Parenting Styles, Part II: Self-Determination Theory

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We are in the midst of a series of articles and videos covering three different models of parenting styles. Parenting styles are being evaluated for:

  • whether they make children feel like they matter
  • whether they make children feel like they can make an impact
  • how well their outcomes correlate with children's progression through the well-being cycle

In the previous post, we covered the Baumrind parenting styles. At the closing of that post, I asserted that the authoritative parenting style, the most effective parenting style in the Baumrind model, contained some practices that do not result in good outcomes. This was cited as a problem.

For a solution, we turn to self-determination theory. As a brief introduction, self-determination theory posits three universal human needs: the needs for relatedness, competence, and autonomy. According to the theory, which is well supported by extensive research, when people are immersed in an environment that supports their natural strivings for these needs, the result is fulfilled needs, a healthy psychology, and well-being. Environments that thwarts those natural tendencies result in unfulfilled needs, psychological maladies, and ill-being.   

The Problem

The problem with the Baumrind typology lies in the demandingness dimension, specifically in the definition of parental control. Remember, demandingness refers to parental control, supervision, and maturity demands. As noted by Bart Soenens and Maarten Vansteenkiste, two psychology researchers prominent in the field of self-determination theory, there are two types of parental control.[i]

Soenens and Vansteenkiste describe a harsh type of control. Practitioners of this harsh control seek to modify not only the child’s behavior, but his thoughts and feelings as well. This type of control is exercised through various degrees of manipulation and coercion. Examples of harsh control include belittling, humiliating, chastising, withholding attention, restricting freedoms, and inflicting physical punishment.

They also describe a kinder, gentler type of control. Practitioners of this type of control seek to modify the child’s behavior while respecting his thoughts and feelings. This type of control is exercised by structuring the environment. Examples include setting clear expectations and furnishing constructive guidance.

These two types of parental control are very different. One is very controlling, while the other is hardly deserves to be designated as control at all. Yet Soenens and Vansteenkiste note that they are often confounded by researchers.

The research cited in the previous article does not distinguish between the two types of control. As a result, the authoritative quadrant includes parenting practices that utilize harsh control. Even spanking can be considered as authoritative parenting, provided it is used sparingly in an atmosphere of parental warmth.[ii]

This is a problem because although harsh control can conform to the definitions of high demandingness and high responsiveness, it is negatively correlated with all the terms on the well-being cycle. Harsh control has been linked to lower self-esteem,[iii] is associated with lower emotional health,[iv],[v] more behavioral problems,[vi],[vii] more social difficulties,[viii],[ix] and poorer academic capabilities.[x]

To be clear, harsh controls are not standard practices of authoritative parents. Nonetheless, they exist within the definition of authoritative parenting when accompanied by parental warmth and involvement. Furthermore, Diana Baumrind has endorsed punishments, including spanking, as authoritative techniques that are effective when used prudently.[xi] But what are they effective at accomplishing? According to Baumrind, harsh controls including spanking are effective at modifying behaviors in the short term. Yet, she concedes that spanking alone does not achieve long-term goals such as competence and character development.[xii]

Self-Determination Theory Parenting Dimensions

One difference between Baumrind and self-determination theory parenting styles is that in self-determination theory, only practices that can be independently linked to a child’s flourishing are included in the recommended parenting style. Another difference is that instead of two dimensions, the self-determination theory parenting model offers three. Those dimensions are involvement, structure, and autonomy support.[xiii]

Involvement

Involvement concerns being a vital and benevolent figure in a child’s life. A parent exhibiting a high degree of involvement is present and engaged in a child’s activities, commits means and effort to support the child, demonstrates warmth and caring in interactions with the child, and fosters a general atmosphere of love. The dimension of involvement is well-aligned with the responsiveness dimension of the Baumrind typology. It is also consistent with existing conceptions of parental warmth, and thus has a rich history in research literature. Thus, a high degree of involvement makes a child feel as though he matters.

It is already established that parental involvement is correlated with relatedness and social skills.[xiv],[xv] A high degree of involvement has also been correlated with greater beliefs in one’s competence,[xvi] better emotional control,[xvii] fewer behavioral issues,[xviii] and a higher level of competence demonstrated in school.[xix] Thus, involvement is positively correlated with every point on the well-being cycle.

Structure

The dimension of structure is a relatively newer construct. Although the data set associated with structure continues to grow, it is not as abundant as the data set associated with involvement. Nonetheless, the research on structure is instructive.

Structure involves setting up the child’s environment for competence to blossom. A parent using a high degree of structure communicates boundaries to the child, explains the consequences of going beyond those boundaries, provides objective information about the child’s impact on his environment in real time, and emphasizes the self-improvement aspects of growth rather than using comparisons to other children. A parent using a low degree of structure does not create such a structured environment, but instead allows disorder to reign.

More structure is better. Structure enables a child to perceive direct links between his actions and his circumstances, and to thereby develop a sense of competence. It makes a child feel as though he can make an impact. Parental structure has been correlated to a child’s belief of his competence as well as academic performance.[xx]

The structure dimension is roughly aligned with the demandingness dimension. Notably absent from the description of structure, however, is any form of harsh control—that is included on a different dimension, to be discussed next. Structure incorporates only the kinder, gentler type of control. This is a key difference between the structure and demandingness dimensions.

We now have two self-determination theory parenting dimensions that we can visualize as overlaying on Baumrind’s dimensions. Involvement can be superimposed onto the responsiveness dimension, and structure onto the demandingness dimension. A high degree of involvement and a high degree of structure would be completely contained within the authoritative quadrant, carving out harmful practices while offering greater specificity on beneficial ones. To identify parenting practices that are optimal, however, or as close as we can get using current research, we have one more dimension to cover.

Autonomy Support

Autonomy support involves empowering the child to author his actions and to own the outcomes. A parent providing a high degree of autonomy support allows choices, respects the child’s interests, encourages self-advocacy, supports volitional activities, gives reasons for expectations, and takes the child’s viewpoint into consideration. A parent providing a low degree of autonomy support is directive and controlling, using harsh measures such as excessive criticism or mockery.

The autonomy support dimension is interactive with both the structure and the involvement dimensions. It is not redundant with these other dimensions, but orthogonal to them. While the involvement and structure dimensions describe what parents do, the autonomy support dimension describes how they do it. Thus, autonomy support is unique and can be independently studied.

More autonomy support is better. Autonomy support has been correlated with higher self-esteem, greater self-regulation and more advanced executive function, both of which have elements of emotional health and behavior, better social outcomes, and greater academic achievement.[xxi] It has been linked to better emotional regulation,[xxii] longer delayed gratification and impulse control,[xxiii] and fewer incidences of depression.[xxiv] Autonomy support is correlated with every point on the well-being cycle.

An outcome of autonomy support is that children develop intrinsic motivation, an inner drive reflective of the true self, that guides behavior. A lack of autonomy support supplants that inner drive with something else. Parents exhibiting a low degree of autonomy support, for example, might use material rewards and punishments. These represent an external drive that motivates the child to behave in certain ways, but is less consistent in its effectiveness and less fulfilling for the child.[xxv]

There are also more insidious means by which parents can supplant a child’s intrinsic motivation. Parental conditional regard, a form of harsh control, is a prime example. Parental conditional regard involves extra attention, appreciation, and affection being given for approved behaviors, and withdrawn for disapproved behaviors. Parental conditional regard amounts to using love as a reward and punishment system. This form of manipulation is decidedly low in autonomy support. It is also common practice, and associated with many underappreciated dangers.

In effect, parental conditional regard implants the parent’s will into the child’s psyche. This is different from external behavior modification techniques like material rewards and punishments, because its impact is within the child. Yet it is also different from intrinsic motivation. Rather than having his authentic inner voice guiding his behaviors, the child is moved to action by what amounts to an imagined cajoling or judgmental affect from his parents. This intrusion may be fabricated, but it represents a real assault on critical autonomous processes. It drowns out the child’s own inner voice, and results in real psychological damage. Children subject to parental conditional regard are more likely to suppress emotions, less able to regulate emotions, less able to recognize emotions in others, and less likely to share emotions with others.[xxvi]

Autonomy is recognized within the Baumrind typologies as important for child development. Yet, within the definition of authoritative parenting, autonomy support may be still be dispensed on an exception basis, either for expediency or for perceived necessity. With self-determination theory, however, autonomy support is essential and indispensable. This is the key distinction between the two models.

Optimal Parenting Style in Self-Determination Theory

The optimal parenting practices of self-determination theory can be presented graphically, much like we did with the Baumrind parenting styles. Autonomy-supportive practices could be exercised in any quadrant, but are utilized optimally when contained within the limits of high involvement and high structure. See Figure 1.

 Figure 1. Optimal Self-Determination Theory Parenting Style

Figure 1. Optimal Self-Determination Theory Parenting Style

Being autonomy supportive means offering explanations and guidance in a way that is meaningful for the child and nourishes his development. This requires understanding the child’s motivations, thoughts, and feelings. As noted by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, the co-developers of self-determination theory, it requires that “interactions between parent and child begin with empathy…”[xxvii]

And empathy takes us to our third model of parenting style:  the model developed by Dr. John Gottman. We will cover Gottman’s parenting styles in the following posts.


[i] Bart Soenens and Maarten Vansteenkiste, “A theoretical upgrade of the concept of parental psychological control: Proposing new insights on the basis of self-determination theory,” Developmental Review, 30 (2010): 86.

[ii] Diana Baumrind, “The Discipline Controversy Revisited,” Family Relations 45, no. 4 (1996): 412.

[iii] Michael H. Kernis, Anita C. Brown and Gene H. Brody, “Fragile self-esteem in children and its associations with perceived patterns of parent-child communication,” Journal of Personality 68, no. 2 (2000): 225-252.

[iv] Catrin Finkenauer, Rutger C. M. E. Engels, Roy F. Baumeister, “Parenting behavior and adolescent behavioral and emotional problems: The role of self-control,” International Journal of Behavioral Development 29, no. 1 (2005): 58-69.

[v] Brian K. Barber, “Parental Psychological Control: Revisiting a Neglected Construct,” Child Development, 67 (1996): 3296-3319.

[vi] Catrin Finkenauer, Rutger C. M. E. Engels, Roy F. Baumeister, “Parenting behavior and adolescent behavioral and emotional problems: The role of self-control,” International Journal of
Behavioral Development 29, no. 1 (2005): 58-69.

[vii] Brian K. Barber, “Parental Psychological Control: Revisiting a Neglected Construct,” Child Development, 67 (1996): 3296-3319.

[viii] Nathalie Soucy and Simon Larose, “Attachment and Control in Family and Mentoring Contexts as Determinants of Adolescent Adjustment to College,” Journal of Family Psychology 14, no. 1 (2000): 125-143.

[ix] Society for Research in Child Development. "Teens whose parents exert more psychological control have trouble with closeness, independence." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/10/141023091944.htm (accessed May 7, 2017).

[x] Nathalie Soucy and Simon Larose, “Attachment and Control in Family and Mentoring Contexts as Determinants of Adolescent Adjustment to College,” Journal of Family Psychology 14, no. 1 (2000): 125-143.

[xi] Diana Baumrind, “The Discipline Controversy Revisited,” Family Relations 45, no. 4 (1996): 405-414.

[xii] Diana Baumrind, Robert E. Larzelere, and Philip A. Cowan, “Ordinary physical punishment: Is it harmful? Comment on Gershoff (2002),” Psychological Bulletin 128, no. 4 (2002): 580-589.

[xiii] Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci, Self-Determination Theory: Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness (New York: Guilford, 2017), 319-350.

[xiv] John Bowlby, Attachment and loss (New York: Pimlico, 1969).

[xv] Cathryn L. Booth, Linda Rose-Krasnor, Jo-Anne McKinnon, and Kenneth H. Rubin, “Predicting social adjustment in middle childhood: the role of preschool attachment security and maternal style,” Social Development 3, no. 3 (1994): 189-204.

[xvi] Wendy S. Grolnick, Richard M. Ryan, and Edward L. Deci, “Inner resources for school achievement: Motivational mediators of children's perceptions of their parents,” Journal of Educational Psychology 83, no. 4 (1991): 508-517.

[xvii] Nancy Eisenberg, et. Al., “Relations Among Positive Parenting, Children’s Effortful Control, and Externalizing Problems: A Three-Wave Longitudinal Study,” Child Development 76, no. 5 (2005): 1055-1071.

[xviii] John S. Hatfield, Lucy Rau Ferguson, and Richard Alpert, “Mother-Child Interaction and the Socialization Process,” Child Development 38, no. 2 (1967): 365-414.

[xix] Wendy S. Grolnick, Richard M. Ryan, and Edward L. Deci, “Inner resources for school achievement: Motivational mediators of children's perceptions of their parents,” Journal of Educational Psychology 83, no. 4 (1991): 508-517.

[xx] Melanie S. Farkas and Wendy S. Grolnick, “Examining the components and concomitants of parental structure in the academic domain,” Motivation and Emotion 34, no. 3 (2010): 266-279.

[xxi] Ariana C. Vasquez et al., “Parent Autonomy Support, Academic Achievement,

and Psychosocial Functioning: a Meta-analysis of Research,” Educational Psychology Review, accessed May 11, 2017, http://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/38261266/PAS_Meta.pdf?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAIWOWYYGZ2Y53UL3A&Expires=1494330315&Signature=CtS9SOefuBFQWVFRzOWemKBYkGQ%3D&response-content-disposition=inline%3B%20filename%3DParental_Autonomy_Support_Academic_Achie.pdf.

[xxii] Wendy S. Grolnick et al., “Mothers’ strategies for regulating their toddlers’ distress,” Infant Behavior and Development 21, no. 3 (1998): 437-450.

[xxiii] Samantha W. Bindman, Eva Pomerantz, and Glenn I. Roisman, “Do Children’s Executive Functions Account for Associations Between Early Autonomy-Supportive Parenting and Achievement Through High School?” Journal of Educational Psychology 107, no. 3 (2015): 756-770.

[xxiv] Kristine N. Marbell and Wendy S. Grolnick, “Correlates of parental control and autonomy support in an interdependent culture: A look at Ghana,” Motivation and Emotion 37, no. 1 (2013): 79-92.

[xxv] Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci, Self-Determination Theory: Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness (New York: Guilford, 2017), 179-215.

[xxvi] Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci, Self-Determination Theory: Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness (New York: Guilford, 2017), 334-340.

[xxvii] Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci, Self-Determination Theory: Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness (New York: Guilford, 2017), 349.


How to Properly Cite this Article: Brian Vondruska, “Parenting Styles, Part II: Self-Determination Theory”, The Kind of Parent You Are, accessed [date], https://www.thekindofparentyouare.com/articles/parenting-styles-part-ii-self-determination-theory.