Permissive parenting seems to be the “no discipline” approach to discipline. Does it damage kids? Threaten to destroy civilization?
The research suggests that permissiveness isn’t the best approach to parenting — at least not in places like the United States. But much as we might get annoyed by parents who let their kids disrupt other people’s lives, it’s not clear that everyone labeled as “permissive” is doing their children–or their neighbors–a disservice.
As you might expect, it depends on how you define “permissive.”
Being warm and emotionally responsive to children doesn’t make you “permissive,” and it certainly doesn’t make you a bad parent. On the contrary, studies link opens in a new windowsensitive, responsive parenting with secure attachments and fewer behavior problems.
The official, psychological definition of permissiveness concerns parental control. Are permissive parents too lax? What criteria must parents meet to be labeled “permissive?”
Here is an overview of permissive parenting: How researchers define it, how researchers screen for it, and what studies really say about the effects of an indulgent parenting style.
As I’ll argue below, we need to be wary of painting all forms of permissiveness with a broad brush. It’s likely that some forms of permissiveness don’t cause any substantial harm, and might benefit children in a big way.
The textbook definition
Permissive parenting, sometimes called “indulgent parenting,” is a style of child-rearing that features two key traits:
- being nurturing and warm (which is good for kids), and
- being reluctant to impose limits (which is problematic).
This definition derives from the work of Diane Baumrind, Eleanor Maccoby, and John Martin, researchers who developed a system for classifying parents according to the way they attempt to control their children’s behavior. According to these researchers,
- opens in a new windowAuthoritarian parents demand a sort of blind, unquestioning obedience
- opens in a new windowAuthoritative parents demand mature, responsible behavior from their kids, but they also encourage family discussion and critical thinking
- Permissive parents—also called “indulgent” parents—reject the whole notion of keeping their kids under control
As Baumrind notes, permissive parents share some similarities with authoritative parents. Both types of parent are emotionally supportive and responsive to their children’s needs and wishes—which is a good thing. Both types consult kids about policy decisions, which can be a good thing, too.
But unlike authoritative parents, permissive parents aren’t demanding. They don’t assign their kids many responsibilities, and they don’t encourage kids to meet adult-imposed behavior standards. Instead, they allow—as much as possible—kids to regulate themselves.
Permissive parents don’t present themselves as authority figures or role models. They might use reason or manipulation to get what they want. But they avoid exercising overt power (Baumrind 1966).
A fourth parenting style—“uninvolved” parenting—is a bit like permissive parenting in that parents don’t enforce standards of conduct. But the resemblance ends there. Permissive parents are warm and nurturing.
Uninvolved parents are detached and emotionally disengaged (Maccoby and Martin 1983).
The consequences of permissiveness
Does parenting style matter? It seems that way. Certainly, studies have reported significant links between specific parenting styles and child outcomes.
For instance, kids raised by permissive parents are better off than kids who have uninvolved parents. They also tend to have high self esteem, and they may be more resourceful than are kids raised by uninvolved or authoritarian parents (e.g., Turkel and Tezer 2008; Rothrauff et al 2009; Lamborn et al 1991).
There is also a lot of research supporting the idea that “indulged” kids are less self-disciplined and less responsible than are kids from authoritative families.
For instance, when Jessica Piotrowski and her colleagues (2013) studied a nationally representative sample of more than 1000 young American kids, (ages 2-8), they evaluated children for deficits in self-regulation, that package of abilities that permits kids to control their impulses, stay focused, manage their moods, and execute plans.
What variables — demographic or social — were most highly correlated with self-regulation?
By far, the most powerful predictor of problems was permissive parenting–i.e., having a parent who agreed with statements like,
“I ignore my child’s bad behavior”
“I give in to my child when he/she causes a commotion about something.”
Such correlations aren’t proof of causation, but the results are consistent with other research:
- In a longitudinal study tracking 281 American children from the age of 9, researchers found that kids with permissive parents were more likely to increase levels of aggression over time. This kids with the best outcomes had authoritative (but not authoritarian) parents (Underwood et al 2009).
- Other studies have found links between permissive parenting and increased alcohol use among teenagers (e.g., Weiss and Schwartz 1996; Reimuller et al 2011; Lamborn et al 1991), as well as higher rates of school misconduct and lower levels of academic achievement (Lamborn et al 1991).
- Permissive parenting has been linked with higher childhood BMIs and lower activity levels (Sleddens et al 2011).
- A recent study of British 10-11 year-olds reports links between permissiveness and excessive television use. Kids with permissive parents had 5 times the risk of watching more than 4 hours of television per day (Jago et al 2011).
So there is a pattern. But there are exceptions.
For example, it’s not clear that permissiveness is always inferior to authoritative parenting. Several studies, conducted in Spain and Latin America, have reported no differences between teenagers raised by permissive or authoritative parents (e.g., Garcia and Gracia 2009).
And permissive, indulgent parenting isn’t always linked with good emotional health.
A study of Palestinian Arabs found that boys with permissive parents were more likely to suffer from low self esteem, anxiety, and depression (Drairy 2004). Similarly, a study tracking American kids for over 10 years found that some children — preschoolers who were behaviorally inhibited — were more likely to develop anxiety and depression if they were raised by permissive parents (Williams et al 2009).
Why do different studies report conflicting results?
It may be that parenting styles have different effects depending on the local culture (Chao 1994).
But it’s probably also a question of methodology. While most researchers cite Baumrind’s definition of permissive parenting, there are many ways to measure permissiveness. And, as I opens in a new windowexplain elsewhere, different measures can lead to different outcomes.
So how do researchers measure permissive parenting? And what’s the most reliable, useful approach?
Are you permissive?
It’s easy to say that a permissive parenting isn’t “demanding.” But what does that really mean? “Demanding” is a subjective term. It’s vague. So researchers need a set of objective criteria to diagnose a parent’s style.
Very often, this means using questionnaires. People are asked to indicate how much they agree or disagree (on a scale of 1 to 4) with a series of statements, like
“I ignore my child’s bad behavior”
“I give in to my child when he or she causes a commotion about something”
“I bribe my child with rewards to get him to comply with my wishes”
The answers are tallied. The parent who gets the right score is labeled “permissive.”
That’s pretty straightforward, but there’s a catch: Researchers don’t always use the same questions, and the precise wording of questions can vary in important ways.
For example, take the Spanish research — the studies showing that kids with “indulgent” parents are thriving.
These studies have relied on screening tools that aren’t typically used in English-speaking countries, and it makes a big difference. The Spanish studies have tended to classify parents as “indulgent” (and not authoritative) if they fall short of being highly directive or bossy. To see what I mean, consider this statement:
“My parents give me certain jobs to do and will not let me do anything else until they are done.”
If an adolescent disagrees with this statement, that’s grounds (in the Spanish studies) for classifying his parents as indulgent.
But this is measuring something different than ignoring bad behavior, or “giving in” to a child who creates a commotion. It’s measuring how domineering a parent is.
If you allow your teen the autonomy to schedule his or her own tasks, does that really disqualify you from being “authoritative”? I don’t think it does — not if you are screened with the testing items typically used in English-speaking countries.
In support of the idea, Alfonso Osorio and Marta Gonzalez-Camara (2016) recently compared these methods directly: They tested the same teenagers using both screening tools.
The results? Kids whose parents were classified as “indulgent” (using test items from previous Spanish research) were reclassified as “authoritative” (using test items from typical of English-speaking research).
So by using different screening tools, researchers are, in effect, defining “permissive” parenting very differently. Is one definition better than the other? Not really. It doesn’t matter how we label people — not as long as we understand each other’s definitions.
I think the important takeaway from all studies is that “ignoring bad behavior” is generally linked with suboptimal child outcomes. By contrast, being very controlling or bossy — like insisting that a teenager do every task in a specific order — isn’t associated with the best child outcomes. In fact — opens in a new windowas I note in another article — it’s probably detrimental.
And it’s worth noting: Even a statement like “I ignore my child’s bad behavior” is vague and subjective. What sort of bad behavior are we talking about? Hitting and biting? Leaving your socks on the floor? Dismantling an old toy? Defying gender stereotypes?
In defense of permissiveness
When I read Baumrind’s original model–proposed back in the 1960s–I’m struck by how moderate her permissive parents sound. It’s ironic, because her purpose was to refute the claims of permissive ideologues, and her arguments are persuasive.
Yet Baumrind’s permissive parents don’t sound like people who routinely let their kids get away with antisocial behavior — not, at any rate, behavior that I find objectionable, like deliberate rudeness, or violations of other people’s rights and feelings.
Instead, Baumrind’s permissive parents sound more like radical democrats. People who believe that parents and kids should exercise equal power.
Is this radical egalitarianism truly inferior to authoritative parenting? I wonder if the evidence against permissive parenting is really evidence against a relatively extreme, “anything goes” type of permissiveness.
For instance, consider a family where the kids are expected to be polite and helpful, but given a lot of leeway about other things, like the tidiness of their private spaces, the kinds of snacks they eat, or their bedtime arrangements.
To controlling parents, these homes might seem very permissive. But the kids aren’t being given free reign. They’re being granted autonomy in a few, key areas. Will the kids be worse off for it?
Possibly, if the kids make consistently bad choices. Kids might end up eating too many nutrient-poor, energy-dense treats, for instance (Hennessy et al 2012). Or stay up too late at night.
But if kids end up making mostly responsible choices, they may suffer little or no cost for their occasional lapses, and have learned important life lessons about self-regulation.
Moreover, it seems likely that certain kinds of permissiveness give kids a distinct advantage.
An international study conducted by Fernando Garcia and his colleagues suggests this. The adolescents who scored as being the best-adjusted — and the most supportive of prosocial values — were the ones whose parents rejected punishment and scolding as a means of disciplining kids (Garcia et al 2019).
And as I’ve argued elsewhere, kids are more likely to develop as innovative, creative, critical thinkers when we let them experiment and tinker. If you want to raise a scientist, let your child ask offbeat questions, get dirty, and take things apart.
So before we denounce permissive parenting, we need to ask: “Permissive about what?” As kids get older, they need to exercise ever-greater autonomy. If we ignore that, we can stunt their development, and force them to regard our authority as illegitimate. And you can read more about that in my article, opens in a new window“Why kids rebel.”
For general information about Baumrind’s four parenting styles, see my article, opens in a new window“Parenting Styles: A guide for the science-minded.”
For more information about permissive parents, check out these articles:
- opens in a new windowAre today’s permissive parents too extreme to fit the original model of permissive parenting?
References: Permissive parenting
Baumrind D. 1966. Effects of authoritative parental control on child behavior. Child Development, 37(4), 887-907.
Baumrind D. 1991. The influence of parenting style on adolescent competence and substance use. Journal of Early Adolescence 11(1): 56-95.
Chao RK. 1994. Beyond parental control and authoritarian parenting style: understanding Chinese parenting through the cultural notion of training. Child Dev. 65(4):1111-9.
Dwairy M. 2004. Parenting styles and mental health of Palestinian-Arab adolescents in Israel. Transcult Psychiatry. 41(2):233-52.
Garcia F and Gracia E. 2009. Is always authoritative the optimum parenting style? Evidence from Spanish families. Adolescence 44(173): 101-131.
Garcia F, Serra E, Garcia OF, Martinez I, Cruise E. 2019. opens in a new windowA Third Emerging Stage for the Current Digital Society? Optimal Parenting Styles in Spain, the United States, Germany, and Brazil. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 16(13). pii: E2333
Hennessy E, Hughes SO, Goldberg JP, Hyatt RR, Economos CD. 2012. Permissive parental feeding behavior is associated with an increase in intake of low-nutrient-dense foods among American children living in rural communities. J Acad Nutr Diet 112(1):142-8.
Jago R, Davison KK, Thompson JL, Page AS, Brockman R, Fox KR. 2011. Parental Sedentary Restriction, Maternal Parenting Style, and Television Viewing Among 10- to 11-Year-Olds. Pediatrics. 2011 Aug 22. [Epub ahead of print]
Lamborn SD, Mants NS, Steinberg L, and Dornbusch SM. 1991. Patterns of competence and adjustment among adolescents from authoritative, authoritarian, indulgent, and neglectful families. Child Development 62: 1049-1065.
Maccoby EE and Martin JA. 1983. Socialization in the context of the family: Parent–child interaction. In P. H. Mussen (ed) and E. M. Hetherington (vol. ed.), Handbook of child psychology: Vol. 4. Socialization, personality, and social development (4th ed., pp. 1-101). New York: Wiley.
Osorio A and González-Cámara M. 2016. Testing the alleged superiority of the indulgent parenting style among Spanish adolescents. Psicothema. 28(4):414-420.
Piotrowski JT, Lapierre MA, and Linebarger DL. 2013. Investigating Correlates of Self-Regulation in Early Childhood with a Representative Sample of English-Speaking American Families. J Child Fam Stud. 22(3):423-436.
Reimuller A, Hussong A, Ennett ST. 2011. The Influence of Alcohol-Specific Communication on Adolescent Alcohol Use and Alcohol-Related Consequences. Prevention Science. 2011 Jun 11. DOI: 10.1007/s11121-011-0227-4 [Epub ahead of print]
Rothrauff TC, Cooney TM, and An JS. 2009. Remembered parenting styles and adjustment in middle and late adulthood. J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 64(1):137-46.
Sleddens EF, Gerards SM, Thijs C, de Vries NK, and Kremers SP. 2011. General parenting, childhood overweight and obesity-inducing behaviors: a review. International Journal of Pediatric Obesity 6(2-2):e12-27.
Türkel YD, Tezer E. 2008. Parenting styles and learned resourcefulness of Turkish adolescents. Adolescence. 43(169):143-52.
Underwood MK, Beron KJ, Rosen LH.2009. Continuity and change in social and physical aggression from middle childhood through early adolescence. Aggress Behav. 2009 Sep-Oct;35(5):357-75.
Weiss LH and Schwarz JC. 1996. The relationship between parenting types and older adolescents’ personality, academic achievement, adjustment, and substance use. Child Development 67(5): 2101-2114.
Williams LR, Degnan KA, Perez-Edgar KE, Henderson HA, Rubin KH, Pine DS, Steinberg L, Fox NA. 2009. Impact of behavioral inhibition and parenting style on internalizing and externalizing problems from early childhood through adolescence. J Abnorm Child Psychol. 37(8):1063-75.
Content last modified 9/2019
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