Permissive Parenting is not Gentle Parenting

Photography: Tara Samuelson Photography |

By Megan Stonelake

What assumptions are conjured up by phrases like “gentle parenting” and “empathic parenting?” It’s possible that you think of parents who intentionally and peacefully set respectful limits with their children. It’s just as likely that your mind returns to a recent trip to the park where you watched a young child hit other children while her mom or dad halfheartedly told her not to, making no effort to stop the behavior. The former is what gentle parenting actually looks like; the latter is permissive parenting.

What is Permissive Parenting? 

In her book The Mindful Parent​, Dr. Charlotte Peterson describes permissive parents as those who, “…plead, bribe, and make requests” when a limit needs to be set. Parents who act permissively often have very good intentions but lack the boundaries required to follow through. Permissive parenting can be a reaction to a parent’s own childhood experience of punitive, authoritarian parenting. In an effort to avoid propagating the pain they experienced as children, these parents instead fail to provide appropriate limits. Permissive parenting can also occur when parents are primarily concerned with being liked by their children. Such parents fear that telling their child “no” will negatively impact the relationship, when setting limits with respect actually strengthens the parent/child bond.

Such parents fear that telling their child “no” will negatively impact the relationship, when setting limits with respect actually strengthens the parent/child bond.

The issue with permissive parenting that most people identify is that it produces selfish, entitled children. This is probably true, but I would argue that self-centeredness could be a defense mechanism. The true problem with permissive parenting is that it causes anxiety and inhibits emotional intelligence. In Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids, Dr. Laura Markham explains, “…parents who use this style often give their children the message that disappointment, frustration, and other upsetting emotions must be avoided at all costs…this parenting approach tends to raise kids who are self-centered, anxious, and not very resilient.” Children don’t want to be in charge. When we thrust them into this role, they don’t feel safe and anxiety ensues.

Authoritarian Parenting

Authoritarian parenting, on the other hand, demands absolute compliance. With little regard for the long-term goal of raising successful people, authoritarian parents are focused on the immediate goal of compliance, regardless of the context or situation.

In his book Unconditional Parenting, Alfie Kohn points out that many parents believe that the only two options available to us are permissive parenting and authoritarian parenting: “If I had to identify a single belief system that most prominently drives the use of questionable parenting strategies, it would be the tendency to assume there are only two ways to raise children. You can do this or you can do that, and since one option is obviously unappealing, you’re left with the other (which invariably involves some kind of control)…in effect, traditional discipline is contrasted with permissiveness. Either I punish my child or else I let her ‘get away with’ whatever she did. Either I take a hard line or I draw no line at all.”

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