Permissive Parenting: What It Means, Examples & The 3 Other Parenting Styles
There are many ways to parent your kid that can be unique to your family structure, environment, individual needs, cultural context—and so many more variables. Some theories can simply be chalked up to fads (like the bemoaned helicopter parenting). Others have scientific research to back them up—like the four main parenting styles.
The four main parenting styles create a framework for how we evaluate and describe child-rearing decisions. But these styles are not stagnant—you can, for the most part, fall into one "type," while still exhibiting behaviors of the others. Or cultural norms can play a role in how these parenting styles are exhibited. What we're saying here is that while these may be distinct and differing styles, there is nuance.
One style that tends to catch child care experts' eye quite a bit is "permissive parenting," as it's become more common in modern times. Here, we break it down.
What is permissive parenting?
Permissive parenting is accommodating parenting (sometimes even referred to as indulgent parenting). These parents are highly responsive to their children's needs (not a bad thing) but rarely set expectations or boundaries or push personal responsibility. "These parents are highly sensitive and warm, but they don't feel comfortable with boundaries," says Aliza Pressman, Ph.D., co-founding director and director of clinical programming for the Mount Sinai Parenting Center. "These are like your 'best friend' parents."
Licensed psychologist Nicole Beurkens, Ph.D., CNS, agrees: "They rarely say no to their children, tend to use bribes to shape behavior, and don't generally provide much structure," she says. Unfortunately, this parenting style means kids grow up without structure and therefore "struggle with taking responsibility, do more poorly in school, and tend to have self-esteem problems."
How does it compare to the other parenting styles?
The concept of four distinct parenting styles was coined in the '60s by psychologist Diana Baumrind, who studied preschool-age children and their behaviors. She then compared said behaviors with the interaction with the kids' parents: the adult's disciplinary strategies, how nurturing and caring they were in times of duress, how they communicated together, and expectations of maturity and control.
What she found was four styles, those being authoritative, uninvolved, permissive, and disciplinarian (also known as authoritarian). "What it comes down to is where the parent falls on the grid of sensitivity and expectations," says Pressman. "Sensitivity is about warmth and nurturing your child's needs and emotions; expectations are about instilling responsibility in your child and setting boundaries."
Here, a quick recap of the other styles:
- Authoritative: This is generally considered the most comprehensive style of parenting: Parents are highly sensitive and supportive of kids while also providing boundaries, structure, clear expectations, and autonomy.
- Uninvolved: Parents here usually don't have expectations for their children—nor do they provide structure or support. Children raised this way may struggle with developing relationships, academics, and self-esteem.
- Disciplinarian (also known as authoritarian): This is defined as high expectations but low sensitivity. Essentially the parent acts rigid, controlling, and not as responsive to a child's emotional needs. Children who are raised this way are often high achieving but may develop anxiety and chronic stress.
What are the characteristics and examples of permissive parenting?
These are actions that can fall under the permissive parent umbrella—and not all are cause for alarm and certainly not all of the time. Remember: Ideally, parents will find a balance between sensitivity and expectations. Even if you see some of your own choices in the below, you can still balance that out with structure elsewhere: Child-rearing is give-and-take.
- Parents who implement a "no rules" household or offer inconsistent rules.
- They use bribes as incentives to get things done rather than creating weekly chores or implementing punishment.
- This style is often thought of as the "best friend" parent.
- These are not "helicopter" or "snowplow" parents, which are usually more controlling and rigid. Permissive parents tend to pay less attention to academics, extracurricular activities, and so forth (but aren't necessarily inattentive to them—just have less of a focus).
- Let kids make decisions for themselves, which is not always a bad thing but can be if it's not age-appropriate.
How to change permissive parenting habits.
Changing habits is really just about course-correcting, so you implement more structure and clear expectations for your kids. Essentially, you are creating boundaries within the family unit.
"Secure boundaries set by the parent, not negotiated by the child, reduce anxiety. Rules and routines like meal times, bedtimes, homework time, and screen time—that are set and monitored by the parent—create predictability in a child's life. Predictability reduces uncertainty, and that reduces anxiety," notes author and therapist Krissy Pozatek, MSW. "Parents should not value a child's self-expression over a child's sense of security. For example, when a child tries to negotiate a later bedtime, this comes at a cost of the child's sense of security because it allows the child to feel he or she has more power than the adult."
One easy way to do this for children is by setting up household chores and responsibilities with instructions about when and who should complete them.
"It's a really important thing: Research has found that kids who have chores build critical life skills. The point is that they learn how to become contributing members of their household, manage daily self-sufficient life skills that you need as an adult," says author and child care expert Caroline Maguire, M.Ed. "I believe in that kind of citizenship: You are a member of this family unit, and we all help each other out. I am not asking you to do something that I wouldn't do myself. When people grow up and become part of a relationship—be it partner or roommate—you think of others. You don't always just take care of yourself. Chores teach that."
Parenting choices fall on a complex framework between four unique styles. Permissive parenting is when parents have low expectations yet are highly attentive to their kids. While these parents are very sensitive to their kids, the lack of structure may have unintended consequences.
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Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com. In her current role, she covers all the latest trends in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as lifestyle topics, such as travel. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.