The permissive parenting style: Does it ever benefit kids?

© 2010 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

In a variety of studies, the permissive parenting style has been associated with behavior problems.

For example, Susie Lamborn and colleagues surveyed over 4000 American families and found that adolescents with permissive parents achieved less at school and were more likely to engage in self-destructive activities, like drug or alcohol use (Lamborn et al 1991).

Other studies suggest that adolescent boys raised by permissive parents are more likely to react with intense, negative emotions to social conflicts (Miller et al 2002).

And for very young children? Permissive parenting has been linked with children exhibiting poorer self-control (Piotrowski et al 2013).

But there is conflicting evidence. Consider, for instance, a study of parenting in Spain. Researchers report that permissiveness was associated with strong academic performance and relatively few behavior problems (Garcia and Gracia 2009).

Why the conflict?

Researchers Fernando Garcia and Enrique Gracia argue that social relationships in Spain are less hierarchical than they are in, say, the United States or Japan. Social relationships are more egalitarian.

As a result, parental strictness and control are perceived more negatively in Spain. And if permissiveness is more socially acceptable, then maybe kids raised by permissive parents have an easier time fitting in (Garcia and Gracia 2009).

I don’t know enough about Spain to evaluate this argument. I don’t doubt that culture influences parenting. But American ideology is notably egalitarian, so I’m a bit skeptical.

Instead, I wonder about definitions. There are many ways to be permissive. If I give my child some autonomy about scheduling her chores, is that permissive? If I give my teenager some leeway in setting his own bedtime, is that permissive? Different researchers might have different answers to these questions. 

Different definitions of the permissive parenting style

How your parenting might rate as permissive in one study, and not permissive in another

As I explain elsewhere, the permissive parenting style is defined by two important characteristics. Permissive parents are responsive (which is good) and reluctant to enforce standards of conduct (which is usually not good).

Permissive parenting is frequently contrasted with the authoritative parenting, the gold standard of parenting styles.

Like permissive parents, authoritative parents are responsive. But they are also demanding--i.e., they enforce standards.

That’s not the whole picture. For example, authoritative parents aren’t just demanding. They also reason with their kids, promote independent thinking, and encourage a verbal give-and-take (Baumrind 1966).

But the main point is this:

The difference between permissive parenting and authoritative parenting isn’t about showing affection or meeting a child’s emotional needs. Both styles do that. The difference is about enforcing standards.

So how do researchers decide if a responsive, nurturing parent is “demanding" enough to be considered “authoritative?"

Do you have a permissive parenting style?

How would your teenager answer these questions?

Typically, researchers measure parenting style with questionnaires.

For instance, the Spanish study used the Parental Control Scale, a questionnaire about parental strictness. Teenagers were asked to rate with a four-point scale (1= “almost never true", 4 = “almost always true") their agreement with statements like

“My parent tells me exactly what time to be home when I go out."

“My parent gives me certain jobs to do and will not let me do anything else until they are done."

If a teenager disagrees with such statements, is his parent a pushover? What if parents and kids have a tacit understanding—one that makes lots of specific rules unnecessary? 

Some teens might disagree with these statements, not because their parents are permissive but because their parents don’t need to tell them “exactly what time to be home" or “in exactly what order" to tackle chores. Such teens know their parents expect them to be mature and responsible. They don’t require micro-management to stay out of trouble.

In other words, some teens might disagree with these statements because they have authoritative--not permissive--parents.

In this light, let’s go back to the American study—the one that linked permissive parenting with worse outcomes.

In that study, teens weren’t asked if their parents tell them exactly when to come home. Instead, they were asked

“How much do your parents try to know where you go at night?"

And teens had to rate their agreement with this statement:

“My parent knows exactly where I am most afternoons after school."

Different wording, different connotations.

The statements used in the Spanish study might tell us something about family rules and regulations, but they don’t necessarily distinguish permissive parents from authoritative parents.

It seems possible that the Spanish sample of “permissive" parents included parents who might be classified as “authoritative" in other studies.

So can we conclude that the permissive parenting style is good for Spaniards and bad for Americans?

I doubt it. Instead, we may have evidence that some parents can raise well-behaved, high-achieving adolescents without imposing lots of specific, inflexible rules.

Future studies may prove me wrong--maybe cultural differences can explain the whole thing. But for now, I think it's premature to assume that permissiveness has such markedly different effects in Spain and the United States.

How should we measure permissive parenting?

I don’t do research on the permissive parenting style, so I don’t presume to know what’s best.

But if the permissive parenting style is defined as a failure to enforce age-appropriate behavioral standards, then perhaps we should be looking for parents who routinely

• ignore misconduct (e.g., letting kids get away with deliberate rudeness), and

• give in to a child’s demands when he causes a commotion or throws a tantrum

These criteria have been used in a variety of studies, including studies of parents in Australia, China, Russia, and the United States (Robinson et al 1996). I like the criteria because they address what I think of as the “bottom line"--letting kids get away with doing bad things.

Alternatively, I’ve also seen studies where researchers asked what parents expect from their kids, e.g.,

“My mother really expects me to follow family rules."

Parents with lower expectations were considered more permissive.

Of course, these approaches still leave some grey areas. What counts as bad behavior?

Societies disagree about what is acceptable. For that matter, parents living in the same society may disagree. When it comes to specific practices—like setting bedtimes, controlling access to television, restricting sweets, censoring profanity, or discouraging displays of aggression—policies that seem strict to one family might seem permissive in another.

Does this mean the whole concept of “permissiveness" is hopelessly relative?

I don’t think so. As noted by Nancy Darling and Laurence Steinberg, parenting styles are more than a set of specific practices, policies, or goals. Parenting styles are about the big picture—the kind of relationship you have with your child (Darling and Steinberg 1993).

So when it comes to being diagnosed as a permissive parent, it may not matter if your family’s rules are unusual or different. What really matters is whether or not you expect kids to follow the rules, and how you respond to defiance.

If these criteria were used more consistently, then perhaps there would be less disagreement across studies. Future research may give us the answer.

Meanwhile, one thing is clear. We can’t interpret research about the permissive parenting style unless we know precisely how investigators define and measure permissiveness.

More information

For more information about the permissive parenting style, see these articles: 

For information about other parenting styles, see my articles about authoritative parenting and authoritarian parenting. 

In addition, check out this general overview of the four basic parenting styles,"Parenting styles: A guide for the science-minded."

References: The permissive parenting style

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.

Darling N and Steinberg L. 1993. Parenting style as context: An integrative model. Psychological Bulletin 113(3): 487-496.Garcia F and Gracia E. 2009. Is always authoritative the optimum parenting style? Evidence from Spanish families. Adolescence 44(173): 101-131.

García F and Gracia E. 2009. Is always authoritative the optimum parenting style? Evidence from Spanish families. Adolescence. 44(173):101-31.

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.

Miller JM, Dilorio C, Dudley W. 2002. Parenting style and adolescent’s reaction to conflict: Is there a relationship? J Adolesc Health 31(6): 463-468.

Piotrowski JT, Lapierre MA, 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.

Robinson CC, Hart CH, Mandleco BL, and Olsen SF. 1996. Psychometric support for a new measure of authoritative, authoritarian, and permissive parenting practices: Cross cultural connections. Paper presented in Symposium: New measures of parental child-rearing practices developed in different cultural contexts, XIVth Biennial International Society for the Study of Behavioral Development Conference, Quebec City, Canada, August 12-16, 1996.

Smetana JG. 2008. “It’s 10 o’clock: Do you know where your children are?": Recent advances in understanding parental monitoring and adolescent disclosure. Child Development Perspectives, 2(1), 19-25.

This article about the permissive parenting style is based on research published before February 2014.

Content last modified 2/2014

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