Parenting and teaching: What's the connection in our classrooms?

Part one of two: how teaching styles can affect behavioral and educational outcomes in the classroom.

By Douglas A. Bernstein, PhD

Whenever professors get together, you can bet that at least one of them will complain about students. The most common lament is that today’s students lack motivation, hold disrespectful attitudes are irresponsible about completing assignments on time (or at all), are too dependent on their instructors, cheat on tests or plagiarize papers and feel entitled to good grades and special treatment simply because they come to class. These professors contrast today’s troublesome students with the honest, motivated, responsible, independent and humble students that they were back in the day. There is debate about whether unmotivated, dependent, irresponsible, dishonest and hyper-entitled students are more numerous now than in the past (e.g., Arnett, 2010; Eckersley, 2010; Greenberger, Lessard, Chen & Farruggia, 2008; Roosevelt, 2009; Trzesniewski & Donnellan, 2010; Twenge, 2006; Twenge & Campbell, 2010; Twenge, 2013), but there is no doubt that having such students in class can create problems for their professors. Whether they actually do create those problems depends to a great extent on the professor, which may explain why some classes seem to have so many more problematic students in them than others do.

Traditional wisdom suggests that the most potentially problematic students in higher education come from homes where parents either failed to properly socialize them or, more likely, coddled them, overprotected them and covered for them to such an extent that many entered kindergarten with an artificially inflated level of self-esteem, an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, overdeveloped sense of entitlement, minimal respect for authority and a readiness to blame others for their own shortcomings. 

The childrearing practices of these mothers and fathers exemplify what Diana Baumrind (1971) called permissive-indulgent parenting. They are affectionate, caring and involved, but tend to be extremely tolerant and to exert little or no control or discipline. Baumrind contrasted permissive-indulgent parents with three other types: permissive-neglectful (also known as uninvolved) parents, who show virtually no interest in their children; authoritarian parents, who tend to be harsh, demanding, intolerant, autocratic and punitive; and authoritative parents, who tend to be firm but fair, making demands and imposing discipline in a caring atmosphere (Baumrind, 1971; Maccoby & Martin, 1983). 

Permissive-indulgent, permissive-neglectful and authoritarian parenting have all been associated with a variety of problematic personal, social and emotional characteristics that can play out in academic settings in the form of anxiety and low achievement, but also in irresponsibility, impulsivity, dependency, lack of persistence, unreasonable expectations and demands and dishonesty. Authoritative parenting tends to be associated with the most adaptive social, emotional and moral development and with the fullest expression of children’s intellectual capabilities (Eisenberg, Fabes, & Spinrad, 2006; Ginsburg et al., 2009; Parke & Buriel, 2006; Paulussen-Hoogeboom et al., 2008; Thompson, 2006).

These associations have been identified through correlational research, not experiments, and some of the correlations, while significant, are not terribly large. Further, because of the genetics and epigenetics of children’s temperaments, the effects of those temperaments on parents’ behaviors and other factors, the outcomes generally associated with various styles of parenting do not always appear (Feng et al., 2008; Houts et al., 2010; Kochanska, Aksan, & Joy, 2007). Nevertheless, parenting research is consistent with the notion that permissive-indulgent parenting may play a particularly significant role in laying the groundwork for many of the student behaviors and attitudes teachers in postsecondary education dislike so much.

These behaviors and attitudes may be formed in childhood, but they are shaped further by social forces outside the home, including the teaching styles, which students encounter at all levels of education. Like parenting styles, there appear to be four main teaching styles, each of which reflects a different blend of teacher involvement and teacher discipline (Barnas, 2000; see Figure). These teaching styles can amplify or dampen the effects of youngsters’ parenting experiences (Aitkin, Anderson & Hintz, 1981; Edwards, 1993; Mugny, Chatard & Quiamzade, 2006; Mullen & Tallent-Runnels, 2006; Paulson, Marchant & Rothlisberg, 1998; Pellerin, 2004; Quiamzade, Mugny & Falomir-Pichastor, 2009; Rohrkemper, 1984; Snyder & Bassett, 2011; Van Petegem, Creemers, Aelterman & Rosseel, (2008); Walker, 2008, 2009; Wentzel, 2002).  

Crossing levels of teacher involvement with strength of teacher discipline results in four teaching styles that echo the parenting styles identified by Baumrind (1971).

Figure: Four Teaching Styles:Crossing levels of teacher involvement with strength of teacher discipline results in four teaching styles that echo the parenting styles identified by Baumrind (1971).

Permissive-neglectful teachers do no more than provide students with the basics. They come to class, deliver the same lectures year after year, discourage questions and make their escape with as little student contact as possible. They tend to view students as threatening, chronically dissatisfied customers. They make no serious effort to establish or maintain discipline in their courses, so when they encounter classroom misbehavior, such as talking or texting or even cheating on exams, they are likely to ignore it if they can. 

Like permissive-neglectful teachers, authoritarian teachers are low on involvement, but they are also preoccupied with enforcing strict discipline. Like authoritarian parents, they offer students little or no opportunity for discussion or argument. Rules are rules, deadlines are deadlines and there are no exceptions. These teachers expect high achievement and reward it with good grades, but they don’t nurture it through personal attention or encouraging words. Weakness or failure is ignored, other than to punish it with a low grade; requests for help are not encouraged and may be ignored.

Permissive-indulgent teachers are deeply involved in teaching, and like helicopter parents, perhaps too much so. Though they are devoted to teaching, they fear doing anything that might create stress for students, stifle their personal growth or hurt their self-esteem. Often, their lectures and other class activities follow the convoy principle in that they are pitched and paced at a level that is appropriate for the slowest students. These teachers see students as children who need help and support to come to class, do their reading and get good grades, so they supplement their lectures with study sheets, PowerPoint slides, lecture notes, practice tests, rewards for coming to class and completing assigned reading and many other student support aids designed to make it difficult or impossible for anyone to fail. Some permissive-indulgent teachers allow students to influence the content of the course and may even offer a menu of testing options ranging from standard multiple-choice or essay exams to various kinds of papers, classroom presentations, posters and the like. Their goal is to allow students to choose the testing option that best suits their needs and preferences, including their perceived learning styles. They do so despite the fact that there is little or no scientific evidence that learning styles operate in a significant way, except as learning preferences (Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer & Bjork, 2009). Although permissive-indulgent teachers establish course requirements and deadlines, they tend to be flexible in enforcing them and sometimes make special arrangements with, and allowances for, individual students on a case-by-case basis. They are eager to help students succeed, even if it means lowering standards for success, including by offering certain individuals extra credit opportunities. They spend countless hours working with students who ask for help. Of particular significance is their belief that students’ efforts to succeed are at least as deserving of reward as the outcome of those efforts, as embodied in test scores and other performance assessments. One observer invoked the addiction literature in describing these teachers as “co-dependent enablers” of their students’ lack of motivation, irresponsibility and other academic problems (Daniel, 2009).

Authoritative teachers, like authoritative parents, employ a blend of high involvement and firm but fair discipline. They care about their teaching and their students, but they reward outcome, not effort. These teachers see students as responsible adults, so although they are always willing to help, they are careful not to create dependency or to let themselves be exploited or manipulated. They reward academic success with praise as well as high grades, they encourage students to try harder when they need to, and they grant requests for special consideration only if disability or other circumstances clearly justify doing so under school policies. They think carefully about their rules and standards, announce them in advance, explain why they are necessary and enforce them consistently.

Assuming that differing teaching styles, like different parenting styles, have differing impacts, the permissive-indulgent style in particular may be serving to reinforce undesirable student attitudes and behaviors. In other words, permissive-indulgent professors should not be surprised if they always seem to have more than their fair share of problematic students. Parenting research, a small number of empirical studies on teaching styles in higher education (Mugny, Chatard & Quiamzade, 2006; Mullen & Tallent-Runnels, 2006; Quiamzade, Mugny & Falomir-Pichastor, 2009; Snyder & Bassett, 2011) and the wisdom accumulated over the years by experienced teachers (e.g., Buskist & Benassi, 2012) suggest that an authoritative style is the one most likely to promote student learning, critical thinking and personal development and least likely to nurture student misbehavior. So why don’t all professors adopt an authoritative style? Some have simply not been exposed to authoritative teaching during their own educations, so they can’t emulate it. And even if they have seen this style in action, not everyone wants to be authoritative; other teaching styles might be better matched to their personalities or are more attractive because they require less effort.

For example, permissive-neglectful teachers see their main role as transmitting information via uninterrupted lectures to students whose main role is to sit quietly and, like sponges, absorb it. This minimally-active-teacher, mostly-passive-student arrangement eases the teacher’s burden because there is no need to create, organize or evaluate active learning experiences. It is a particularly happy arrangement for faculty who see their teaching responsibilities as a necessary evil in an otherwise comfortable academic research position.1 For others, heavy teaching loads (perhaps on more than one campus), work-family conflicts, low pay, employment uncertainty and other stressors may have plunged their motivation for teaching into the sub-basement; for them, teaching is nothing more than a way to pay the mortgage.

As for authoritarian teachers, some find this style helpful in dealing with what they perceive as frightening aspects of teaching, including public speaking, performance evaluations, feeling unprepared or inadequately knowledgeable, being challenged by unexpected questions, dealing with student complaints and the like. If teachers see students as threats to their self-esteem, establishing rules and rigidly enforcing them may offer a comforting sense of protection. And some authoritarian teachers might just enjoy having the power inherent in faculty status. For them, teaching can be like an intoxicating, addictive drug that offers the pleasures of superior status and dominion over others — perhaps for the first time in their lives.

To permissive-indulgent teachers, that same status provides a platform from which they can satisfy a desire to be nurturing and supportive. They enjoy giving errant students another chance to prove themselves, protect students’ self-esteem, help them develop as individuals and focus on teaching rather than discipline. A permissive-indulgent style can protect a teacher’s self-esteem, too, because many such teachers believe that when students don’t do well it is mostly the teacher’s fault. A permissive-indulgent style also provides a way to avoid unpleasant conflicts over rules and grades, because the rules can so easily be bent, especially for the most demanding or apparently deserving students. And permissive-indulgent teachers may expect that their style — especially if accompanied by a generous grading system — can enhance student evaluations and thus their chances for tenure, promotion and pay raises. This expectation may or may not be justified (Greenwald & Gillmore, 1997; Griffin, 2004; Johnson, 2002; Love & Kotchen, 2010; Marsh & Roche, 2000). Finally, some younger teachers probably adopt a permissive-indulgent style because they are too inexperienced to realize where too much permissiveness can lead, because they have too little confidence in themselves to stand their ground academically or because they may be uncertain (often with good reason) that their department executive officer or dean will back them up if they adopt a more authoritative teaching style, especially in student conflict situations.

Perhaps more teachers would adopt an authoritative teaching style if there were empirical research results to support its value for producing superior behavioral and educational outcomes. The following research questions are of particular importance:

  1. Do the four teaching styles described above actually exist, and if so, to what extent are these descriptions accurate?
  2. Do teachers tend to employ one teaching style or do they employ elements of different styles to varying degrees in relation to particular aspects of teaching (such as classroom management, rule enforcement, student support availability and the like)?
  3. What is the distribution of teaching styles or teaching style profiles among teachers in higher education in general and in particular disciplines?
  4. Do different teaching styles lead to different degrees of short- and long-term academic achievement and to different levels of undesirable student behavior?
  5. How consistent are the outcomes of various teaching styles? Is the impact of a particular style seen in all students or does it vary depending on students’ personality characteristics, cultural background and experiences and expectations about the roles of teacher and student? 
  6. To what extent are teaching styles shaped by the behavior of the students teachers encounter?
  7. Do teaching styles tend to change over a teacher’s career, and if so, what are the most common trajectories?
  8. Do teachers’ teaching styles relate to the parenting styles to which they were exposed as children and to the styles they use in parenting their own children?

Until we have definitive answers to questions like these, professors’ teaching styles will continue to be shaped by personal preferences and experiences, the modeling and mentoring provided by their own teachers and colleagues, and knowledge gained from reading literature on the scholarship of teaching and learning (e.g., Buskist & Groccia, 2012; Forsyth, 2003; Goss-Lucas & Bernstein, 2005; Svinicki & McKeachie, 2010). These factors operated to shape my own teaching into an authoritative style that served me well for over 40 years in university classrooms at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

1 I am not saying that all active researchers are uninvolved teachers; far from it. Some distinguished researchers are among their institution’s best instructors.


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About the Author

Doug BernsteinDoug Bernstein received his bachelor's degree in psychology at the University of Pittsburgh in 1964 and his master’s and PhD in clinical psychology at Northwestern University in 1966 and 1968, respectively. From 1968 to 1998, he was on the psychology faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he taught graduate and undergraduate classes ranging from 15 to 750 students and served both as associate department head and director of introductory psychology. He is now professor emeritus at Illinois and courtesy professor of psychology at the University of South Florida. In 2013, he stepped down after 30 years as chairman of the National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology. He also founded the APS Preconference Institute on the Teaching of Psychology. His teaching awards include the University of Illinois Psychology Graduate Student Association Teaching Award and the University of Illinois Psi Chi award for excellence in undergraduate teaching, both in 1979; the Illinois Psychology Department's Mabel Kirkpatrick Hohenboken Teaching Award in 1993; and the Distinguished Teaching in Psychology Award in 2002. He is a fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, and he has co-authored textbooks in introductory psychology, abnormal psychology, clinical psychology, criminal behavior and progressive relaxation training and, with Sandra Goss Lucas, wrote "Teaching Psychology: A Step by Step Guide."