There’s no denying that parenting is the toughest job in the world, and the universe will find ways to offer up challenges big and small every single damn day of your kid’s life. Just as each child is unique, each parent is too, and what works for one caregiver might not work for another.
Among the many different parenting styles out there is jellyfish parenting, which serves as a sharp contrast to dolphin (aka authoritative) and tiger (aka authoritarian) styles of parenting. Curious about this fluid, free-spirited form of caregiving that offers kids more flexibility than you might feel comfortable with at first? One clinical psychologist gave Scary Mommy the scoop on this sea creature-inspired method of raising kids.
What is Jellyfish Parenting, Exactly?
As inferred by its cutesy name, jellyfish parenting is “ defined by listening to what a child wants and letting that guide the relationship and family dynamics,” says Dr. Rachel Hoffman, PhD, LCSW, Chief Clinical Officer at Real. “There are typically few rules in this style of parenting.”
Even if you consider yourself to be the opposite of a helicopter parent with overbearing tendencies, you’re likely scratching your head wondering what the heck parenting with few rules even looks like in practice. Unlike more traditional parenting styles, jellyfish parenting gives your child more permission to express their thoughts and feelings — and yeah, that might mean letting go of their rigid after-school schedule or weekend days filled to the brim with activities and social engagements.
“Instead of dictating what activities a child has to participate in, jellyfish parenting is all about letting the child decide,” says Hoffman.
This can look like:
- Trying an activity based on the child’s interest and not what the parent thinks they should do.
- Stopping an activity if the child no longer wants to participate.
- Allowing them to have unstructured free time if that is something they prefer over-scheduled activities.
The Pros and Cons of Jellyfish Parenting
According to Hoffman, “Kids who are raised with jellyfish parenting typically have high self-esteem and agency. This comes from being able to make decisions about how they spend their time from an early age.” There’s an obvious question here: Can this supportive method veer into spineless territory?
The answer could be a resounding yes, says Hoffman, which is why striking a delicate balance here is key. “While jellyfish parenting may increase kids' self-esteem, it can sometimes cross over into causing selfish and entitled behavior,” she notes. “There’s also a risk that kids who are parented this way won’t work as hard at school or at work because they aren’t held to certain standards at home. Boundaries also might be tough for a child who is raised with jellyfish parenting as they are not used to hearing the word ‘no.’”
Along with running the risk of raising a child with a bit too much entitlement, Hoffman notes that this permissive parenting style can offer kids too much autonomy before they’re truly ready for it. “This can cause issues with self-regulation and even contribute to anxiety and depression in the future,” she says.
Developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind, who was widely credited with defining the distinct parenting styles, also noted that permissive parenting could lead to problem behavior in school and other social settings, while psychiatrist and author Shimi Kang M.D. — credited with coining the “jellyfish” terminology — note that children of jellyfish parents might “lack impulse control.”
How to Strike a Balance
Thankfully, you can offer your children more freedom and autonomy without throwing all traces of discipline out the door, says Hoffman. No matter your child’s age or the specific situation you’re facing, you’ll want to “focus on setting clear boundaries. Boundaries and expectations ultimately make your child feel safe and secure.”
“Don’t give your child open-ended options,” she adds. “Instead, allow them to make a decision by presenting them options. For example, ‘Do you want to play soccer or do you want to take a writing class this semester?’ or ‘Do you want to clean your room before or after homework?’” This direct approach lets them know that you’re still in charge, but also that you’re listening to what they have to say and how they feel at that moment.
With younger kids, you can (ahem) dip a toe in the jellyfish waters by inviting them to choose what they wear, what books you read with them, or by letting them play independently or with a group, even if they choose to hang solo in a group setting. “As your child gets older it can make sense, depending on the individual child, to integrate jellyfish parenting into your model because they already have a strong and secure foundation,” adds Hoffman.
If jellyfish parenting doesn’t come naturally to you, “Start small by giving your child slightly more autonomy,” she recommends. “Maybe you check in with them about a specific extracurricular activity and give them space to decide if they want to do something else.”
Another solid method: Offer your child specific blocks of time (say, Saturday mornings or in the few hours after dinner) when they can use their time to their liking, without school or extracurricular commitments. With older kids, have a chat about their current schedule to get a feel for what they enjoy, what benefits them, and what can comfortably fall by the wayside. Overscheduling will lead to burnout at any age, and it never hurts to give your kid some grace in the spirit of protecting their happiness and well-being. And while you’re at it, offer yourself the same kindness. You deserve it too!
One final tip, per Hoffman: “Remember that it’s not ‘all or nothing.’ You can start small and add in aspects of a more flexible parenting style without completely changing how you interact with your child.”