What is Permissive Parenting?
In her book The Mindful Parent, Dr. Charlotte Peterson describes permissive parents as those who, “...plead, bribe, and make requests” when a limit needs to be set. Parents who act permissively often have very good intentions but lack the boundaries required to follow through. Permissive parenting is often a reaction to a parent’s own childhood experience of punitive, authoritarian parenting. In an effort to avoid propagating the pain they experienced as children, these parents instead fail to provide appropriate limits. Unfortunately many permissive parents also fear that telling their child "no" will negatively impact the relationship, when setting limits with respect actually models boundaries and can strengthen the parent/child bond.
The issue with permissive parenting that most people identify is that it produces selfish, entitled children. This is probably true, but I would argue that self-centeredness could be a defense mechanism. The true problem with permissive parenting is that it causes anxiety and inhibits emotional intelligence. In Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids, Dr. Laura Markham explains, “...parents who use this style often give their children the message that disappointment, frustration, and other upsetting emotions must be avoided at all costs...this parenting approach tends to raise kids who are self-centered, anxious, and not very resilient." Children don’t want to be in charge. When we thrust them into this role, they don’t feel safe and anxiety ensues.
Authoritarian parenting, on the other hand, demands absolute compliance. With little regard for long-term goals, authoritarian parents are focused on the immediate goal of their children doing as they're told, regardless of the context or situation.
In his book Unconditional Parenting, Alfie Kohn points out that many parents believe that the only two options available to us are permissive parenting and authoritarian parenting: “If I had to identify a single belief system that most prominently drives the use of questionable parenting strategies, it would be the tendency to assume there are only two ways to raise children. You can do this or you can do that, and since one option is obviously unappealing, you’re left with the other (which invariably involves some kind of control)...in effect, traditional discipline is contrasted with permissiveness. Either I punish my child or else I let her ‘get away with’ whatever she did. Either I take a hard line or I draw no line at all."
Kohn also astutely observes that using punitive punishments and neglecting the needs of children through permissive parenting aren’t all that different, “Paradoxically, neglecting and punishing aren’t even really opposites. Both share the feature of offering absolutely no productive, respectful adult guidance of the sort that kids need."
Imagine a child who doesn’t want to wear sunscreen. A permissive parent would let that child go outside with no sun protection. An authoritarian parent would see the resistance as a sign of defiance and punish the child. An empathic parent would listen to why the child doesn’t like sunscreen and work with him to create a solution. Children don’t understand abstract, long-term consequences like skin cancer, nor will young children realize how painful a sunburn can be. Similarly, punishing a child for having opinions and preferences won’t succeed in eradicating them. Keeping children healthy and safe are nonnegotiable. The strategies we use to meet these goals, however, are.
As Dr. Laura Markham explains, “Children are new on the planet, and they look to their parents for guidance. In fact, when they don’t get that guidance, they feel unsafe, and they push for it...but while limits are essential, it is never necessary to be less than kind and compassionate with children."
Parenting with empathy is beneficial because it helps us to raise children who focus on how their behaviors affect other people. Authoritarian and permissive parenting both teach kids to focus on themselves. Children are either indulged to the point of entitlement or so focused on what punishment they will receive, they're unable to focus outward.
Instead of failing to create the structure and boundaries our kids need, or doing so in a way that leaves little room for growth and learning, empathic parenting sets respectful limits through collaboration and an understanding of development. Helping a child to identify her emotions, process them, and problem solve builds competence, creates connection, and acknowledges her insight.
Dr. Laura Markham observes, “...parents using empathy with limits are the most involved of any of the parenting styles. Which is probably why they’re happier parents."
I think it’s also why they have the happiest kids.