Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Myth of Permissive Parents

Every few months, an article comes out about the Four Types Of Parents. This latest article calls the four types authoritarian, authoritative, permissive, and uninvolved. 

Authoritarian parents run their families like dictatorships. Uninvolved parents are neglectful. Think "Anna" and "Zoe" from Choosing Your Guide. These are the extremes, and pretty easy to pick out. Any other category is much more complicated.

The verdict is almost always in these articles that the authoritative parents, described as having "high expectations" but also showing "a lot of warmth," win the contest. Basically, these are parents who tell their kids what to do, but maybe say it nicely, and still give hugs. They are supposedly most likely to have "children who are responsible, competent and have high self-esteem."

The thing I really want to address, though, is the idea permissive parents. As defined in the article:
Permissive parents want a warm relationship with their children, but don't have specific expectations for their children. They tend not to set clear rules or goals for their children or tell them what to do.
There is this myth about kids in our culture, that so many of them are spoiled, that they do whatever they want, get whatever they want. That permissive parenting is rampant. There are supposedly all these parents who don't tell their kids what to do. But according to this article, 97% of school-age kids go to school.

What I want to know is, where are all of the so-called permissive parents every morning when their kids are getting up and going to school? Who is telling their kids what to do (go to school), setting clear rules (must go to school) and goals (finish school)? I'm willing to bet it's the parents.

Even if going to school is the only thing a parent ever tells a child he has to do, it's a pretty major one. It's not like taking out the trash once a week. It's something that will consume the child's life for years and years. The parents have to keep telling their children what to do every day of the school year for about thirteen years. Would this not disqualify them from being permissive?

So the problem I have is that these studies are misleading. They claim to have studied permissive parents. They make it seem like giving kids freedom from expectations (while still showing warmth) is not good. That your parenting style should absolutely be based on authority of parents, or your children will never learn responsibility. The not-very-permissive parents included in the permissive category for these studies give this kind of parenting a bad name.

There is such a thing as permissive parenting. By definition, it is what I am going for. I have a warm relationship with my kids and I do not consider myself an authority. I give lots of permission, and I don't give orders. We have a happy and peaceful home. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Do you think permissive parenting has a negative connotation? Do you think parents can be called permissive even if they make their kids go to school?


DISCLAIMER: I am not saying I have proven anything here about which parenting style is best. I'm just saying the studies like this one are faulty. I would love to see a real study done with a group of actual permissive parents. Here is an article with a list that seems to support permissive parenting (but don't bother taking the quiz).


  1. My goal is to help my kids reach their own goals. And we do that without school, we unschool. I do not consider myzelf as my kids' best friend, I am their mom. But I'm not their boss and don't have any control over them. I'll coach them if it's needed, help them find their ways. But not plan their ways for them so no school here.

  2. mySel, sorry, i am dutch and 'mijzelf' is a dutch word lol

  3. Excellent! I think that they, like so many others, confuse discipline with control or punishment, and permissiveness with neglect. If we are neglecting our children by not meeting needs, sure--that is a bad thing. But allowing them freedom and permission is very good. I see far more coercion than permissiveness in real life, personally.

  4. @Kat, Exactly! Although, I would say I want my kids to be my best friends. I am going to write that post next. :)

  5. @Dulce, Yes, I agree. That is the confusion. I even sort of understand why people are confused. Coercion is SO widely practiced and accepted, that it is difficult to see there is any other option that might work.

  6. what about permissive parents whos kids WANT to go to school? that is not coercion or persuasion if they like it and enjoy all they get there right?
    where is the line with permissive where you just end up with rotten kids?

  7. @Anonymous, It is true that some kids with permissive parents choose to go to school. In a real study that cared about being accurate, that would have to be accounted for.

    I don't think true permissiveness and freedom leads to rotten kids. My own theory. Based on evidence of meeting lots of people who have raised their kids this way. Never been studied formally. I would love to see it happen though.

  8. I feel that kids naturally want to be liked and to fit in. In my opinion, it doesn't matter how "permissive" you are, if your children see you being polite and interacting with the world, they will naturally start to do the same. We have some limits (running into busy streets, hurting other people or other's possessions, etc), but otherwise I think we would definitely be considered permissive by some.

    Personally, I think "rotten" kids come from true neglect or from kids who otherwise do not get enough attention from their parents. Kids who get attention and a chance to explore the world as they wish don't really have any need to be "rotten".

  9. @Lindsay, I agree with you. It's easy to blame "permissiveness" for producing "rotten" kids, but it's mostly because a lot of people don't understand the concept of permissiveness. My own experience connecting with lots of other parents who actually are permissive, is that their children are delightful, and the child-parent relationships are wonderful.