Loving Limits: What’s Wrong with Permissive Parenting?
We worked with a mom once who gave her child a piece of candy with his breakfast every morning. She knew it wasn’t a good idea. (Even she was incredulous at her own behavior.) But saying no was too big of a fight, and she wanted to avoid the unpleasantness of a pre-work conflict. She had become a permissive parent.
What Is Permissive Parenting?
Permissive parenting can sometimes be lax and limitless; even with the best of intentions, it can turn into “your-wish-is-my-command” parenting.
Parents fall into permissive parenting for a variety of reasons, many of which come from a well-meaning place.
Parents may hate conflict or don’t want their kids to experience sadness or failure. Parents who were raised by overly strict parents of their own may become permissive in response to their own upbringing. Some may become permissive to compensate for divorce, or because they feel guilty for working too much. And sometimes moms and dads are just too tired to set limits.
With its boundary-free approach, permissive parenting on the surface may feel like the easiest path to peace. But when parents are unwilling or unable to set kind and firm limits, it often has a cost for other people, and the effects of permissive parenting can have consequences for the child as well.
When we focus on parenting with the end in mind (raising a capable, well-adjusted human), it quickly becomes clear why children need limits and boundaries.
The Effects of Permissive Parenting: Why Setting Loving Limits Is Good for Children
1. Allowing children to feel disappointment teaches resilience
How do you want your child to react if, say, they don’t get invited to a birthday party, make the team, or get into the college they want? Permissive parents may have the urge to “fix it” by calling the party host—or the college admissions office. (Yes, it happens!)
But it’s important to allow children to experience disappointment, so that they learn how to cope with difficulty and move through tough situations. A child who doesn’t have the opportunity to experience sadness or disappointment can grow up believing that these feelings are intolerable.
2. Setting limits builds self-discipline
Eventually, your children will have to make choices and set limits for themselves. And the best role model for how to do that is you! When your whole family commits to, say, healthy eating habits or limiting screen time (and when you set limits with love), your child will be more able to successfully set limits for themselves later on. At the end of day, you want your child to grow up to be happy and healthy—and have self discipline!
3. Allowing children to experience tough feelings builds emotional confidence
Setting limits may indeed make your child sad, disappointed, or upset. Those feelings are normal, but feelings pass. By giving your child the opportunity to experience the harder feelings, you’re also giving them the chance to work through them and to realize that feelings are just that—feelings. So increasingly, your child will understand that sadness and anger aren’t the end of the world.
4. Setting limits helps children understand what’s important
Permissive parenting teaches that fleeting feelings and momentary wants drive happiness. Loving limits teach that true satisfaction, happiness, and fulfillment in life come from something larger than a momentary want. Setting loving limits helps children experience the benefits of delaying gratification.
5. Setting limits teaches children consideration for others
When we give in to every whim, children may indeed begin to feel only their wants count: In other words, they can become, well, brats. This can be unpleasant for other people (cue the toddler allowed to play in the restaurant aisles, making it hard for waiters to do their jobs and for other diners to enjoy their meals.)
Think You Might Be a Permissive Parent? Here’s How to Set Limits
1. Pick the limits that really matter to your family
Choose your battles. (In our households, sleep is very important, with good reason: Our children can’t manage their behavior for one to two days afterward if they don’t get enough shut-eye.)
2. Be firm (and loving) with your rules
If your rules aren’t firm, they will turn into guidelines to be considered (maybe). If you say you’re going to bed in five minutes, but it’s more common for 30 minutes to pass before bedtime actually happens, your limits probably need to be strengthened.
3. Accept that big feelings will happen—and it’s okay
A child’s job is to push limits and boundaries, and a parent’s job is to establish those limits lovingly, kindly, and firmly. To give children the confidence to handle their big emotions, you may have to get better at how you handle their big emotions. If a child shows a big reaction to a limit, get in there and say, “I understand your disappointment”—but don’t back down. You can’t “fix” feelings, but you can be there for them. It’s not always easy when a child is having a tantrum, but it’s important that their feelings aren’t driving outcomes.
4. When you find it hard to set limits, remember you’re really giving your child a sense of security
Children feel most secure when someone helps them set safe boundaries and reasonable limits. When we teach children to hold hands in the parking lot, it’s about keeping them physically safe, but it also gives them emotional security.
Limits are really about establishing the size and shape of children’s worlds—and allowing them to have freedom within that safe world. As they grow older, you can expand the size of their container, and as you build trust, respect, and confidence, even let them set the limits for themselves. And that is giving them the confidence they need to navigate the world as happy, healthy, capable adults.