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Harmonious parenting

Stephen Greenspan

Baumrind's work has been enormously valuable and has stimulated a great deal of important empirical research on parenting. It has made researchers and clinicians aware that good parenting involves more than just being warm and loving; parents also need to set firm limits if their children are to develop into socially competent individuals. As a theory of parenting, however, Baumrind's typology, and the resulting ideal type of authoritative parenting, is inadequate. The typology is inadequate because it is based on only two of the three empirically derived factors of discipline, and has no place in it for a major emphasis (tolerance) in the theories of clinically oriented parent educators. The resulting ideal type of authoritative parenting is inadequate because it creates the mistaken impression that good parents set limits all of the time. It does not address the idea, which is so obvious as to almost not need confirmation, that good parents know when it is appropriate, and when it is not appropriate, to set limits.

Caregiver discipline may be considered a form of adult adaptive behavior, and good parenting may be considered an aspect of adult social competence, with the micro discipline situation (child misbehavior) serving as a problem that must be solved. Baumrind's typology portrays parenting as something analogous to fixed personality traits (or the fixed child social competence traits used as the outcome variables in her research). But this misses the dynamic aspect of any social interaction, including a discipline interaction between a caregiver and a child. Using Martin Ford's (1992) action model of motivated behavior, I developed a developmental-contexualist formulation of adaptive behavior as the interface of a challenging micro situation plus cognitive processes plus affective factors plus physical (e.g. state) processes (Greenspan, 1999).

The same dynamic formulation can be applied to discipline, with the micro situation being a child behavior that one wants to either elicit or stop, the cognitive process being the parent's judgment about what is going on (e.g. whether there is a problem or not), the affective process being whatever emotional buttons the child or situation manage to push, and the physical process being such things as whether the parent is feeling generally stressed or exhausted. Good parenting involves the ability to make effective decisions under the pressure of sometimes difficult and confusing situations. The technique of authoritative parenting is too static and rigid to allow effective and flexible management of such complexity.

Harmonious parenting is preferable to authoritative parenting as a basis for a normative theory for advising parents on how they should address the discipline function. That is because it captures the three major domains of discipline, and not just the two from which Baumrind constructed the notion of authoritative discipline. Leaving tolerance and autonomy-promotion out of the mix of techniques that parents use is to run the risk, as Grolnick (2003) points out, that parental control can become parental oppressiveness. Parent-child interaction is a complex dance, and only when a caregiver can step back and not just forward can he/she hope to perform that dance skillfully.


Baumrind, D. (1967). Child care practices anteceding three patterns of preschool behavior. Genetic Psychology Monographs, 75, 43-88.

Baumrind, D. (1971). Harmonious parents and their preschool children. Developmental Psychology, 4,99-102.

Baumrind, D. (1983). Rejoinder to Lewis' reinterpretation of parental firm control effects: Are authoritative families really harmonious? Psychological Bulletin, 94, 132-142.

Baumrind, D. (1991). Parenting styles and adolescent development. In R. Lerner, A. C. Peterson, & J. Brooks-Gunn (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Adolescence (pp. 758-772). New York: Garland.

Baumrind, D., & Black, A. E. (1967). Socialization practices associated with dimensions of competence in preschool boys and girls. Child Development, 38, 291-327.

Ford, M. (1992). Motivating humans: Goals, emotions and personal agency beliefs. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Greenspan, S. (1999). A contextualist perspective on adaptive behavior. In R. L. Schalock (Ed.), Adaptive behavior and its measurement (pp. 61-80). Washington, DC: American Association on Mental Retardation.

Grolnick, W. S. (2003). The psychology of parental control: How well-meant parenting backfires. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Greenspan, S. (2006). Rethinking 'harmonious parenting' using a three-factor discipline model. Child Care in Practice, 12, 1. pp.10-11.

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