Many ingredients go into making a happy child who will grow up to become a happy adult. Education, genes, health, environment and other variables all contribute to the final brew. But, despite what you might have heard from some authorities who claim that parents don't matter, parenting is in fact one of the most crucial influences. Research shows that parents really do have profound and long-lasting effects on their children's capacity for happiness, and some styles of parenting tend to promote the development of happiness, while others do the reverse.
So what kind of parent are you? There are, broadly speaking, four styles of parenting: authoritative, authoritarian, indulgent and uninvolved.
Authoritative parents love their children unconditionally and accept them for who they are. They keep a close eye on their children, provide them with plenty of support, set firm boundaries, and grant considerable freedom within those boundaries. Authoritative parents monitor their children and intervene when necessary, but let them get on with things when there is no need to interfere. They mean what they say, and do not shy away from conflict when enforcing the boundaries they have set. Authoritative parents are loving but not over-indulgent, involved but not overly controlling, clear about limits but not excessively risk-averse, and permissive within those limits but not neglectful. Most people would like to be an authoritative parent, whether or not they actually are.
Authoritarian parents, in contrast, have a colder parenting style which is more demanding but less responsive to their children's real needs. Authoritarian parents are highly controlling, but not very warm or loving. They intervene frequently, issuing commands, criticisms and occasional praise, but do this in an inconsistent way. They expect their children to obey their instructions without explanation, and may use emotional tactics to get their way, such as making their children feel guilty, ashamed or unloved. Authoritarian parents often interfere when there is no real need to, and issue threats without always carrying them through. At the extreme, some highly authoritarian parents resort to physical or emotional abuse in their attempts to control their children, which obviously can cause lasting psychological damage. Children who are beaten or denied any affection are at significantly greater risk of becoming abusive parents themselves.
Indulgent parents are responsive but undemanding and permissive. They are warm and loving but lax, setting few clear boundaries. They often respond to their children's wishes, even when these are unreasonable or inappropriate. Punishments are seldom threatened, let alone carried through, and the children often appear to have the upper hand in the relationship. Indulgent parents try to be kind, but shy away from conflict or difficulty.
A fine example of indulgent parenting can be found in Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in the form of Mr and Mrs Salt. Their daughter Veruca is an obnoxious little girl who has been spoiled rotten by her rich parents. She gains entry to Willy Wonka's fabulous factory by winning one of the coveted golden tickets - but only thanks to her doting father, who has bought half a million Wonka chocolate bars.
Uninvolved parents are unresponsive, undemanding, permissive and set few clear boundaries, largely because they don't really care very much. Unlike authoritative parents, they are neither warm nor firm and they do not monitor their children. Instead, they are laid-back and unresponsive to an extent that can sometimes seem reckless. In extreme cases, uninvolved parenting may stray into outright neglect.
Dahl again provides a helpful example - this time in the shape of Mr and Mrs Wormwood in Matilda. The gormless Wormwoods are so wrapped up in their own empty suburban lives that they fail to notice that their daughter Matilda is an extraordinarily brilliant little girl. To them, she is little more than an annoying scab.
These brief pen-portraits are of course over-simplifications of a complex reality. Most real parents do not fit neatly into just one of the four categories, and many display a mix of two or more styles, albeit often with a dominant theme. Moreover, the same parents may display different parenting styles on different occasions or towards different children.
Think, for example, of Harry Potter's adoptive parents, the ghastly Mr and Mrs Dursley. In their behaviour towards Harry, the Dursleys are mainly authoritarian caregivers, with a streak of uninvolved. They are fussy, demanding and over-controlling, but also cold, unloving and ultimately indifferent.
In sharp contrast, the Dursleys' fawning attitude towards their biological son, the egregious Dudley, falls firmly into the indulgent camp. While Harry can do no right in their eyes, "Ickle Dudleykins" can do no wrong. (By the way, since authoritative parents are the ideal sort to have, they don't tend to crop up in famous literature as often as the nasty, inadequate types.)
So, how do these four contrasting parenting styles affect a child's propensity for happiness, and why? Large amounts of psychological research show that authoritative parenting tends to be associated with better outcomes. On average, the children of authoritative parents are happier, academically more successful, emotionally better adjusted and have better personal relationships than children of authoritarian, indulgent or uninvolved parents. They adapt better to school or university and perform better in both. As if that were not enough, studies have also found that children of authoritative parents are less likely to smoke, take illicit drugs, or abuse alcohol.
The key is that authoritative parenting promotes many of the personal characteristics that typify happy people. These include good social and emotional skills, freedom from excessive anxiety, a sense of control, resilience, self-esteem, optimism, playfulness and freedom from excessive materialism.
Take social and emotional skills, for example. Our personal relationships are fundamental to our happiness throughout life. Having a rich network of close, supportive relationships with partners, friends, family and colleagues is probably the single most important ingredient of happiness. But in order to develop and maintain those relationships, any individual must possess at least a minimum level of social skills and emotional literacy. Helping children to become socially and emotionally competent is therefore one of the most effective ways of helping them become happy people.
The children of authoritative parents have better social skills and more successful relationships with their peers during childhood, adolescence and early adulthood. They also display a better understanding of other people's thoughts and emotions. In contrast, authoritarian parenting appears to be bad news for the development of emotional literacy, especially where aggression is concerned. The children of highly authoritarian parents interpret other people's intentions as hostile, even when they are not, which makes them more likely to behave aggressively.
A second major ingredient of happiness that authoritative parenting helps to create is freedom from excessive anxiety. Authoritative parents are involved and supportive; they monitor their children, take notice of what they are doing, and respond to their needs. They may not always do precisely what their children want, but they do at least respond. Their children therefore learn from an early age that they have a reliable safe haven in case of trouble. The child has less need to monitor its parents, because it implicitly knows they will be there if help is required. By creating this inherent sense of security, authoritative parenting insulates the developing child against the nagging anxiety that can easily undermine happiness.
Playfulness is another important contributor to long-lasting happiness that thrives under authoritative parenting. The authoritative combination of security and autonomy encourages children to explore and play, which in turn helps to develop their social, emotional, physical and thinking skills.
Over-protective parents are among the worst enemies of play. There is a growing tendency for anxious parents to protect their children from every unpleasantness or risk. Play, especially of the outdoors or rough-and-tumble varieties, is viewed as potentially nasty, or even dangerous: the child might be upset, bullied, hit, or worse. The problem here is that attempting to insulate children from all risks will also deprive them of opportunities for play and social interaction which can be crucial for their development.
Another ingredient of happiness that benefits from authoritative parenting is freedom from excessive materialism. Extensive research by psychologists and economists has confirmed that simply accumulating more and more material wealth contributes remarkably little to enduring happiness, whereas chasing after wealth can actually cause unhappiness. Highly materialistic people are found to be generally less happy than those with more balanced priorities. Research also indicates that authoritarian parents are more likely than authoritative parents to have children who are highly materialistic. The children of authoritarian parents often develop a strong desire for money as they grow up. This greater need for external reward in the form of material wealth could be a response to feelings of insecurity, engendered in childhood by cold, controlling parents.
The fact is that authoritative parenting creates fertile conditions for children to become, and remain, happy people. And probably the most fundamental aspect of authoritative parenting is unconditional love and acceptance. If nothing else, parents who want their children to be happy should aim to love their children for who they are, not who they would like them to be, nor for what they achieve. Parental love should not be made conditional upon meeting performance targets.
· Dr Paul Martin is a science writer and former Cambridge University behavioural scientist. This article is drawn from his new book, Making Happy People, which is published by Fourth Estate.
Parenting styles differ from family to family, and may even vary from day to day within one family. All parents make decisions for their children that may be more strict or more indulgent on occasion. For the most part, however, the way that one parents falls into one of three general parenting methods. These are authoritative, authoritarian and permissive parenting styles.
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Authoritative parents are firm, loving and kind. They set boundaries and expect their children to abide by them. Neither overly strict nor overly indulgent, authoritative parents strike a good balance between expectations that are too high and expectations that are too low. These parents allow their children to make choices that are age-appropriate, encouraging them to take on more responsibility as they grow. They respond well to the needs of their child, but do not give in to every desire. They give their child reasons for certain rules and guidelines, and allow natural consequences to take place whenever feasible and when no real harm will come to the child due to those consequences. According to the Cornell University Cooperative Extension, children of authoritative parents often display social competence, independence and a high sense of responsibility as they grow into young adults.
Authoritarian parents are strict, unbending and inflexible. They may attempt to control every aspect of their child's life, and do not allow the child to make choices. Authoritarian parents expect obedience without questioning. They may use harsh discipline methods with their children, and may be insensitive to their children's emotional needs. They often do not explain the reasons behind the rules that they set, and impose their own consequences whenever a rule is broken. Adult children of authoritarian parents may be unable to act without specific direction, and may have trouble expressing themselves.
Permissive parents are indulgent, not wanting to impose their will on their child's developing personality. They often set no rules and have no consequences. They might cause their child to avoid even natural or logical consequences in order to save him from perceived harm, unhappiness or hurt feelings. Permissive parents are usually kind and loving, but may become frustrated when a child's behavior is defiant or unacceptable. Despite this frustration, permissive parents often do not step in to cause a change in the child's actions as long as he will not be physically harmed. Permissive parenting may cause teen and young adult children to remain egocentric or lack self-control, according to the Cornell University Cooperative Extension.
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