Authoritarian Parenting and its Effects on the Impulsivity of Children

Nicole M. Callaway, Brittany D. Lutes, and Carmen L. Schlatter
Huntington University


This study explored the relationship between homeschoolers’ ability to delay gratification and the style of parenting they experience in the home. After reviewing previous research, it was found that a definite relationship was yet to be determined. It was predicted that the more authoritarian the parent, the more likely the child was to be impulsive. Authoritarianism in parents was measured by the Authoritarian Parenting Attitudes Scale. Impulsivity in children was determined by using “The Oreo Experiment.” The results were analyzed using an independent, two-tailed t-test, and a discussion of the relationship between these two variables and their implications followed. No significant relationship was found between authoritarianism in parents and impulsivity in children.

Authoritarian Parenting and its Effects on the Impulsivity of Children

Over the past decade, researchers have examined the authoritarian personality in relation to many variables, such as conduct problems and ethnocentrism (Thomas, 1975; Thompson, Hollis, & Richards, 2003). The authoritarian personality has also been defined in various ways. Ray (1981) reviewed previous descriptions of the authoritarian personality as well as criticisms of those descriptions and attempted to develop a more acceptable definition. He determined it was “the desire or tendency to impose one’s own will on others” (Ray, 1981, p. 391). The authoritarian personality has been found to impact various other areas of life including parenting style, which is of particular interest to the present study. Thomas (1975, p. 236) described the authoritarian parenting style as including:

Restrictions during eating, non-permissiveness of “sexual” behavior, mother’s expectation of immediate obedience, low amount of affectionate interaction between the mother and child, high degree of sex role differentiation in training children, high demands for the child to retaliate to aggression from peers, non-permissiveness of aggression towards parents, and belief in the effectiveness of physical punishment.

Yet another definition of authoritarian parenting presented by Thompson, Hollis, and Richards (2003, p. 324) described it as “harsh discipline [that] encompasses a restrictive style of interaction with children which does not take their views and wishes into account, and in which the parent responds to unwanted child behavior with severe punishment.” Both definitions include the word “restrictive” as well as some form of severe punishment when the child rebels against the restrictions or perhaps does not act in accordance with the desires of the parent.

Another variable that has gained attention is impulsivity in children, sometimes referred to as the ability to delay gratification or have self-control. Visser, Das-Smaal and Kwakman (1996, p. 131) defined impulsive behavior as that which is “characterized as sometimes excessive, action-oriented behavior” in their research on the relationships between impulsivity and cognitive inhibition. Shoda, Mischel, and Peake (1990, p. 978) referred to this ability to delay gratification as “an essential achievement of human development.” They researched the correlation between a preschooler’s ability to delay gratification and his or her future cognitive and self-regulatory competencies. There have also been several experiments conducted which used impulsivity as the first variable and examined its relationship to a second (e.g., adolescence) or third variable (e.g., effortful control) (Eisenburg, Spinrad, Fabes, Losoya, Valiente, Reiser, et al., 2005; Wulfert, Block, Santa Ana, Rodriguez, & Colsman, 2002).

Logue and Chavarro (1992) explored the relationship between impulsivity and gender in preschoolers. Their research showed that boys between the ages of 41 and 59 months were more impulsive than their female counterparts. Cumberland-Li, Eisenberg and Reiser (2004) examined the relationship between impulsivity and the personality characteristic of agreeableness. They found that impulsivity might in fact contribute to agreeableness. Through Olson’s (1989, p. 176) research on the relationship of impulsivity and early childhood adaptive functioning, we can see how one’s ability to manage “impulses flexibly…is considered a major aspect of early developmental competence.” Bernfield and Peters (1986) found a relationship among impulsivity, social reasoning, and social behavior of elementary-aged boys. They suggested that social cognitive skills might be necessary but not sufficient for adequate social behavior. Lastly, Wulfert and colleagues (2002) examined the relationship between impulsivity and problem behaviors in high school and middle school students; they found that those students who were unable to delay gratification had more trouble with “problem behaviors” (e.g., interrupting, poor listening skills).

There are several ways to measure impulsivity in children. Shoda & Mischel (1990, in Kail, 2002) conducted an experiment using marshmallows to test a child’s ability to delay gratification. In Logue and Chavarro’s (1992) work, a similar experiment was conducted using stickers instead of marshmallows. In these experiments, the children were brought into a room where they were given the option of having one sticker (or marshmallow) immediately or two later, which required waiting alone for an unspecified amount of time in the room with the one sticker (or marshmallow) until the instructor returned to offer the child the reward (Logue & Chavarro, 1992).

Recent research has found that there are several long-term benefits of teaching children to demonstrate self-control. “Training in self-control has been useful in helping children interact more effectively with their peers and perform higher quality schoolwork. These children also report higher self-esteem” (Copeland, 1985, p. 124). Longitudinal studies have been completed to further test the effects of one’s ability to self-regulate. Houck and Lecuyer-Maus (2004, p. 33) found through their longitudinal study, which began in early childhood, that

Longer self-imposed delay of gratification durations in childhood have been linked to later social, cognitive, and academic competence. Children with longer delay durations at age four were found better able to plan, think ahead, use reason, and cope with stress in adolescence, and they had higher SAT scores.

Parenting plays one of the most essential roles in teaching children skills of self-control. Parents have a significant impact on whether children learn self-regulation, and there are actions that they can take to influence that impact. Copeland (1985) found, in a study of the relationship between child impulsivity and parental interaction, that impulsive children (who typically need more direction) received fewer suggestions from their parents. This suggests that there is a possible relationship between impulsivity and parenting styles. One such strategy mentioned in the Houck and Lecuyer-Maus (2004) study determined that a limit-setting style provides advantages in learning self-regulation. However, a definite relationship between parenting style and impulsivity is yet to be established.

This review of the research has presented some evidence of the relationship between parenting style and a child’s tendency toward impulsivity. The current study will further examine that relationship focusing specifically on the level of authoritarianism in parents and the level of impulsivity in children. It is predicted that the more authoritarian the parent, the more likely the child is to be impulsive.



The sample consisted of 30 homeschooled students and their parents who live in a small, rural county in northern Indiana and who volunteered to participate. All students were between the ages of 5 and 11 and were (at the time of the study) participating in home-based education. The students participated in a gym class for homeschooled students at the local university and were thus a convenience sample. The families were of various ethnicities and income levels but were primarily middle class Caucasians.


The measure used to determine authoritarianism in parents was the Authoritarian Parenting Attitudes Scale (APAS) (Thompson, Hollis, & Richards, 2003). This questionnaire is a seven-item survey scored on a Likert scale from one to five where higher scores signify more authoritarian parenting (see Appendix C). The APAS has shown moderate reliability and good predictive validity. Because of its recent development, long-term stability is unknown (Thompson, Hollis, & Richards, 2003).

Impulsivity in children was determined by using “The Oreo Experiment” which is a replication of Shoda, Mischel, and Peake’s (1990) experiment on delayed gratification. In the Shoda et al. experiment, children were taken individually into a room and presented with the option of choosing one small reward immediately (one marshmallow) or a larger reward later (two marshmallows). The experimenter asked the child which reward she preferred (which was always “two”) and then told the child that he (the experimenter) needed to exit the room for a few minutes. If the child waited until the experimenter returned, the experimenter promised that she could have the preferred reward. The child was also informed that if she could not wait for the experimenter to return, she could ring the bell on the table, and he would return to the room. However, if the experimenter had to return early, the child would not receive the preferred reward but could still have the less preferred reward (one marshmallow). The current study replicated this experiment using Oreo cookies instead of marshmallows.


A spring gym class for homeschoolers at the local university provided the population for this study. The authors visited the class in order to distribute letters of explanation (see Appendix A), consent forms (see Appendix B), and surveys (see Appendix C) to the children who attended the class. The letter provided an explanation of the study for the parents and requested consent for their children’s participation, as well as their participation through the completion of the APAS survey. One week later, the authors returned to the class and collected the completed forms. All of the children who had parental consent and a completed parental survey were included in the study. Groups of three children were selected at a time, one child per experimenter.

Each experimenter took one of the children into a separate room and explained the procedure. The child was seated at a table that had two Oreo cookies on it. The experimenter asked the child if he or she preferred to have one or two cookies. The experimenter recorded the child’s response and then informed the child that he or she could have his or her preference, but first the experimenter needed to leave the room for a few minutes. The experimenter told the child that one cookie would be left on the table and the other would be taken out of the room with the experimenter. Upon the experimenter’s return, the child would receive the other cookie if, and only if, the first cookie was still on the table. It was also explained that if the child wished for the experimenter to return at any point, all the child needed to do was ring the bell on the table. If he or she could not wait and chose to ring the bell he or she would not receive the second cookie, he or she would only receive the first. The experimenter then left the room for five minutes.

When the time was completed, the experimenter returned and recorded whether the child ate the cookie, rang the bell, or waited. Children who ate the cookie were thanked for their participation and returned to class. Children who rang the bell were given the first cookie, thanked for their participation and returned to class. Children who waited and did not eat the cookie or ring the bell were given a second cookie, thanked for their participation, and returned to class. The parents who participated were entered into a drawing for a $10 gift card to a department store. After a family had been randomly drawn, the authors attended the following gym session and presented them with the gift card. Once all the data from the surveys and experiment were collected, it was organized and compiled for analysis.


The “Oreo Experiment” divided the children into two groups: those who were impulsive and those who were not. Based on the parental scores on the Authoritarian Parenting Attitudes Scale, the mean scores were obtained. Then the impulsive children’s mean parental authoritarian score was compared to the non-impulsive children’s mean parental authoritarian score.

Using a two-tailed independent t-test with an alpha level of .05 and 28 degrees of freedom, the obtained t was 0.929. Since the obtained t-value was less than the critical t-value of 2.048, the null hypothesis was retained. No statistically significant difference was found between the mean scores of impulsivity in children and authoritarianism in their parents.

Authoritarianism scores ranged from 12 to 27 out of a possible 35 points. The mean authoritarian score for non-impulsive children (n=26) was 20.77 (SD = 4.04), and the mean authoritarian score for impulsive children (n=4) was 22.75 (SD = 3.30).

Table 1

Comparison of Impulsive and Non-impulsive Children on Authoritarian Parenting Scores




Authoritarian Mean



Standard deviation




The hypothesis that impulsive children’s parents would be significantly more authoritarian than non-impulsive children’s parents was not supported by the obtained data. No significant relationship was found between more authoritarian parenting and higher impulsivity in children. This result is likely to be strongly related to the methodology, namely the sample chosen. Had the sample been more diverse and numerous, a significant result may have been found. Limitations will be discussed shortly.

The findings of this research implied that homeschooled children in a small, rural town in Indiana are generally not impulsive. Parents who are considering homeschooling can take this into consideration when weighing the costs and benefits of actually practicing it. As mentioned earlier, Copeland (1985) studied the relationship between child impulsivity and parental interaction and found that impulsive children, who typically need more direction, actually received less parental direction. Houck and Lecuer-Maus (2004) showed that a limit-setting parenting style helps children learn self-regulation. These studies imply that there is a relationship between parenting style and impulsivity in children.

The difference between this study and others is the focus on homeschoolers. The data suggests that the relationship between homeschoolers’ impulsivity and authoritarian parenting styles may be non-existent or that perhaps parents considering homeschooling self-select against impulsivity and actually choose to homeschool children who display less impulsive behaviors.

There were a few limitations in this study. To begin with, using a take-home survey to obtain data from the parents could have been harmful to the study’s validity since there was no supervision or known consistency among those completing it. This lack of control was not ideal for this situation. If questions were left unanswered, for example, the survey could not be used because all the answers needed to be completed to have a valid score. Fortunately, all of the surveys in this study were completed. If the parent took 20 minutes to complete the survey, as opposed to the preferred two minutes to complete it, that time difference could have had an effect on the results, as well.

Furthermore, the sample size was not ideal. The findings were limited to homeschooled children aged 5 to 11 in a small, rural town in Indiana. Thirty children participated in the experiment, but some of those children were siblings; therefore the parental surveys were duplicates in some cases. Furthermore, only four of those thirty children were considered impulsive. Ideally, there would have been a larger number of impulsive children. It also would have been preferred to have fewer duplicates among the parental surveys. The sample (homeschoolers) was composed of a specific group of children who may be raised differently from the general population.

Finally, while testing the children, some of them did not like cookies and some of them did not want two cookies; they only wanted one. With a larger sample size, these situations would have been less relevant because they could have been discarded. Fortunately, only one child did not like cookies and there were enough children that this one child was eliminated from the study.

Also taken into consideration was the environment in which the children were placed. The few children who ate the cookie without waiting may have done so as a comfort because they feared being in the room alone. Further, the environment may have been a limitation because the children were coming directly from gym class right after lunch time. Therefore, the children may have been sated from lunch and disinterested in cookies at that time. This, along with the other mentioned influences, may have limited our findings and must be taken into consideration.

Overall, the outcome of this experiment does not fit with previous research. As stated earlier, previous research has found evidence to support a relationship between the two variables, but the strength of that relationship is undetermined. The data obtained in this study is unique in that it examines homeschoolers, which implies a different type of relationship between the variables. This is still a fairly recent field of study and more work needs to be completed in order to have a better idea of the relationship between the variables.

In future studies, it would be beneficial to have a wider, more diverse population. As suggested earlier, an entire city with participants selected randomly would be more useful in knowing how the general population may respond. This would allow the results to be applied to the population in general and not just a sub-group of society. Moreover, it would be beneficial to have the surveys completed in one place at one time so that there is more control and supervision.

Other variations of this study that might be interesting to try would include leaving the experimenter in the room with the child for the five minutes to observe the effect that it would have on the child. Another variation would be to have a group of three to five children in the room together, each with an set of cookies. This would focus more on group dynamics. Lastly, conducting a similar study in a public school setting may be beneficial in comparison with the results of this study on homeschooled children in order to observe the differences. Perhaps the different outcomes would shed more light on the relationship between impulsivity in children and parenting styles.


Bernfield, G. A., & Peters, R. D. (1986). Social reasoning and social behavior in reflective and impulsive children. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 15(3), 221-227.

Bruner, K. (2001). Homeschooling: A natural. Countryside & Small Stock Journal, 85(6), 65.

Copeland, A. P. (1985). Self-control ratings and mother-child interaction. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 14(2), 124-131.

Cumberland-Li, A., Eisenberg, N., & Reiser, M. (2004). Relations of young children’s agreeableness and resiliency to effortful control and impulsivity. Social Development, 13(2), 193-212.

Eisenberg, N., Sadovsky, A., Spinrad, T. L., Fabes, R. A., Losoya, S. H., Valiente, C., Reiser, M., Cumberland, A., & Shepard, S. A. (2005). The relations of problem behavior status to children’s negative emotionality, effortful control, and impulsivity: Concurrent relations and prediction of change. Developmental Psychology, 41, 193-211.

Houck, G. M., & Lecuyer-Maus, E. A. (2004). Maternal limit setting during toddlerhood, delay of gratification, and behavior problems at age five. Infant Mental Health Journal, 25(1), 28-46.

Kail, R. V. (2002). Children. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Logue, A. W., & Chavarro, A. (1992). Self-control and impulsiveness in preschool children. Psychological Record, 42, 189-203.

Olson, S. L. (1989). Assessment of impulsivity in preschoolers: Cross-measure convergences, longitudinal stability, and relevance to social competence. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 18(2), 176-183.

Ray, J. J. (1981). Authoritarianism, dominance, and assertiveness. Journal of Personality Assessment, 45(4), 390-397.

Shoda, Y., Mischel, W., & Peake, P. K. (1990). Predicting adolescent cognitive and self-regulatory competencies from preschool delay of gratification: Identifying diagnostic conditions. Developmental Psychology, 26(6), 978-986.

Thomas, D. R. (1975). Authoritarianism, child-rearing practices and ethnocentrism in seven Pacific Islands groups. International Journal of Psychology, 10(4), 235-246.

Thompson, A., Hollis, C., & Richards, D. (2003). Authoritarian parenting attitudes as a risk for conduct problems: Results from a British national cohort study. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 12, 84-91.

Visser, M., Das-Smaal, E., & Kwakman, H. (1996). Impulsivity and negative priming: Evidence for diminished cognitive inhibition in impulsive children. British Journal of Psychology, 87, 131-140.

Wulfert, E., Block, J. A., Santa Ana, E., Rodriguez, M. L., & Colsman, M. (2002). Delay of gratification: Impulsive choices and problem behaviors in early and late adolescence. Journal of Personality, 70(4), 533-552.

Appendix A

March 7, 2007

Hello Parents,

As students of Huntington University’s Psychology and Sociology department, we are required to apply our knowledge of Research Methods in a research experiment. For this experiment, we have chosen to examine parenting styles and the behavioral dynamics of personal control of homeschoolers.

The children who volunteer with your consent will be tested to see if they are able to delay an impulse. This experiment is known as the “Oreo Experiment”. To test this ability, the children will be taken from gym class for roughly five minutes to a separate and supervised room. The children will be put in a situation where they can earn either one or two Oreo cookies.

As home-schooling parents, we would appreciate your participation in the following 7-item survey that includes questions that reflect parenting styles used at home. The survey will be explained in detail on the last page. Please bring the survey and consent form with your child on March 14 th.

In way of appreciation for your time, your name will be entered in a raffle to win a $10.00 gift card to Wal-mart. Your participation will be of great help in achieving our class requirement. It will also be helpful in understanding the growing trend toward homeschool education. In the late 1970’s, the United States had only 13,000 homeschooled students (grades K-12), and in 2002-2003, we saw 1.7-2.1 million students (grades K-12) educated at home1. Your help in this study will help us in examining correlations that may be affecting this trend. After all data is collected and analyzed, we would like to submit our research project for publication.

Again, your participation is greatly appreciated. If you are interested in the results or have concerns, please contact us at the number or e-mail address listed below. We’d be glad to share our conclusions with you!

Thank you!

Nicole M. Callaway
Brittany D. Lutes
Carmen L. Schlatter
Huntington University


Appendix B

STATEMENT OF INFORMED CONSENT 5-digit number_________

This research project entitled, "The Oreo Experiment” will evaluate the personal control your child is able to demonstrate. He/she will be put in a situation where he/she can earn either one or two Oreo cookies. The time required to complete this is roughly five minutes.

Your child’s participation will help us explore this issue. There are no known risks or ill effects from participating in this study.

You have the right to refuse to participate in this study or to withdraw your consent at any time during the study without prejudice from the investigator. Additionally, you are entitled to be informed as to the results of this study upon its completion and may contact us using the e-mail address or telephone number on the bottom of the cover letter after April 28 th.

Inasmuch as the names of the participants are not relevant to the analysis of the data, the manner in which the data is both gathered and stored will ensure the confidentiality of each participant. There will be a 5-digit number assigned to your tests. Your name will NOT be used anywhere in the data collection or analysis.

Please be assured that all information will be processed in keeping with professional standards. Thank you in advance for your time and cooperation.


I have read the above statement of informed consent and I agree to let my child participate in this study. My questions about procedures and/or purpose of the experiment have been satisfactorily answered. I understand that I will receive a copy of this consent form to keep for future reference should I desire it.


Nicole M. Callaway
Brittany D. Lutes
Carmen L. Schlatter
Huntington University

Please print your name and phone number on the line below if you would like to be included in the drawing for a $10.00 gift card to Wal-mart (optional).




Appendix C

APAS                                                                                                           5- digit number________

Background Information:

Primary Caregiver Age: ___________ Secondary Caregiver Age: ___________

Primary Caregiver Ethnicity: ____________ Secondary Caregiver Ethnicity: ____________

Approximate Yearly Income (circle one): Under $20,000 $20-$40 $40-$60 $60-$80 Over $80,000

Number of children participating in the study (ages 5-11): _____________________

Age/Grade of child #1: ____/____ Age/Grade of child #4: ____/____

Age/Grade of child #2: ____/____ Age/Grade of child #5: ____/____

Age/Grade of child #3: ____/____ Age/Grade of child #6: ____/____

The APAS is designed to measure parenting styles. The concise 7-point survey is an efficient and valid measure that, when compared with the results from the Oreo Experiment, will give us an idea of how this parenting style interacts with a child’s personal control. Please take no more than 2 minutes to complete the survey and go with your first impression. Try to avoid changing any answers. Thank you.

Please circle a number 1 through 5 indicating your response to the following statements.

1=strongly disagree 2=disagree 3=neutral 4=agree 5=strongly agree

1. Children under five should always accept what their parents say as being true.

1       2       3       4       5

2. Nothing is worse than a person who does not feel great love, gratitude and respect for his/her parents.

1       2       3       4       5

3. A well brought up child is one who does not have to be told twice to do something.

1       2       3       4       5

4. A child should not be allowed to talk back to his parents.

1       2       3       4       5

5. Pre-school children should pay more attention to what they are told.

1       2       3       4       5

6. Children should not be allowed to talk at the meal table.

1       2       3       4       5

7. There are many things a 5-year-old child must do with no explanation from his parents.

1       2       3       4       5

Ray, B. D. (2004). Homeschoolers on to college: What research shows us. The Journal of College Admission, 5-11.


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