Permissive Parenting: Is Indulgent Parenting Bad For Kids?

Experts Explain Just How Permissive — Or Indulgent — Parenting Can Impact Your Child

March 5, 2020 Updated July 26, 2021

parenting-style-permissive-new-1
Scary Mommy and Westend61/Getty

Parenting… what are ya gonna do, right? Like, seriously, that’s the million-dollar question — what should you do? From the moment you decide to grow your family, the question will plague you. Whether you’re trying to decide what color to paint the nursery or wondering whether you should let your 11-year-old on social media (or all that lies between), there is always a question to be asked. And one that we as parents ask ourselves by the minute is whether our parenting style is healthy for our children. To that end, we’re going to discuss permissive parenting: one of the four styles of developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind’s parenting style paradigm, which also includes authoritarian, uninvolved, and authoritative. There are also the more modern styles that include attachment, free-range, and positive parenting.

RELATEDWhat Parents Need To Know About Negative Reinforcement

What are the four types of parenting styles?

You may be wondering who Diana Baumrind is. Well, suffice it to say she’s highly regarded in the psychology community — and one of her most famous contributions to the field was the identification of four universal parenting styles. She laid out her paradigm back in the 1960s while doing research at the University of California, where she studied how parenting approaches correlated with children’s behavior.

From that research and observation, she first pinpointed three distinct parenting styles: authoritative, authoritarian, and permissive or indulgent. Later, neglectful or uninvolved parenting would round her paradigm out to four. These four parenting styles effectively still form the foundation for much of the analysis of childhood behavior that takes place today.

What is permissive parenting?

If we had to sum up permissive parenting in one word, it would probably be lax. Permissive parenting is really rooted in a “kids will be kids,” I’m-both-a-parent-and-friend approach. In fact, if it tells you anything, this parenting style is sometimes referred to interchangeably by another name: indulgent parenting. Permissive parents are warm and nurturing, yes, but they’re also hesitant to discipline because they don’t want to disappoint their children.

“Permissive parenting is a parenting style that tends to be very gentle and affectionate, with few rules or expectations for how a child should behave,” child therapist Katie Lear explained to Scary Mommy. “These parents tend to be great at all of the warm, fuzzy interactions that build strong attachment but may allow children to behave in ways that are younger than their developmental age. Rules may not be clearly stated, or they may be easy to negotiate, and punishments are often mild or inconsistent.”

Damon Nailer, a parent educator with the Children’s Coalition of Northeast Louisiana — and a dad! — says he personally classifies this style of parent as “the friend.” He shared, “This type of parent does not emphasize the importance of rules, regulations, and boundaries but concentrates on having fun and being the child’s buddy. They are extremely passive and allow the child(ren) to do almost anything.”

This is because the permissive parent prioritizes their child’s feelings above all else, for better or worse. “For the parent who uses this parenting style, the most important dynamic of the relationship with the child is the child’s happiness,” said Nailer. “As long as the child is pleased and gets their way, everything is fine.”

What are examples of permissive parenting?

So, now that you’ve gotten a basic idea of what permissive parenting does (and doesn’t) involve, let’s take a look at a few examples — starting with the one you’ve probably heard the most often.

​​“If you’ve ever heard a parent say, ‘I don’t say no to my child,’ that is a classic example of permissive parenting,” said Lear, adding, “A permissive parent might also allow a child to do things more typical of younger children, such as drinking out of a bottle as a preschooler.” Permissive parents tend to let their kids decide for themselves when they’re ready to do something on their own — or not do it — instead of steering the direction.

Looking for a recent example of what many may categorize as permissive parenting? Speaking to People magazine in January 2020, actress Alicia Silverstone revealed that she reprimands her son with a simple, “No, thank you.” While Silverstone does technically tell her son “no,” many would argue that a “no, thank you” to an unruly child would certainly qualify as a more lenient approach.

Here are a few more examples of permissive parenting, broken down by age group:

Infants/toddlers:

  • If a child cries and/or throws a tantrum if they don’t get their way, the parent immediately gives them what they want
  • Avoiding saying “no” to a child because a parent is afraid of upsetting them
  • Not having a regular bedtime or mealtimes for babies/toddlers because they cry or get upset when parents try to stick to a schedule
  • The child learns at an early age that the household revolves around them and their needs/wants

Children:

  • The child always controls what’s on TV, regardless of what the parent wants to watch
  • A child is asked to clean up their toys when they’re done playing, but only when they feel like doing it (which will probably never happen)
  • There are no rules about if/when a child does their homework
  • Using bribery to get a child to do something they’re already supposed to be doing (like chores or homework)
  • If a parent tells a child that they’ve done something wrong, there are never actual consequences beyond a verbal warning
  • Parents allowing children to make their own decisions in situations where it’s not age-appropriate 

Teens:

  • Allowing a teenager and their friends to drink underage — under the parent’s supervision — because the parent thinks of their child as a friend
  • Asking a teenager for their opinion or take on major family decisions
  • Not setting rules, including a curfew, so a teen doesn’t get upset or argue with a parent
  • Allowing a high schooler to skip school if that’s what they want to do

What is the difference between permissive parenting and positive parenting (or positive discipline)?

It’s all in the name really. While permissive and positive parents both eschew the traditional idea of punishment, scolding, or power dynamic between parents and children, the positive parenting style doesn’t completely do away with discipline. They instead follow the four rules of positive discipline:

  • Redirection: Turning a child’s attention away to something else while they are having a tantrum or acting out.
  • Positive Reinforcement: Giving your child positive reinforcement when they are doing something good. Like cleaning up after playtime or sharing a toy. This gives the child positive attention for good behavior and not just when they’re misbehaving.
  • Time-Ins instead of Time-Outs: Sitting with your child when they’ve acted out in a time in instead of forcing them to be alone during a time out.
  • One-Word reminders: Say “brush” instead of “brush your teeth,” “shoes” instead of put your shoes on.

Does permissive parenting work?

It goes without saying that whether something “works” or not could vary from person to person depending on their point of view. But most professionals agree that if you look at the pros and cons of permissive parenting, the cons carry a bit more weight. “Permissive parents are often as loving and nurturing as we would hope any parent to be, but this style of parenting does not provide children with the boundaries, limits, and structure that children need in order to thrive,” Michelle Harris, founder of Parenting Pathfinders, said to Scary Mommy.

In short, children do best when parents provide a bit more structure and direction. Elaborated Harris, “Limited rules, the inconsistency of consequences, and a focus on freedom rather than responsibilities tend to have a negative impact on a child’s social and emotional development. In permissive households, children are given the power to make big decisions which can, over time, leave children feeling burdened.”

Permissive parenting frequently leads to one of two outcomes: You end up with a child who suffers from anxiety due to a perceived lack of structure and support, or you end up with a child who’s entitled and has other behavioral issues (more on that below).

What are the effects of permissive parenting on a child?

Obviously, you want deets on some of the unintended results that come from being a permissive parent. So, Scary Mommy asked Harris to rattle off a few. “Research has shown that the children of permissive parents have more difficulty regulating their emotions, utilizing coping strategies to manage big feelings, have more social challenges, and have a difficult time adhering to rules and boundaries as they grow,” she shared.

Dr. Elie Cohen of Cohen Psychological Services echoed this take on the side effects of permissive parenting, saying, “Studies show consistently that the healthiest outcomes are when there is a balance of structure and love. In this style, you will see the love element but not the structure. These children often develop into adults who are self-centered, impulsive, dependent on others, aggressive, and have poorly defined goals.”

Additional effects of permissive parenting on a child may include:

  • The child may “rule” the household
  • The child doesn’t learn that they can’t always get their own way
  • Displaying signs of self-centered behaviors and emotions 
  • Potential behavioral problems over time
  • Low levels of self-reliance and self-esteem
  • Being impulsive
  • Displaying rebellious behavior
  • Not being able to deal with or channel frustration
  • Poor self-management
  • Poor social skills
  • Feeling insecure if not given guidance 

Permissive parenting can have consequences for the permissive parent, too. While you’re fulfilling the nurturing and bonding sides of your nature, a large part of your parenting experience will leave you feeling: 

  • Unfulfilled — and worse, resentful
  • Trapped and powerless to your own child’s demands
  • Anxious
  • Angry or frustrated
  • Plagued by the feeling that you’re a failure as a parent

What is the difference between permissive parenting and uninvolved parenting?

Uninvolved, or neglectful, parenting is similar to permissive parenting in the sense that children are often allowed to make their own decisions. However, whereas permissive parents are warm and nurturing toward their children, uninvolved parents are decidedly less so.

This type of parenting style takes the “laissez-faire” approach to the extreme — kids aren’t given many rules or guidance. Those kiddos essentially raise themselves because their parents are so hands-off with their offspring. So, while uninvolved parents expect next to nothing of their children, it’s not all fun and games for the kids. Unlike the permissive style of parenting, there exists just as little nurturing as there are expectations.

What should you do if one parent is permissive and the other is not?

If you and your significant other are always on the same parenting page, well, consider yourself lucky! But if you suspect you may have a different parenting style than your partner, that’s totally normal, too. In fact, it probably sounds about right for a lot of us.

“It’s common for parents to have different approaches to parenting — opposites attract,” reassured Lear. “Permissive parents can teach their stricter counterparts to tap into the loving, caring side of themselves that more authoritarian parents may lack. An authoritative or authoritarian parent can help the permissive parent to establish firm, clear boundaries that will not only help shape a child’s behavior but create a healthier parent-child relationship in the long run.”

Ultimately, you’re going to have to get more comfortable with keeping the lines of communication wide open.

“If one parent is permissive and the other isn’t, it’s important to find a way to get on the same page about how you will respond to various challenges that come along,” said Harris. “Consistency is a crucial element of parenting, and it’s important for parents to work to get to a place where there is compromise and balance between their differing parenting styles.”

Of course, if you are on the same parenting page but that page is one of the more problematic parenting styles, you probably want to address it as well. You can start by taking a long, honest look at your own behavior.

What should you do if you realize you’re a permissive parent?

Do you tend to cave in to your kids’ demands to avoid a fight? Do you feel like they won’t love you as much or if you’ll let them down if you don’t give them what they want? Maybe you just don’t believe in a set bedtime. Or you often bribe your kids to get them to do something you want or need them to do.

Sound familiar? First of all, give yourself some grace, Mama. There are far worse things you could be. And let’s not forget that permissive parents are extremely warm and nurturing toward their children — that sort of TLC isn’t without merit. Plus, it’s safe to say almost every parent uses these tactics sometimes. However, since studies show that permissive parenting can have some adverse effects on children, it’s not a bad idea to take a closer look at what you might be able to tweak in your approach.

It’s helpful, too, if you understand your core motivation for being a permissive parent. It’s a lot easier to disrupt a harmful pattern if you know where it may have started. “Some parents see permissive parenting as the only alternative to the authoritarian parenting style they grew up with, and vow not to intimidate their children as they had once been intimidated,” explained Jen Lumanlan, founder of the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. “This tends to backfire when the child ‘walks all over’ the parents and refuses to comply with even small attempts to gain the child’s compliance.”

If this sounds like you and you aren’t sure how to shift gears to a more balanced parenting style, consider reaching out to a family therapist. They’ll be able to help you course-correct and, hopefully, get to the bottom of any undesirable parenting patterns.