Permissive parenting:

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 I 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? And 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.

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,

  • Authoritative parents 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 nurturing.

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 outcomes.

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 studied a nationally representative sample of more than 1000 young American kids, (ages 2-8), they examined a wide range of demographic and parenting variables to learn what factors predict deficits in self-regulation -- that packaged of abilities that permits kids to control their impulses, stay focused, manage their moods, and execute plans.

By far, the most powerful predictor of self-regulation problems was permissive parenting, i.e., having a parent who agreed with statements like "I ignore my child’s bad behavior” and “I give in to my child when he/she causes a commotion about something" (Piotrowski et al 2013).

Such correlational studies are never conclusive, 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 al 1991).
  • 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 parent’s style.

Very often, this means using questionnaires. People are asked to indicate how much they agree or disagree with a series of statements, like

“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 equal power.

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.

Whatever the case, one thing seems obvious. Before we draw conclusions from any given study, we need to know exactly how researchers defined and measured permissive parenting.

More information

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:



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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. 41(2):233-52.

Garcia F and Gracia E. 2009. Is always authoritative the optimum parenting style? Evidence from Spanish families. Adolescence 44(173): 101-131.

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 6(2-2):e12-27.

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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