavior will likely continue. Disciplinarians involved in a child’s life must apply the same rules consistently to help a child learn to make better behavioral choices.
- Reinforcement and punishment must occur very quickly after the behavior has occurred. It is important to associate the specific behavior with a consequence. For instance, if a child throws a toy, they have a time out. If a teen completes all homework assignments for the week, they can watch television, etc. Delayed consequences are less powerful. Therefore, if you see a child throwing toys, for example, it is more effective to put him in time out right away than to delay a punishment. When using an incentive to reward positive behavior in young children, it should follow the behavior immediately (a few seconds). The reason behind this is that incentives delivered days or weeks later are no longer directly associated with the positive behavior. If you want to use a big incentive (for example, a bike for maintaining good grades for an entire semester or year), it’s important to provide check-in points, and/or provide ongoing praise and encouragement for the assignments and test scores received along the way—reminding the young person that their goal is within reach.
- Reinforcement must be something that the child or adolescent actually wants. For instance, offering an adolescent a small amount of money is not likely to be a powerful reinforcement. Likewise, a punishment must be something a child actually wants to avoid. If you tell a teenager that she cannot watch television until she finishes her homework she may not care. However, she may become very upset if you take the cell phone away from her. It’s important to know what motivates the individual child.
- Positive control refers to the use of reinforcement, as opposed to punishment to control behavior. Positive control is necessary because punishment alone is not successful over time. If you simply punish children for the behaviors you do not want to see, they are likely to reduce the frequency of punished behaviors, but only when they are around you. More desirable behavior will not automatically emerge unless you reinforce the desired behaviors. Look for opportunities to tell young people when they are on the right track, when you are pleased with how they handled a difficult situation or school assignment. When young people are not getting attention for good behavior, they will often find a way to get attention for other kinds of behavior. Parental response to bad behavior only often leads to more bad behavior, in an effort to maintain parental attention.
For older children and teens, simple contingency management techniques may be insufficient on their own. Behavior problems in young people often improve when family members learn to negotiate and problem solve effectively with a young person. It is important to demonstrate respect, even if you do not agree with a young person’s point of view. An authoritarian approach (expecting rules to be obeyed without question, high control, frequent use of punishment, lack of discussion) is rarely the most effective way to obtain a teen’s cooperation. Demonstrating a desire to problem solve is often a more effective way to reach an agreement and promote cooperation. More »
Maximize the effectiveness of Reinforcement and Punishment: Remember RED
Regular - Consistency is the key to regulating behavior. If only one disciplinarian in your child’s life punishes an undesired behavior, while others let it slide, the behavior is more likely to increase, and also be more difficult to eliminate.
Expedient - Reinforcement and punishment must occur very quickly after the behavior has occurred (within a few seconds). It is important to associate the specific behavior with a consequence. For instance, if a child throws a toy, they immediately go to time out. If a teen completes all homework assignments for the week, they can watch television, etc. Delayed consequences are less powerful. Therefore, if you see a child throwing toys, for example, it is more effective to put him in time out right away than to delay a punishment. If you want to use a big incentive (for example, a bike for maintaining good grades for an entire semester or year), it’s important to provide check-in points, and/or provide ongoing praise and encouragement for the assignments and test scores received along the way–reminding the young person that their goal is within reach.
Desired - Reinforcement must be something that the child or adolescent actually wants. For instance, offering an adolescent a small amount of money is not likely to be a powerful reinforcement. Likewise, a punishment must be something a child actually wants to avoid. If you tell a teenager that she cannot watch television until she finishes her homework she may not care. However, she may become very upset if you take the cell phone away from her. It’s important to know what motivates the individual child.
Differentiating Normal from Problematic Behavior
There are no hard and fast rules about how much misbehavior is normal versus a sign of trouble. The answer to this question depends upon the adult’s perspective of "bad" behavior. Misbehaving, breaking rules, arguing, etc. are all normal childhood behaviors that can be used as learning opportunities. The appropriateness of behavior needs to be evaluated along with a child’s developmental level. For instance, many toddlers have difficulty with sharing. Failure to share a favorite toy or food should not be interpreted as "bad behavior." This does not mean that parents should not take this opportunity to talk about sharing and demonstrate the values of sharing. If you notice problems in school, at home, within social groups, etc., you may want to follow up with the previously mentioned behavioral interventions.
It’s not always easy to determine the difference between "normal" behavioral ups and downs versus a behavioral problem. Always consider your child’s developmental level (which is not the same thing as your child’s age), identify your expectations, recall how you were parented, and identify your parenting style. A good way to find out about how your child’s behavior compares to other children’s behavior is to ask a teacher.
Occasional disobedience should not be interpreted as a sign of a behavioral problem. Learn more about different behavioral health problems, like ADHD, Oppositional Defiance Disorder, school refusal. Understanding these conditions may help you determine if your child is exhibiting behaviors consistent with symptoms of a particular disorder or significant behavioral problems. Only a trained professional, such as a pediatrician or mental health provider, can diagnose a child’s behavioral health problems. Consult with a provider if you have questions about your child or adolescent’s functioning.
1Baumrind, D. (1966). Effects of authoritative parental control on child behavior. Child Development, 37, 887-907.
2Maccoby, E. E., & Martin, J. A. (1983). Socialization in the context of the family: Parent–child interaction. In P. H. Mussen (Ed.) & E. M. Hetherington (Vol. Ed.), Handbook of child psychology: Vol. 4. Socialization, personality, and social development (4th ed., pp. 1–101). New York: Wiley.
3Lamborn, S., Mounts, N., & Dornbusch, S. (1991). Patterns of competence and adjustment among adolescents from authoritative, authoritarian, indulgent, and neglectful families. Child Development, 62, 1049-1065.
4Steinberg, L. (2001). We know some things: Parent-adolescent relationships in retrospect and prospect. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 11(1), 1-19.