Too permissive?

I often feel that one of the potential pitfalls of my parenting approach, and something that I constantly need to guard against, is that of too much permissiveness.

Sceptics and critics of punishment-free parenting, positive parenting or whatever we want to call it will often accuse us of too much permissveness, whilst advocates of this parenting style will assert that it does not mean permissive parenting, and I agree with this – it doesn’t.

But I do feel there’s a danger that it can.

Whilst I do believe passionately that a parenting style that seeks to empathise with children, understand their feelings, allow for their capabilities, respect their wishes as much as possible, and move away from behaviour focussed, controlling and punitive methods is absolutely correct, I also think this can leave us treading a very delicate line between authoritative and permissive. Maybe it’s because we immerse ourselves with advice on how not to be too controlling, how to move away from an old parenting style of power and submission, that we’re left in danger of becoming too hung up on avoiding this aspect, and don’t spend enough time thinking about how to avoid being too permissive. Or maybe it’s just me.

Following studies in the 60s, psychologist Diana Baumrind came up with 3 basic parenting styles; Authoritarian, Authoritative,  and Permissive.  You can read more about these here, but the conclusions Baumrind’s studies came to were basically that authoritative parenting leads to happy children growing into happy adults.  Authoritarian is too strict, and permissive too soft.

Now, having read these descriptions of parenting styles, I placed myself as somewhere between authoritative and permissive, (although aspiring to be authoritative) and being slightly alarmed by this overlap into the ‘too soft’ category, I also read plenty of material on the negative effects of too much permissiveness, which alarmed me even more. This excellent article by Dr Laura Markham is a good example.

Now, if I’m not careful, all this could lead to a constant paranoia in my every parenting decision that I am being too permissive.

So what is too permissive? It can all get very confusing.

For example, Naomi Aldort writes in her book ‘Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves‘;

“A child cannot experience the parent’s love while being controlled by him/her….Even what some parents call ‘natural’ consequences is mostly parent-imposed and therefore causes the same harm and mistrust as punishment. If is is natural, it occurs on its own. For example, a father told me that the ‘natural’ consequence of his son not finishing his chores is that he will not go to his friend’s house, as he now must stay home and do his chores. However, if a child was expected to wash dishes and didn’t, the only natural consequence is that the dishes are dirty. Cancelling his play date is a punishment imposed by the parent against the child’s will…..the child who neglected the dishes may choose, after you express your feelings, to wash the dishes before going over to his friend’s; however, such choices must come from respectful communication of the people involved and based on their authentic preferences. You can kindly offer to wash the dishes or find some other considerate solution. You can also find out why the chore wasn’t done, and you may discover some need for change in the work loads or expectations….When you offer to help, the child learns to offer help unconditionally.”

OK, I can see what she’s saying here, but what does this all mean to us as parents in practical terms? Does this mean that any means we employ to get our child to do what we want, and what we think they should do, means we are not being ‘authentic’ and that our child’s compliance is not ‘authentic’? Or, on the other hand, by offering to help with the dishes and not enforcing any consequence are we failing to enforce our limits and to be sufficiently demanding and assertive as a parent,  failing to set boundaries and limits with consistency, denying our child the ability to learn self discipline, self regulation, etc etc? Aargh!

Aldort’s suggestion of finding some other ‘considerate solution’ or finding out ‘why the chore wasn’t done’ brought to mind Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s book “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk“, in which they give lots of practical advice on problem solving and finding solutions that work for both parent and child. However, they do allow that natural consequences and letting a child ‘experience the consequences of his misbehaviour’  is sometimes necessary, where all else has failed. Examples include refusing to continue to allow a child to borrow things  if they fail to take proper care of them,  and getting a child who is late home for supper to make his own.

Meanwhile, Alfie Kohn’s principles of Unconditional Parenting include, amongst other things, “Reconsider your requests”, “Put the relationship first”, “Be authentic” (that word again!), and “Don’t be rigid”.

In the end I think it all comes down to the usual answer; that there is no easy answer. Parenting is not an exact science. All this advice is open to how you interpret it. And every parenting decision we make has to be treated individually, within its own context. So I guess I’ll just have to carry on being paranoid,  sorry, mindful, about being too permissive.

In my attempts to be mindful I try to keep these two basic points in mind:

If I feel I’m allowing my child to do something against my better judgement then I’m probably being too permissive. I think this is a good rule of thumb, for example for things like too much TV, too much junk food, or allowing my child to stay longer at the playground when I know he’s tired and hungry and a meltdown is imminent!

I make sure I have a good reason to say no. This is useful not only in challenging my own motives, but in providing an explanation for my child.

What about you? Which of Baumrind’s categories would you place yourself in and how do you guard against too much permissiveness?

4 Responses to Too permissive?

  1. Mary says:

    I think you are spot on. Children like boundaries and do need to learn to be responsible. In all honesty, being too permissive can be as bad for a child as being too punitive and can convey a lack of interest in the child and be perceived as abusive to the child. I’m not sure the effect of permissiveness is much better than neglect and it concerns me when I hear parents justifying things like telling their child they don’t need to do homework or chores that have been allocated to them. Your articles summarised nicely action that could be taken in such a situation without becoming punitive and I found it useful and thought provoking – thanks

  2. Stephanie says:

    How is this spot-on? You missed the mark on so many things. Naomi Aldort never says you should let your child engage in horrible indulging like TV and junk food which she doesn’t permit at all. No matter how many examples of showing the difference between permissiveness and giving freedom to the child, people just keep confusing it. She says don’t control the child and don’t let other things control the child. Junk food and TV definitely controls a child. When I was a child I would not be able to stop even if I knew that’s what my heart wants. The playground thing you mention is a bit silly to me. Children know when they are tired and hungry. When I was a child or even now, when I play and get hungry I say Oh I’m hungry better go home and eat something and my mom doesn’t need to call me out. I never had a meltdown from playing out of will. I had terrible terrible meltdowns at shopping malls dragged around by other people who needed the shopping because it was tiring, too stimulating and not a place I wanted to be. So check the places where your child has a meltdown when you don’t make her stop the activity she’s doing. The melt downs at the playgrounds usually come from parents telling the kids “It’s meal time”(such an arbitrary construct)! Children know exactly when to leave the playground when they follow their internal clock and their friends.

  3. Stephanie says:

    And just to add, you wouldn’t have to control your child’s behavior if you just don’t have the things you don’t want your child to do at home. If you have TV and junk food around the house, you are saying “Go ahead and take advantage of it but when you do I’ll have to snatch it away after a while.”

    • Jo says:

      I agree, it is easy to confuse permissiveness with giving freedom to the child, and that is what I wanted to explore in this post. I quoted Naomi Aldort as I feel her book can be confusing in this respect, and is therefore a good example. However, I am not necessarily trying to follow Naomi Aldort’s advice, or suggesting that we should.

      To clarify, by junk food, in my own child’s case I mean treats like biscuits and chocolate. You suggest that by not allowing these at all the need for control by the parent is removed. However, I would argue that by not allowing these at all, this is, in itself, control by the parent, and unless I were to never allow my child to leave the house or come into contact with other parents and children, I can assure you that the need for such control has been unavoidable from a very early age, and continues to be so.

      Regarding leaving the playground, I disagree that children know when they are tired and hungry. In my experience, very young children may know that they don’t feel ‘right’, but may not be able to identify that it is tiredness or hunger. When they are older, children will often try to deny that they are tired, or hungry, or even needing to go to the toilet, when they would rather continue playing. Furthermore, the idea that a child could always be given the choice to leave a playground whenever they choose is totally unrealistic. What if a parent had to leave to collect an older sibling from school, or had some other appointment?

      I don’t believe it is possible to allow children freedom of choice at all times. Children need our guidance and need limits to be set until they’re mature enough to self regulate and make mature decisions.

      The majority of parents I meet clearly think I’m very permissive, so it makes a change to hear a different perspective!

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