“If you give kids an inch, they’ll take a mile.”
“Parents are too soft on kids these days. That’s why kids have no respect anymore.”
“Just wait until they’re teenagers — they’re going to run all over you.”
I’ve heard these arguments multiple times over my 17 years of parenting. I see them repeated over and over in the comments section of parenting posts, usually in response to parents who say they let their kids make themselves a sandwich if they don’t like what’s for dinner, or who take their kids’ homework to school if they forgot it on the kitchen counter, or who let their kids negotiate at bedtime.
I totally understand the qualms people have with permissive parenting styles because I have them too. Kids need boundaries, and they need to know who is ultimately in authority. Giving kids free rein to do whatever they want is no way to parent.
But neither is authoritarianism. There’s a happy parenting medium in between anarchy and benevolent (or not-so-benevolent) dictatorship. That flexible middle ground is where our family spends the majority of our time, and for the most part, it seems to be working quite well.
Take, for example, bedtime. I used to be a devout 7:30 bedtime proponent for our kids. That worked great for a while. But our two youngest kids are night owls, and we’ve adjusted our bedtime expectations in major ways in the past couple of years. Our 8- and 12-year-old daughters share a room, and they like to read and talk and listen to stories until past when my husband and I go to bed. Nighttime is when they thrive, so as long as they’re able to get enough sleep, we go with it.
My husband and I consult with our children a lot. We ask for their thoughts and opinions, and we give those things consideration even when we don’t ask for them. We let them explain their reasoning for wanting to do things or not wanting to do them.
Of course, sometimes their reasoning is simply “becaaauuse!” and in those cases, the consultation stops until they can formulate a reasonable argument. But we do let them argue as long as they’re respectful about it and listen to our reasoning as well.
When my daughter explains that she wants more screen time because she’s writing a book, we say okay. When my son tries to argue that his sister is getting more screen time, so he should too, we explain the difference between writing and playing games — along with the bigger point that that life isn’t always fair.
We want our kids to know that their input matters. That doesn’t mean they always get what they want, but at least they know that their thoughts and feelings are heard, understood, and valued. They also get a chance to develop negotiation skills and consultative skills, which will become even more valuable as they grow older.
Staying flexible with our kids also helps them learn to be flexible themselves. If kids live with rigid rules and absolute authority from parents, how do they learn to handle the real world? Contrary to what many authoritarian-minded folks claim, the real world is not a hard, do-as-you’re-told, everything-by-the-book kind of place. It’s fluid and ever-changing and organic, and navigating it requires mental and emotional agility. The future will require innovation and creativity, which can be squelched by too much rigidity.
Finally, staying flexible keeps us all from taking ourselves and our lives too seriously. There is a time and place for buckling down and being disciplined, but that doesn’t have to be everywhere, all the time. I have no interest in running my household like a military bootcamp, and I’m quite sure that my kids don’t either.
It’s not about not wanting to upset my kids or having a hard time saying no. Believe me, we do say no, and they get upset plenty. And if they’re being irrational, I’m more than happy to postpone the conversation. But I don’t automatically assume they’re being unreasonable when they’re upset. And I don’t automatically assume that because they are kids, they are wrong. I give them a chance to calm themselves down and work through their thoughts.
Ultimately, as the parents, my husband and I have the final say, but I don’t see why that means we can’t listen to our kids and incorporate their input into our decision-making. Kids can come up with great solutions sometimes, especially when we let them in on the problem-solving process.
So we do give our kids an inch or 2, or even 12, sometimes. And you know what? They generally don’t try to grab a mile when they have the chance. Our kids show respect because they’ve grown up in an atmosphere of mutual respect. We now have one kid almost through her teen years and another who will be entering them soon, and neither one of them shows any signs of running all over us.
Our soft, pliable ways are working out quite well for all involved. Flexible parenting lets us maintain a close relationship with our kids and helps them build valuable skills. Having seen it pan out over time, I’d do it the same away again in a heartbeat.