This Niche Parenting Style Raises Good Decision-Makers & Problem-Solvers
When kids complain about their parents’ decisions, it’s not uncommon for mom or dad to say, “Sorry, but this isn’t a democracy; you don’t get a vote.” There are some parents, however, who flip this idea completely on its head with democratic parenting.
Parents who embrace a more democratic style emphasize working together with their children to set family rules and expectations. That can be scary for parents new to the idea. It’s easy to imagine any number of scenarios where shared decision-making with kids whose brains have yet to fully develop goes completely off the rails. But democratic parenting isn’t necessarily destined to bring a home structure only for the kids, by the kids.
“This type of parenting is based on the premise that we can do a better job teaching kids flexible thinking skills, problem-solving, and compromising from the time they are young and into adolescence,” says psychologist Sharon Adusei, Ph.D. “It just takes time and intentionality because their frontal lobes are very much still developing, and self-regulation skills gradually come online.”
Although democratic parenting takes time and intentionality, it’s less intense than you might expect. This is how you can make it work.
What Is Democratic Parenting?
Parents who adopt a democratic parenting style give all family members a voice in making household decisions. By emphasizing collaborative decision-making, responsibility, autonomy, and mutual respect, this parenting style seeks to balance independence with healthy boundaries as kids learn to consider the family as a whole when evaluating different choices.
If much of this rings familiar, it’s because democratic parenting is closely aligned with authoritative parenting, a much more well-known parenting style — and the one many behavioral scientists consider the healthiest. As one part of a parenting style model from the 1960s developed by University of California at Berkeley psychologist Diana Baumrind, the American Psychological Association describes authoritative parents as those who are “nurturing, responsive, and supportive, yet set firm limits for their children.”
Late in her career, Baumrind labeled democratic parenting as a subtype of authoritative parenting in a 2005 article that appeared in a special issue of the journal New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development. She noted that healthy democratic parenting is highly responsive to kids’ needs while maintaining appropriate expectations for them — expectations that are slightly looser than the strictest definitions of authoritative parenting.
So, what does democratic parenting look like in practice? Parents start by giving their kids low-leverage choices at a young age. The key is identifying decisions that the child places a high value on, but one that parents don’t really care what option the child chooses.
“Preschoolers and toddlers might care that they get to choose a particular game or select specific toys to play with,” Adusei says. “Finding the opportunity to present choices they will find significant, but that parents find inconsequential, is a great entry point to shared decision-making.”
Democratic parenting can get more challenging as kids get older or when kids of multiple ages are involved. When bringing a decision to the family, like where to go out for dinner and what family screen time boundaries should be, narrow the options ahead of time so the process doesn’t get bogged down. For example, you could suggest that the kids can have 30 minutes of screen time to use whenever they want, or they can have a whole hour if they wait until after they’ve completed their chores and homework. Then, the kids can pick between the two.
Once the discussion is framed within the parameters you set, Adusei stresses that it’s vital for parents to sit back and listen for a while before jumping in with their own opinions.
“The first step for parents when considering more complex situations is fully understanding the concerns and perspective their kids bring to the table,” she says. “I could imagine a family sitting around and going through a checklist of each family member’s main concerns as it pertains to each available option so that everyone feels heard.”
Democratic Parenting Requires A Whole Lot Of Awareness
It would be great if democratic parenting always results in compromise that everyone’s happy with. Half the family wants to go out for burgers, while the other half wants pasta? Cheesecake Factory it is, then, with a menu that has something for everyone.
But often in families with multiple kids, a compromise isn’t available, which can leave those who were outvoted with big emotions — because taking the minority position can feel like a personal rejection even when it’s not. It can be incredibly frustrating when one sibling is constantly on the losing end of a democratic process.
“You can never have too much empathy and compassion,” Adusei says. “It’s helpful to check in with kids to gauge how manageable the disappointment is for them, both in the moment and as time progresses.”
In some situations, like when voting where to go to dinner, allowing the outvoted party to select the restaurant next time can help mitigate disappointment and teach delayed gratification.
Additionally, Adusei says, parents can how to handle disappointment when things don’t go their way by talking through their feelings and emotions, even in situations that don’t involve shared decision-making. “Be as specific as you can with the language,” she says. “Describe what you’re feeling, why you’re feeling that way, and also specific steps you plan to take to process the disappointment. We often miss opportunities to model for kids what they can do with their feelings.”
So, after arriving home from a challenging day at work, a parent might say, “I had to spend a lot of time on frustrating tasks today, so I’m going to take five minutes by myself to do some deep breathing and stretches because I still feel a little agitated and I want to be able to enjoy our evening together.”
Why Democratic Parenting Isn’t For Everyone
One of the factors that can make democratic parenting a challenge for many is that it stands in contrast to how they were parented. For people raised under a more authoritarian model, giving kids the space to process and even make mistakes can feel unfamiliar. Compounding the difficulty is the fact that, at their core, most parents want what’s best for their kids, which makes it difficult to watch them opt for a route that’s unlikely to yield the most promising results.
“For almost all of the parents I’ve worked with who want to take a more collaborative approach, the biggest emphasis has been on coaching them to remain silent more often,” Adusei says. “Parents should allow some room for kids to trial the solutions they settle on, even if they aren’t the solutions parents would have chosen.”
The responsiveness and intentionality required for this parenting style can be too much for some parents when you account for the modeling, active listening, trial and error, and follow-up required. Parents have to watch out for unwittingly becoming permissive parents who accept everything their child proposes and then bail them out when things don’t go well. Democratic parenting is an admittedly tough balance to strike, but the key is maintaining the boundaries and standards that have been agreed to once the family has gone through the collaborative process.
“With this type of approach, it also really hinges on the strength of the relationship between the child and parent to begin with, so there has to be an existing trust there,” Adusei says. “If behavioral issues are present, trust between parent and child must be strengthened before adopting a collaborative strategy.”