Too permissive?

February 29, 2012

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?

Sticker crazy!

December 12, 2011

The world truly has gone sticker crazy.  My child comes home from school every day covered in the darned things. Whenever I ask him what they were for his answers range from a kind or helpful thing he did, to everyday things he did, to things he didn’t do.  Last week he got an especially large sticker for ‘looking after a child who had fallen over in the playground’. Sometimes he has a sticker for eating all his dinner (he gets a reward for eating when he’s hungry?!).

What bugs me is that my child is a sensitive boy, always very aware of any distress felt by others around him.  He just is, naturally.  Not because he’s been ‘encouraged’ to be, or ‘taught’ to be.  He sometimes has funny ways of showing it, but he just is.  I’m sure most children are if they’re left to their own devices and not tampered with by adults with stickers. It’s intrinsic, not something that can be taught.  So giving him a sticker for this particular trait is not only unnecessary, it could be counterproductive.

Alfie Kohn writes in his book “Unconditional Parenting”,

“….researchers have found that children who are rewarded for doing something nice are less likely to think of themselves as nice people.  Instead, they tend to attribute their behavior to the reward. Then, when there’s no longer a goody to be gained, they’re less likely to help than are kids who weren’t given a reward in the first place. They’re also less likely to help than they themselves used to be. After all, they’ve learned that the point of coming to someone’s aid is just to get a reward…..No wonder, then, that kids who are rewarded for being helpful end up being less helpful once the rewards stop coming.”

I’d hate to see my child’s natural sensitivity and kindness sabotaged by stickers.

My child has also always been a very good eater with a large appetite.  He will try just about anything (including sand, chalk and snow!). So why introduce rewards for something he’s happy to do anyway? Kohn goes on to write,

“Give children an unfamiliar beverage, and those who are offered a reward for drinking it will end up liking it less next week than kids who drank the same stuff without being offered a reward.”

Last week we went to the library. My child has always loved books. He loves getting new books. When we went to check out our selection we were greeted by a lady that asked if he’d like to join the ‘Bookstart Bear Club’.  Joining the club, which, by the way, I’m sure is an excellent initiative, at least in its objectives, means that my child will receive a stamp every time we take some books out of the library.  When he collects so many stamps he gets a certificate.  Oh, for God’s sake.

Yet again, we’re offering children rewards for something they’re happy to do anyway, risking devaluing the activity, as well as promoting self-interest.  Kohn refers to several studies that show the problems with this,

“….pay children for trying to solve a puzzle, and they’ll tend to stop playing with it after the experiment is over – while those who were paid nothing are apt to keep at it on their own time.”

Joan McCord writes in her study, “Questioning the Value of Punishment“,  in Social Problems, Vol 38, No 2.,

“Studies have demonstrated….that incentives larger than necessary to produce an activity sometimes result in devaluation of the activity being rewarded.”

Kohn concurs,

“The more that people are rewarded for doing something, the more likely they are to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward.”

McCord also goes on to write,

“When a reward is clearly a benefit to the person being promised the reward, rewarding teaches the child to value his or her own benefit.”

OK, I’m over analysing. Granted, much worse things could happen to my child at school than he be given stickers.  It’s just a bit of encouragement and praise?  Maybe, but aside from all the objections I have raised above, which I personally think are fairly compelling, sticker culture creates an environment of conditional approval.  I want my child to feel accepted and loved regardless of whether or not he measures up to adult standards.