Permissive parenting is a term derived from the Parenting Styles Classification that was started by Diana Baumrind’s research. I have written extensively about parenting styles and if you want to learn more, check out my posts “What Kind of Parent Are You?” and “Which Parenting Style is the Best for my Child”.
In this post, I want to drill down into the concept of permissive parenting. I think this is important because although permissive parenting is considered to be not optimal for children, it actually sounds like a good thing. Permissive parents tend to be very responsive to their children; they are warm; tend to by non-punitive; they give children high levels of freedom.
Sounds great, ain’t it? However, things are not always what they seem, especially in the long run. In this post, we’ll see why.
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What is Permissive Parenting?
As I mentioned, permissive parenting is one of the four categories of parenting styles defined by Diana Baumrind’s research. She actually defined two scales of parenting mindsets:
- How Demanding Are you
- How Responsive Are You
You can be high or low on either of these scales, and that will define your category.
For example, authoritative parents are high both on the demanding scale and the responsiveness scale, meaning that they have clear demands and boundaries, but they are also warm and responding to their children’s wishes and needs.
What Does Permissive Parenting Look Like?
Permissive parenting means being high on the responsive scale and low on the demanding scale. That means that those parents tend to have low demands from their children, while they are very responsive to them. For these reasons they tend to view the children’s needs as really important, putting them first and foremost.
But here’s the tricky part. Every parent who regards him or herself as a caring, positive parent will put the children’s needs in high regard. One of the hallmarks of positive parenting is being very mindful and attuned to what your kids are saying, doing and going through.
But permissive parenting is not only about “seeing the child”. It starts there, yes, but problems arise when it goes into putting the children before everybody else, including our own needs as parents. And more importantly, before the needs of the entire family as a unit.
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Think of the following example: Jack and Jill are raising their two children Zoe and Matthew, who are 5 and 7 years old. They both work during the day and each day one of them takes the kids from school for the afternoon and they finish the evening arrangements together after a joined family dinner.
Jack and Jill tried to enforce a schedule in which both kids should be asleep by 8:30 PM. But it didn’t really work for them. Both kids rebelled and pushed the schedule in different ways. Believing that their kids' needs are important and they should follow their lead, Jack and Jill refrained from imposing that schedule and let the kids stay up late, sometimes until way past 9:30 PM.
What’s Wrong with Permissive Parenting?
So you may think to yourself that it doesn’t sound so bad. First, no tantrums over bedtime, right?! Second, Jack and Jill may even find it nice, spending even more time with the kids.
But there is a price to pay. First, going to sleep so late is not a good idea for children at that age. Their growing bodies and developing brains need ample sleep hours. If they go to sleep so late they’ll have a hard time waking up and functioning in school.
And what about Jack and Jill themselves? What about time for themselves? To talk, rest, do some grownup stuff?
As you can see, permissive parenting may give some peace of mind for that moment. It’s great for putting out fires. But when you look at things from a little bit longer perspective, you can see how permissive parenting is doing a disservice for everyone.
In the next couple of sections, we’ll have a look at the short and long term effects of permissive parenting, according to research.
Short- and Long-Term Effects
Previous research has shown that kids of permissive parents tend to be self-confident and also self-reliant. They trust themselves and think highly of themselves. That’s actually a good thing, right?
However, those kids also tend to be really impulsive as opposed to other children. Their ability to exercise self-control tends to be lower, as it relates to their own needs, drives, and impulses. This may result is risky-behavior that may include alcohol or drug abuse, smoking, etc (Merlin, C.P., Okerson, J.R., & Hess, P. ,2013).
Lower self-control may also lead to eating problems. Children of permissive parents are twice as likely to be overweight when compared to other children.
Another important effect of permissive parenting is that kids who are raised like that may have a lower sense of social responsibility. When you are raised with the notion that what your needs can be more important than those of the rest of the family, you may find it difficult to be empathic to other people’s needs.
And if that’s not enough, children of permissive parents were found to have higher rates of suicidal ideation than those of authoritative parents. (Interestingly, the same is true for children of authoritarian parents, which is not surprising, but I didn’t expect it to be true for permissive parenting).
How to Find The Balance
OK. So we can see that this kind of permissive parenting can lead to several outcomes that no one wishes for their kids. However, if you’re reading this blog, I bet you want to practice positive, mindful and calm parenting. That tells me you don’t want to be a highly demanding, non-responsive parent – ie. an authoritarian parent. And that’s great! Because authoritarian parenting leads to bad results as well.
The trick is to find the right kind of parenting style that will be responsive and warm, without letting go of demands and boundary setting.
You see, there’s a problem with how we look at the concept of “permissive parenting”. Concepts such as “demandingness” and “responsiveness” can be really vague. In order to classify parents on a scale, researchers need to create questionnaires that try to grasp the meaning of each concept.
Take for example the following questions from The Parenting Styles and Dimensions Questionnaire:
- I spoil our child
- I allow our child to annoy someone else
- I state punishments to our child and does not actually do them
These questions try to grasp the permissive parenting style by looking at the low demands and low boundaries aspect. However, permissive parenting also means being warm and responsive to your child. And it’s true that more positive parenting techniques lead to better results in the short and long run – more secure attachment, more confidence in children, etc.
In my series about parenting styles, I also wrote about what I think is missing from the two-fold definition of demands and responsiveness: the idea of significance. And this, I believe, is part of the solution.
The takeaway message is this:
Positive parenting is best both for you and your child. Being highly demanding without respecting your child is just wrong. Not being responsive to your child’s emotions, needs, and wishes, that's harmful parenting.
But, being a positive, caring parent doesn't mean being lax and letting your kids do whatever they want. As parents, you have a responsibility to raise children to be part of a functioning society. If you don’t teach them to respect rules and boundaries, and more importantly – to respect each other – they will have a really hard time growing up.
To learn more about permissive parenting and how it differs between cultures, read this great post on Parenting Science.
Featured Image by Robert Collins