Most people would feel like they’d know a permissive parent if they saw one. According to the definition from American Psychological Association these are the moms and dads that are warm but lax. Their failure to set firm limits, monitor children’s activities closely, or require appropriately mature behavior, cultivates kids who tend to be impulsive, rebellious, aimless, domineering and aggressive. In other words, kids that don’t respond to punishment or praise and who lack respect.
But is permissive parenting so terrible? It turns out the answer is nuanced, and there are good ways to turn permissive parenting into something far more healthy for everyone.
The Origins of Permissive Parenting
Unlike pop-culture parenting “styles” (see: helicopter, tiger, lawn mower), permissive parenting is grounded in the research of University of California at Berkeley psychologist Diana Baumrind. In her work in the 1960s, she categorized parenting into three different types: authoritarian, permissive, and authoritative based on the amount of demand and care a parent shows their child.
Authoritative parenting hits all the right notes: High expectations accompany their consideration of each child’s individual needs. Authoritarian parents demand a great deal from their kids, but don’t consider their child’s needs and often pair expectations with the threat of punishment. And permissive parents? They cater to their child’s needs (they’re highly responsive) but demand very little.
Dr. Leela R. Magavi, a child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist, and Regional Medical Director for Community Psychiatry + MindPath Care Centers, explains that permissive parenting can reorient the parent/child relationship to look more like peer interaction. “ Children may perceive permissive parents as friends and may be more likely to confide in them,” she explains. “I have witnessed parents becoming much more permissive during the pandemic as they are afraid that their children are devoid of normalcy and will become depressed.”
It should be noted that while Baumrind’s work was grounded in academic research, her insights came almost exclusively from observations of white parents connected to Berkley. Later in her career, she would expand her studies into more diverse communities, and researchers who built on her work could continue and expand on that practice. Nevertheless, academics generally agree that her psychological styles do remain reasonably consistent in terms of outcomes.
Positive Traits of the Permissive Parent
While permissive parenting is unlikely to cultivate the most desirable traits in kids, it doesn’t mean that a permissive parent’s heart is in the wrong place. On the contrary, Magavi points out that permissive parents have some positive underlying traits.
“Permissive parents tend to be empathetic and compassionate,” she says. “They identify their child’s emotional state and attempt to address their needs. Permissive parents tend to validate their child’s feelings and are more likely to listen to their children and address their needs actively.”
Those are traits that any parent should strive to embody, and they provide a solid foundation for permissive parents who want to add structure to their relationship with their children. Focusing on what parents do well and how those things can benefit their child can help them stay positive as they navigate the ups and downs of adapting to a new parenting style.
“I advise parents to practice daily self-compassion and remind themselves that perfectionistic parenting could cause their children to perceive every shortcoming as a failure, which may lead to longstanding self-esteem concerns,” Magavi says.
She also notes that parents may find it helpful to limit their time on social media to strengthen their self-compassion. “On social media, everyone looks like a perfect parent. Reframing thinking and identifying the good and bad in each individual and behavior helps decrease catastrophizing and rumination.”
How Can a Permissive Parent Add Structure to Their Parenting?
Adding the structure is a big adjustment for everyone. It can take time for a child to realize that these changes are intended to keep them safe and healthy. They may perceive more rules and structure as a raw assertion of power and respond negatively.
This is where the permissive parent’s strengths of empathy, compassion, and active listening come in to play. Magavi suggests utilizing opportunities for verbal support. “Providing love and support and encouraging open conversation while simultaneously maintaining house rules and safety protocols is of utmost importance,” she says. “I advise parents to create family rules and expectations and incorporate frequent validation and positive reinforcement.”
And, of course, getting on the same page with a partner or co-parent helps. Considering changes and making a coordinated effort gives a better chance for success and makes things easier on kids. “I recommend both parents share changes to rules and regulations to align their parenting, so children have some consistency and do not begin to perceive one parent as the ‘good cop’ or ‘bad cop,’” Magavi says.
Helping Kids Adjust to Changes
A move away from permissive parenting is good in the long run, but it can be a tough adjustment for kids. They’re used to having things pretty good. So they will feel annoyed and maybe even abandoned when parents start expecting them to do something for themselves.
Magavi encourages parents to explain the benefits of following some rules and regulations. “This allows children to reframe their thinking and identify the benefits of rules. Subsequently, it is helpful to discuss family rules and the reason behind each one,” she says. “Similarly, it is important to explain the consequences of breaking the rules. Parents who were formerly permissive may find that their children are not taking them seriously, and it may take time for their children to conceptualize and follow through on rules and routines.”
Granted, as powerful as words can be, showing is often more powerful than telling. Whatever new rules or structures are implement, parents need to hold themselves to the same standards, or at least as close as is appropriate and feasible. Want a kid to put their clothes away? It helps if they don’t see parent’s clothes strewn about the room.
At its foundation, the move away from permissive parenting is a move toward accountability. And accountability works best when it’s a two-way street.