An evidence-based guide
© 2010-14 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
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 sensitive, 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 permissive environments don't cause any substantial harm, and might benefit children in a big way.
The textbook definition
Permissive 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 usually not good).
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,
- Authoritative 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
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 strong 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.
The permissive parenting style: Does it ever benefit kids?
© 2010 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
In a variety of studies, the permissive parenting style has been associated with behavior problems.
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).Other studies suggest that adolescent boys raised by permissive parents are more likely to react with intense, negative emotions to social conflicts (Miller et al 2002).
And for very young children? Permissive parenting has been linked with children exhibiting poorer self-control (Piotrowski et al 2013).
But there is conflicting evidence. Consider, for instance, a study of parenting in Spain. Researchers report that permissiveness was associated with strong academic performance and relatively few behavior problems (Garcia and Gracia 2009).
Why the conflict?Researchers Fernando Garcia and Enrique Gracia argue that social relationships in Spain are less hierarchical than they are in, say, the United States or Japan. Social relationships are more egalitarian.
As a result, parental strictness and control are perceived more negatively in Spain. And if permissiveness is more socially acceptable, then maybe kids raised by permissive parents have an easier time fitting in (Garcia and Gracia 2009).
I don’t know enough about Spain to evaluate this argument. I don’t doubt that culture influences parenting. But American ideology is notably egalitarian, so I’m a bit skeptical.
Instead, I wonder about definitions. There are many ways to be permissive. If I give my child some autonomy about scheduling her chores, is that permissive? If I give my teenager some leeway in setting his own bedtime, is that permissive? Different researchers might have different answers to these questions.
Different definitions of the permissive parenting style
How your parenting might rate as permissive in one study, and not permissive in another
As I explain elsewhere, the permissive parenting style is defined by two important characteristics. Permissive parents are responsive (which is good) and reluctant to enforce standards of conduct (which is usually not good).
Permissive parenting is frequently contrasted with the authoritative parenting, the gold standard of parenting styles.
Like permissive parents, authoritative parents are responsive. But they are also demanding--i.e., they enforce standards.
That’s not the whole picture. For example, authoritative parents aren’t just demanding. They also reason with their kids, promote independent thinking, and encourage a verbal give-and-take (Baumrind 1966).
But the main point is this:
The difference between permissive parenting and authoritative parenting isn’t about showing affection or meeting a child’s emotional needs. Both styles do that. The difference is about enforcing standards.
So how do researchers decide if a responsive, nurturing parent is “demanding" enough to be considered “authoritative?"
Do you have a permissive parenting style?
How would your teenager answer these questions?
Typically, researchers measure parenting style with questionnaires.
For instance, the Spanish study used the Parental Control Scale, a questionnaire about parental strictness. Teenagers were asked to rate with a four-point scale (1= “almost never true", 4 = “almost always true") their agreement with statements like
“My parent tells me exactly what time to be home when I go out."
“My parent gives me certain jobs to do and will not let me do anything else until they are done."
If a teenager disagrees with such statements, is his parent a pushover? What if parents and kids have a tacit understanding—one that makes lots of specific rules unnecessary?
Some teens might disagree with these statements, not because their parents are permissive but because their parents don’t need to tell them “exactly what time to be home" or “in exactly what order" to tackle chores. Such teens know their parents expect them to be mature and responsible. They don’t require micro-management to stay out of trouble.
In other words, some teens might disagree with these statements because they have authoritative--not permissive--parents.
In this light, let’s go back to the American study—the one that linked permissive parenting with worse outcomes.
In that study, teens weren’t asked if their parents tell them exactly when to come home. Instead, they were asked
“How much do your parents try to know where you go at night?"
And teens had to rate their agreement with this statement:
“My parent knows exactly where I am most afternoons after school."
Different wording, different connotations.
The statements used in the Spanish study might tell us something about family rules and regulations, but they don’t necessarily distinguish permissive parents from authoritative parents.
It seems possible that the Spanish sample of “permissive" parents included parents who might be classified as “authoritative" in other studies.
So can we conclude that the permissive parenting style is good for Spaniards and bad for Americans?
I doubt it. Instead, we may have evidence that some parents can raise well-behaved, high-achieving adolescents without imposing lots of specific, inflexible rules.
Future studies may prove me wrong--maybe cultural differences can explain the whole thing. But for now, I think it's premature to assume that permissiveness has such markedly different effects in Spain and the United States.
How should we measure permissive parenting?
I don’t do research on the permissive parenting style, so I don’t presume to know what’s best.
But if the permissive parenting style is defined as a failure to enforce age-appropriate behavioral standards, then perhaps we should be looking for parents who routinely
• ignore misconduct (e.g., letting kids get away with deliberate rudeness), and
• give in to a child’s demands when he causes a commotion or throws a tantrum
These criteria have been used in a variety of studies, including studies of parents in Australia, China, Russia, and the United States (Robinson et al 1996). I like the criteria because they address what I think of as the “bottom line"--letting kids get away with doing bad things.
Alternatively, I’ve also seen studies where researchers asked what parents expect from their kids, e.g.,
“My mother really expects me to follow family rules."
Parents with lower expectations were considered more permissive.
Of course, these approaches still leave some grey areas. What counts as bad behavior?
Societies disagree about what is acceptable. For that matter, parents living in the same society may disagree. When it comes to specific practices—like setting bedtimes, controlling access to television, restricting sweets, censoring profanity, or discouraging displays of aggression—policies that seem strict to one family might seem permissive in another.
Does this mean the whole concept of “permissiveness" is hopelessly relative?
I don’t think so. As noted by Nancy Darling and Laurence Steinberg, parenting styles are more than a set of specific practices, policies, or goals. Parenting styles are about the big picture—the kind of relationship you have with your child (Darling and Steinberg 1993).
So when it comes to being diagnosed as a permissive parent, it may not matter if your family’s rules are unusual or different. What really matters is whether or not you expect kids to follow the rules, and how you respond to defiance.
If these criteria were used more consistently, then perhaps there would be less disagreement across studies. Future research may give us the answer.
Meanwhile, one thing is clear. We can’t interpret research about the permissive parenting style unless we know precisely how investigators define and measure permissiveness.