© 2019 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
Some studies have linked the permissive parenting style with optimal child outcomes. But the results depend on how researchers define “permissive.”
Kids don’t benefit when parents ignore anti-social behavior. But being supportive of autonomy? That’s different. Studies suggest that kids thrive when parents are less bossy and punitive, and more focused on shaping good behavior through reasoning and positive emotions.
Permissive parents are warm and responsive, and that’s a good thing. Studies show that affectionate, responsive parenting fosters secure attachment relationships. It promotes psychological development, and protects children from toxic stress.
But when it comes to another factor — setting limits — permissive parenting is often portrayed as second-best. What’s the optimal parenting style? That distinction is usually awarded to authoritative parenting.
Authoritative parenting has a lot in common with permissive parenting. Like permissive parents, authoritative parents are warm and responsive.
But unlike permissive parents, authoritative parents are relatively demanding. They set limits — enforce standards of behavior — that permissive parents let slide. And according to conventional wisdom, this difference puts the children of permissive parents at risk. They are more likely to develop behavior problems, and less likely to perform well in school.
There are studies to back this up — particularly among families in the United States. For example, Susie Lamborn and colleagues surveyed over 4000 American families and found that adolescents with permissive parents achieved less at school, and were more likely to engage in self-destructive activities, like drug or alcohol use (Lamborn et al 1991).
Another study — focusing on American children under the age of 8 — found that permissive parents were more likely to have kids showing deficits in self-control (Piotrowski et al 2013).
But there is conflicting evidence. Some researchers report that the children of permissive parents thrive.
For example, consider a study conducted on teenagers in Spain.
Fernando Garcia and Enrique Gracia questioned more than 1400 kids about their parents. Many teens reported that their parents provided them with high levels of emotional support. So the researchers classified these parents as warm and responsive.
But were the parents authoritative or permissive?
To sort this out, Gracia and Gracia asked teens further questions, this time about “parental strictness.”
In particular, the researchers used a screening tool called the “Parental Control Scale” (Rohner and Kaleque 2005), which presents respondents with a series of statements to evaluate. Using a four-point scale (1= “almost never true”, 4 = “almost always true”) kids were asked to rate their agreement with statements like these:
- “My parents tell me exactly what time to be home when I go out.”
- “My parents give me certain jobs to do and will not let me do anything else until they are done.”
- “My parents believe in having a lot of rules and sticking to them.”
- “My parents make sure I know exactly what I can and cannot do.”
Kids who agreed with such statements were judged to have authoritative parents. Kids who disagreed were judged to have permissive or “indulgent” parents.
The final step was to look for links between parenting style and certain child outcomes.
How did kids behave? Were they confident? Emotionally and socially well-adjusted? Did they have behavior problems? Were they using drugs? Were they performing well at school? Did they have a positive view of the world?
For every outcome, “indulgent” parenting was on a par with authoritative parenting, and on a few measures, it actually came out better.
Teens with permissive parents had higher self-esteem. They were less likely to view the world as a hostile, threatening place, and less likely to be emotionally withdrawn. They were even less likely to be failing in school (Garcia and Gracia 2009).
How was this possible? Were the results of this study a fluke?
Not likely. A number of studies — conducted in Spain, Portugal, and Latin America — have reported similar findings (e.g., Garcia and Gracia 2014; Garcia et al 2018; Garcia and Serra 2019; Martinez et al 2007).
And in recent years, researchers have expanded their focus to countries elsewhere.
Using the “Parental Control Scale,” Amador Calafat and his colleagues found evidence that “indulgent” parenting is just as protective against substance abuse as is authoritative parenting — not only in Spain, but also in Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the Czech Republic (Calafat et al 2014).
Using a different screening tool, the Parental Socialization Scale, researchers have asked kids how their parents respond to disobedience, or failures to conform to family norms. By reasoning with you? Scolding you? Taking away privileges? Imposing physical punishments?
Parents are scored as being more strict if they make more frequent use of punitive measures (scolding, revoking privileges, using corporal punishment). And child outcomes?
In an international study of adolescents — in Brazil, Germany, Spain, and the United States — Fernando Garcia and colleagues found that the best-adjusted kids had parents who scored low on strictness and high on warmth.
Authoritative parents — who were scored as both strict and warm — had kids with better outcomes than did parents who were less emotionally supportive. But for several outcomes — including academic and emotional self-esteem, and the internalization of prosocial values — “indulgent” parenting came out on top (Garcia et al 2019).
So what’s going on? Is permissive parenting suboptimal? Or is it every bit as good as authoritative parenting — maybe even better?
Clearly, we’ve got studies in conflict with each other. Why?
One explanation is that parenting styles affect children differently in different cultures.
As Fernando Garcia and colleagues have argued, Spain is an egalitarian society, and one that emphasizes collectivism (prioritizing the group over the self).
In such settings, parents motivate children through affection, acceptance, and involvement. They tend to perceive strictness and firm parental control as unnecessary, and perhaps even harmful.
What happens if you’re a Spanish parent who goes against this norm? Your family may have a harder time fitting in, which could have a negative impact on your child’s adjustment. Thus, Spanish kids may be at a disadvantage if their parents aren’t indulgent (Garcia and Gracia 2009).
And perhaps, say Garcia and his colleagues, a number of other countries are undergoing a cultural shift. These countries might be less egalitarian and collectivist than Spain, but people in them are beginning to view parental strictness as unnecessary, and possibly detrimental to the development of confidence and self-esteem.
This could explain why some recent studies have found positive outcomes in countries outside Spain — countries that are more hierarchical and individualistic (Garcia et al 2019).
But there is more going on. Before we consider the important influence of culture, we need to make sure we’re all talking about the same thing when we describe a parent as “authoritative” or “permissive.”
The key distinction between authoritative and permissive parenting is that authoritative parents are more likely to enforce standards.
But do we mean by “enforcement,” and which standards matter?
Different studies use different criteria. It’s not surprising if they yield different results.
To see what I mean, consider the study of young children in the United States — the one reporting that kids with permissive parents had worse self-control.
On the face of it, these results seem incompatible with the results reported by Fernando Garcia and his colleagues. Until you take a closer look at how researchers in the American study measured permissiveness.
They used a different screening tool — one that identifies parents as “permissive” if they ignore misbehavior; threaten punishments without following through; and express low self-confidence about how to discipline a child (Robinson 1995; Piotrowski et al 2013).
What about Susie Lamborn’s study of U.S. adolescents? There, too, we see important differences in the way researchers categorized parents.
Lamborn and her colleagues used a screening tool called the Parenting Style Index, a tool that classifies parents as “authoritative” if they are highly involved, but also inclined to grant their kids autonomy.
For example, kids were asked if they agreed with this statement:
“My parent knows exactly where I am most afternoons after school.”
And teens were asked:
“How much do your parents try to know where you go at night?”
These screening items address some of the same topics that we saw featured in the Parental Control Scale, but notice the difference.
Screening items from the Parental Control Scale — items that Garcia and colleagues have used to identify “authoritative” parents — portray an intensively directive, supervisory approach. Exact curfews. Having a “lot of rules.” Insisting that a child do a chore immediately, rather than giving him some autonomy and leeway about timing.
By contrast, the screening items from the Parenting Style Index — used by Lamborn and colleagues — don’t specify that the parent is dictatorial.
They ask instead if the parent is keeping tabs, getting involved.
It’s a looser interpretation of “authoritativeness,” one that doesn’t depend on meeting Garcia’s criteria for “strictness.”
In fact, to score as “authoritative” on the Parent Style Index, you need to actively support autonomy — and reject coerciveness.
Kids with truly authoritative parents are supposed to agree with this statement:
“My parents let me make my own plans for things I want to do.”
And they might very well disagree with this statement:
“My parents won’t let me do things with them when I do something they don’t like.”
So it isn’t hard to see how these studies might report different outcomes for “permissive” or “indulgent” parenting. Researchers aren’t using the same operational definitions.
The same parent might be judged “authoritative” in one study and “indulgent” in another. We can’t conclude that these studies differ for purely cultural reasons. If researchers all used the same screening tools — the same criteria for categorizing parenting behavior — they might get more similar results.
And this idea has been tested. When Alfonso Osorio and Marta González-Cámara screened Spanish parents with the same tool used in the Lamborn study — the Parenting Style Index — they came up with the same results than Lamborn’s team did: Authoritative parenting was linked with the best child outcomes (Osorio and González-Cámara 2016).
What’s the takeaway?
Clearly, societies disagree about how children should behave. For that matter, so do parents living in the same society. When it comes to specific practices, policies that seem strict to one person (e.g., bedtime at 9pm) might seem permissive to another.
By the same token, people take different views about what constitutes appropriate parental control. If a child refuses to clean up his room, do you scold him? Take away his privileges? Spank him? Or do avoid all punishment, talk with him about his reasons for resistance and your reasons for wanting cleanliness, and negotiate a friendly compromise?
So do we draw the line between “authoritative” parenting and “permissive” parenting?
Fernando Garcia and his colleagues have adopted definitions that present authoritative parenting as being very directive (spelling out lots of rules and insisting on strict conformity). They’ve also characterized “authoritative” parenting as involving a greater reliance on negative tactics — scolding and punishment — to enforce good behavior.
That leaves “indulgent” or “permissive” parenting to occupy the space that allows for greater child autonomy, and downplays negative disciplinary tactics in favor of shaping behavior through parental warmth, positive social interactions, and reasoning. “Indulgent” parenting doesn’t mean parents have no standards, and it doesn’t mean they ignore anti-social behavior.
To me, this notion of “indulgent” parenting is consistent with certain definitions of “authoritative” parenting, like the definition associated with the Parenting Style Index.
But it really doesn’t matter which labels we use, as long as everybody understands what, exactly, is linked with better outcomes.
Garcia’s research doesn’t tell us that kids benefit when their parents ignore anti-social behavior. On the contrary, Garcia and his colleagues found that kids flourished when their parents addressed behavioral problems by being involved, and talking with their kids.
And Lamborn’s research doesn’t tell us that teens benefit from being bossed around by parents who tell them exactly what to do and when to do it.
What’s most important to me is that Garcia and his colleagues have shown that bossiness — being highly directive and coercive — and isn’t linked with the best child outcomes.
In the populations studied, the most well-adjusted kids don’t have parents who micro-manage behavior, or assert dominance by threatening punishment or revoking privileges.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that “parental strictness” causes child behavior problems. Sometimes, the causation might work the other way. Kids develop behavior problems, and their parents adopt stricter methods in response.
But there’s mounting evidence that ramping up punishment doesn’t help anti-social children achieve better outcomes. As I note elsewhere, positive strategies have better track records.
And research by Garcia and colleagues suggests that children who lack anti-social tendencies are held back by bossy, strict parenting. For these kids, it’s “indulgent” parenting — not strict “authoritative” parenting — that is linked with the lowest risk of emotional maladjustment (Garcia et al 2018).
For more about the permissive parenting style, see these Parenting Science articles:
- The curious case of Summerhill School: Are today’s parents too permissive to fit the original model of permissive parenting?
And for more information about other parenting styles, see my evidence-based overview, “Parenting styles: A guide for the science-minded, as well as my articles about authoritative parenting and authoritarian parenting.
References: The permissive parenting style
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Baumrind D. 1991. The influence of parenting style on adolescent competence and substance use. Journal of Early Adolescence 11(1): 56-95.
Calafat A, García F, Juan M, Becoña E, Fernández-Hermida JR. 2014. Which parenting style is more protective against adolescent substance use? Evidence within the European context. Drug Alcohol Depend. 138:185-92.
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García F and Gracia E. 2009. Is always authoritative the optimum parenting style? Evidence from Spanish families. Adolescence. 44(173):101-31.
Garcia F and Gracia E. 2014. The Indulgent Parenting Style and Developmental Outcomes in South European and Latin American Countries. Chapter in Parenting across cultures: Childrearing, motherhood and fatherhood in non-western cultures / coord. por Helaine Selin. ISBN 978-94-007-7502-2, pp. 419-434
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This article about the permissive parenting style is based on research published before July 2019.
Content last modified 7/2019