I have nightmares about packing for travel. The stress, the uncertainty, the time-pressure. The trudging repeatedly up and down the stairs looking for baby tylenol, wearing a pajama shirt and ill-fitting jean shorts I decided to try on.

So when I was packing for a recent family trip, I found myself descending deep into the labyrinth of decisions, calculations, and questions. Which sun hat should I bring for my toddler? How many bottles will my baby need for the flight? If one Pack ‘n Play weighs 20 pounds, and a plane is traveling 550 miles southwest, what’s the likelihood that a 6-month-old will nap during takeoff? 

But sitting on the floor of my toddler’s bedroom, surrounded by leaning towers of t-shirts, sunscreen bottles, and one stray purple toddler-sized Croc,2 a sudden thought cut through the rising panic:

None of this matters. 

The sun hats, the sound machines, the ratio of sweatpants to sweatshirts—none of it really matters. What matters, when it comes to packing, is that my kids have two, basic things: a place to sleep and food to eat.3 The rest will work itself out.

What actually matters

As parents, we’re inundated with tips, advice, how-to’s, don’t-do’s, and definitely-don’t-do-or-you’ll-mess-up-your-child-forever’s. It can feel hard to sort through the “new study says” headlines and social media posts. I know you’ll find this hard to believe, but parenting actually involves even more decisions, calculations, and questions than packing for a brief vacation.

So, how can we cut through the noise? What actually matters when it comes to parenting?4

If we had to summarize decades of research and thousands of studies on parenting into one, single takeaway, it would be this:

Authoritative parenting. 

What is that, again?

Authoritative parenting is a parenting “style” defined by high levels of two factors:

Warmth and structure.

Warmth refers to expressions of love and nurturing. It’s having fun with your child, showing you enjoy being with them. It’s listening to them, offering them independence and flexibility, inviting them into the conversation. It’s taking on a (very bad) British accent and wearing a paper bag on your head to better emulate Grimsby, your child’s favorite Little Mermaid character.5

Structure, in contrast, is about having rules and boundaries. Setting high expectations for your child. It’s being consistent and fair. It’s having routines and logical consequences for their behavior. It’s telling them no, they can’t throw a plastic play banana at their brother’s head as an “April Fool’s Trick,” and then taking it away when they do anyway.

And that’s…about it.

The more things change, the more they stay the same

It turns out, practicing high levels of both warmth and structure, and finding the balance of these two concepts, is kind of the whole business of parenting.

The idea of “authoritative parenting” has been around awhile. It was first introduced by researcher Diana Baumrind in the 1960s, and since then, has been shown (in multiple meta-analyses summarizing hundreds of studies) to be positively related to everything from kids’ self-esteem to academic achievement.

And today, as parents in the age of social media, sorting through the piles of parenting advice, deciding which content to take or to leave, authoritative parenting offers a useful reference point to make sense of it all.

It can help us in specific situations, when we’re deciding how to respond to our children’s behavior. Aiming for high levels of warmth and structure can remind us, as certain social media accounts might say, to “okay the feeling” (warmth) while still “holding the boundary” (structure).

It can also offer a more general framework for our parenting. In a sea of parenting content, authoritative parenting can be our North Star, guiding us in the right direction. It can help us cut through the noise, to focus on what really matters.

Bags packed, ready to fly

I eventually finished packing for our trip. On the flight, I found myself thinking about a metaphor often used by one of the Internet’s most well-known parenting experts: Dr. Becky. She compares effective parenting to piloting a plane, where your children are the passengers. You will hit turbulence, and when you do, it will be time to make some decisions.

Will you panic, give up, let your children take over the cockpit, and wish for the best? No. Will you dismiss your children’s worries, tell them to stop overreacting, and ignore their protests from the back of the plane? No. You’ll validate how they’re feeling (I know turbulence can be scary), and confidently offer some boundaries (I know what I’m doing. Please stay in your seats with your seatbelts on, and I will land the plane). Warmth and structure. That’s authoritative parenting.

When the plane landed and we arrived at our destination, I realized I’d forgotten to pack diapers. I also neglected to seal a container of liquid baby soap, which exploded all over one of our bags. But my kids had food and a place to sleep.

They had the time of their lives.

My nightmares about packing usually involve transporting back to my college lacrosse locker room, where I am frantically searching for a mouthguard and cleats, panic rising as I realize I won’t make it to practice on time. It’s been 17 years. In retrospect, maybe college athletics weren’t an ideal fit for my personality.

Long-time techno sapiens will recall that, a couple Christmases ago, one of my brothers gifted the entire family violet purple Crocs as a joke. These are hideous, I thought. I will never wear these. Last summer, I wore them everyday. This tweet spoke to me.

These are the basics when packing for a trip with kids. They just need a place to sleep and food to eat. That’s it! Everything else will work itself out! …except Puppy, my toddler’s favorite stuffed animal. Forget Dr. Becky’s pilot “metaphor”—if Puppy was left behind, I would have turned the plane around myself.

This goes without saying, but I should clarify that we’re focusing on basic parenting strategies here. There are, of course, some very basic things (food, shelter, safety, etc.) that also really matter when it comes to kids’ well-being.

My toddler’s Little Mermaid enthusiasm continues, matched only by husband’s enthusiasm for going full method on becoming Grimsby during my son’s pretend play. He also remained in character via email for the comments he provided on a draft of this post. The word “poppycock” was used. Someone please stop him.

Share your thoughts and comments.

Our members are talking about this article on Belongly.
Register today and join the conversation.

About the Author: Jacqueline Nesi
Jacqueline Nesi, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University and the author of the popular newsletter Techno Sapiens.

Keep Reading

Want more? Here are some other blog posts you might be interested in.