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,
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
As Baumrind notes, permissive parents share some similarities
with authoritative parents. Both types of parent are emotionally
supportive and responsive to their children’s needs and wishes—which is a
good thing. Both types consult kids about policy decisions, which can
be a good thing, too.
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
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
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.
What variables -- demographic or social -- were most highly correlated with self-regulation?
far, the most powerful predictor of problems was
permissive parenting--i.e., having a parent who agreed with statements
"I ignore my child's bad behavior"
"I give in to my child when he/she causes a commotion about something."
Such correlations aren't proof of causation, but the results are consistent with other research:
- In a longitudinal study tracking 281 American children from the
age of 9, researchers found that kids with permissive parents were more
likely to increase levels of aggression over time. This kids with the
best outcomes had authoritative (but not authoritarian) parents
(Underwood et al 2009).
- Other studies have found links
between permissive parenting and
increased alcohol use among teenagers (e.g., Weiss and Schwartz 1996;
Reimuller et al 2011; Lamborn et al 1991), as well as higher rates of
school misconduct and lower levels of academic achievement (Lamborn et
- Permissive parenting has been linked with higher childhood BMIs and lower activity levels (Sleddens et al 2011).
- A recent study of British 10-11 year-olds reports links between
permissiveness and excessive television use. Kids with permissive
parents had 5 times the risk of watching more than 4 hours of television
per day (Jago et al 2011).
So there is a pattern. But there are exceptions.
For example, it’s not clear that permissiveness is always
inferior to authoritative parenting. A recent Spanish study found no
differences between teenagers raised by permissive or authoritative
parents (Garcia and Gracia 2009).
Nor is permissive, indulgent parenting always linked with good emotional health.
For example, a study of Palestinian Arabs found that boys with
permissive parents were more likely to suffer from low self esteem,
anxiety, and depression (Drairy 2004).
And a study tracking American kids for over 10 years found that
some children--preschoolers who were behaviorally inhibited--were more
likely to develop anxiety and depression if they were raised by
permissive parents (Williams et al 2009).
Why do different studies report conflicting results?
It may be that parenting styles have different effects depending on the local culture (Chao 1994).
But I wonder if something else is going on, too.
While most researchers cite Baumrind’s definition of permissive parenting, there are many ways to measure permissiveness. And different measurements might lead to different outcomes.
For instance, it seems possible that a parent who is typed as
“permissive" in one study might be labeled as “authoritative" in
another. As I argue elsewhere,
I suspect this might explain the results of the Spanish study.
So how we measure permissiveness matters. The question is...how do researchers measure permissive parenting?
How do we identify a permissive parent?
Terms like “responsive" or “demanding" are a bit vague. So
researchers need a set of objective, measurable criteria to diagnose a
Very often, this means using questionnaires. People are asked to
indicate how much they agree or disagree with a series of statements,
“I ignore my child’s bad behavior"
“I give in to my child when he or she causes a commotion about something"
“I bribe my child with rewards to get him to comply with my wishes"
The answers are tallied. The parent who gets the right score is labeled “permissive."
That’s pretty straightforward, but there’s a catch: Researchers
don’t always use the same questions, and the precise wording of
questions can vary in important ways.
As a result, it’s not clear that different studies are measuring the same thing.
It’s also unclear how closely some researchers are sticking to Baumrind’s original definition.
When I read Baumrind’s original model--proposed back in the
1960s--I’m struck by how moderate her permissive parents sound. It’s
ironic, because her purpose was to refute the claims of permissive
ideologues, and her arguments are persuasive. Yet Baumrind’s permissive
parents don’t sound like people who
routinely let their kids get away with bad behavior--not, at any rate,
behavior that I find really objectionable, like deliberate rudeness or
violations of other people’s rights and feelings.
Instead, Baumrind’s permissive parents sound more like radical
democrats. People who believe that parents and kids should exercise
Is this radical egalitarianism truly inferior to authoritative
parenting? Maybe. But I wonder if the evidence against permissive
parenting is really evidence against a more extreme form of permissive
parenting, the style of parenting that lets kids get away with
irresponsible or antisocial behavior.
For example, consider a
family where the kids are expected to be polite and helpful, but given a
lot of leeway about other things, like the tidiness of their private
spaces, the kinds of snacks they eat, or their bedtime arrangements. To
controlling parents, these homes might seem very permissive. But the
kids aren't being given free reign. They're being granted autonomy in a
few, key areas. Will the kids be worse off for it?
the kids make consistently bad choices. Kids might end up eating too
many nutrient-poor, energy-dense treats, for instance (Hennessy et al
2012). Or stay up too late at night.
But if kids end up making
mostly responsible choices, they may suffer little or no cost for their
occasional lapses, and have learned important life lessons about
Moreover, it seems likely that certain kinds of permissiveness give kids a distinct advantage. As I argue in this blog post,
kids are more likely to develop as innovative, creative, critical
thinkers when we let them experiment and tinker. If you want to raise a
scientist, let your child ask offbeat questions, get dirty, and take
So before we denounce permissive parenting, we need to ask: "Permissive about what?"
For general information about Baumrind's four parenting styles, see my article, "Parenting Styles: A guide for the science-minded."
For more information about permissive parents, check out these articles:
References: Permissive parenting
Baumrind D. 1966. Effects of authoritative parental control on child behavior. Child Development, 37(4), 887-907.
Baumrind D. 1991. The influence of parenting style on adolescent
competence and substance use. Journal of Early Adolescence 11(1): 56-95.
Chao RK. 1994. Beyond parental control and authoritarian
parenting style: understanding Chinese parenting through the cultural
notion of training. Child Dev. 65(4):1111-9.
Dwairy M. 2004. Parenting styles and mental health of
Palestinian-Arab adolescents in Israel. Transcult Psychiatry.
Garcia F and Gracia E. 2009. Is always authoritative the optimum
parenting style? Evidence from Spanish families. Adolescence 44(173):
Hennessy E, Hughes SO, Goldberg JP, Hyatt RR, Economos CD. 2012. Permissive
parental feeding behavior is associated with an increase in intake of
low-nutrient-dense foods among American children living in rural
communities. J Acad Nutr Diet 112(1):142-8.
Jago R, Davison KK, Thompson JL, Page AS, Brockman R, Fox KR.
2011. Parental Sedentary Restriction, Maternal Parenting Style, and
Television Viewing Among 10- to 11-Year-Olds. Pediatrics. 2011 Aug 22.
[Epub ahead of print]
Lamborn SD, Mants NS, Steinberg L, and Dornbusch SM. 1991.
Patterns of competence and adjustment among adolescents from
authoritative, authoritarian, indulgent, and neglectful families. Child
Development 62: 1049-1065.
Maccoby EE and Martin JA. 1983. Socialization in the context of
the family: Parent–child interaction. In P. H. Mussen (ed) and E. M.
Hetherington (vol. ed.), Handbook of child psychology: Vol. 4.
Socialization, personality, and social development (4th ed., pp. 1-101).
New York: Wiley.
Piotrowski JT, Lapierre MA, and Linebarger DL. 2013. Investigating
Correlates of Self-Regulation in Early Childhood with a Representative
Sample of English-Speaking American Families. J Child Fam Stud. 22(3):423-436.
Reimuller A, Hussong A, Ennett ST. 2011. The Influence of
Alcohol-Specific Communication on Adolescent Alcohol Use and
Alcohol-Related Consequences. Prevention Science. 2011 Jun 11. DOI:
10.1007/s11121-011-0227-4 [Epub ahead of print]
Rothrauff TC, Cooney TM, and An JS. 2009. Remembered parenting
styles and adjustment in middle and late adulthood. J Gerontol B Psychol
Sci Soc Sci. 64(1):137-46.
Sleddens EF, Gerards SM, Thijs C, de Vries NK, and Kremers SP.
2011. General parenting, childhood overweight and obesity-inducing
behaviors: a review. International Journal of Pediatric Obesity
Türkel YD, Tezer E. 2008. Parenting styles and learned resourcefulness of Turkish adolescents. Adolescence. 43(169):143-52.
Underwood MK, Beron KJ, Rosen LH.2009. Continuity and change in
social and physical aggression from middle childhood through early
adolescence. Aggress Behav. 2009 Sep-Oct;35(5):357-75.
Weiss LH and Schwarz JC. 1996. The relationship between parenting
types and older adolescents' personality, academic achievement,
adjustment, and substance use. Child Development 67(5): 2101-2114.
Williams LR, Degnan KA, Perez-Edgar KE, Henderson HA, Rubin KH,
Pine DS, Steinberg L, Fox NA. 2009. Impact of behavioral inhibition and
parenting style on internalizing and externalizing problems from early
childhood through adolescence. J Abnorm Child Psychol. 37(8):1063-75.
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