The autocratic and the democratic are two distinct family styles. Therapists think that there should be a hierarchy in a normal family. In other words, there is the executive sub-system (the parent or parents), a generational boundary, and the below that are the kids or kid. The parents are in charge. (There are clear and consistent limits and the consequence to crossing those lines is predictable and unwavering. So a child knows, 'If I do that, this will happen'). Children have to live within the structure that the parents create. I like to say that the kids can certainly grumble---they should have that right but, ultimately they benefit from the guidance, the scheduling, and the protection that the adults have to offer.
However there are variations in style to that general recommendation of how to develop a healthy family system. The autocratic is the family where there is, a thicker line-so to speak- between the adults and the children. The adults are the rulers and they dictate how things will go. In some cases, this goes even further and the parents omit the teaching aspect of child-rearing by not explaining why they make a particular decision, not listening to the child's point of view and never apologizing (note: a mistake recognized with dignity can be effective role-modeling).
Even further down this line are the parents who rule by fear. They control their children through intimidation. This last one, by the way, tends to produce sneakiness and lying in kids. If they are afraid to express themselves directly, they will learn to be manipulative in order to get their way some of the time.
The other common style I will illuminate today is the democratic style family. In this family, the parents are still in charge; they are reliable and stable and the children feel safe under their purview. The difference is in the leadership---there is more fluidity in the taking of the leadership role. Children are not only listened to, they can express an opinion, an idea, or even a plan for anything that comes up in a family, from where to go for a vacation, to how to organize chores, to even participating in suggestions for consequences for the child when he or she misbehaves. When this type of family slides too far to the end of the spectrum, the roles permanently reverse and you see what the therapist refers to as "the parentified child".
It's not only okay but, good for children to, occasionally, within appropriate limits, try on the leadership role. But it must be temporary. When a child is always needed to care for the parent, and to organize the household life, it leads to problems for that individual as an adult.
Returning to the happier version for now, this is a family in which the kids are given the opportunity to practice--to comfort, to problem solve, to create a new direction. The parents remain responsible but are able to occasionally enjoy following the childrens' lead.
Most of life doesn't fall so neatly into one category or another. Often you will see a mix of functioning styles in any one family. It might be interesting for you to not only take a look at your current nuclear family but also at how your family of origin functioned. What are the similarities? What has been changed?
Below is a real-life example I asked if I could share on my blog. I think it speaks to enjoying and savoring the life stage that this family is in at this time:
"...and here's my story......
As an aside I asked my 7 months pregnant niece and her husband to take notice. "
Credit: Keith Layton