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Is There Anything Wrong With Permissive Parenting?

The role of setting rules and sticking to limits with kids

Published on: December 08, 2022

Two tired looking parents sitting on a couch with two children running in circles around them

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on Aha! Parenting and is republished with permission.

Most parents hate the idea of causing their child to get upset. They don’t want to incite a tantrum, and they certainly don’t want their child to be angry at them. Haven’t we all felt that way? Besides, it’s so hard to know whether what we’re asking is developmentally reasonable. And on top of it all, we’re so tired!

But setting limits is an important part of good parenting. The wants of infants are identical to their needs. But over time, that changes. Toddlers’ wants are often in direct opposition to their long-term developmental needs and safety. When parents don’t recognize that developmental leap and learn to set limits, their children may not develop the ability to tolerate frustration or to manage themselves. These children may be viewed by others as “spoiled.” What the research shows is that when we don’t set limits, kids have fewer opportunities to develop self-discipline.

I believe that kids do need limits for healthy emotional development. Not unreasonable limits, and definitely empathic limits in the context of a strong parent-child connection, but kids do need appropriate limits.

Here are nine limit-setting pitfalls, and what the result may be:

1. The parents grant desires that should not be granted.

Granting kids’ desires may have harmful consequences. For example, allowing a kid to regularly stay up too late results in a cranky and exhausted child who is not up to normal age-appropriate developmental tasks. Not only is the child less pleasant to live with, but the child’s self-esteem suffers because she can’t manage things as other kids do.

2. The child’s desires are met at the expense of others.

The “other” may be a sibling, the parent, the restaurant where the family has gone to dinner, etc. Beyond the impact on the sibling or the restaurant or the parent, this is bad for the child. She learns that she always gets her way in relationships, which of course will make it hard for her to make friends or have satisfying romantic relationships eventually. This is why we think of kids raised permissively as self-centered or spoiled.

3. The child learns that disappointment and sadness are intolerable.

A child may come to believe on some level that her parents will do almost anything not to let her experience disappointment. She then spends the rest of her life doing whatever is necessary to avoid feeling what she fears will be unbearable. Fending off disappointment will necessitate her doing things that end up being destructive to her — possibly including, for instance, avoiding all risks, insisting that she must have her way, or cheating to win. Because she never learns to feel comfortable with her more challenging feelings, she has low EQ — emotional intelligence.

4. The child does not learn to lovingly impose limits on herself.

Imposing limits on oneself is a crucial self-management skill to learn for adulthood or even for high school. The child may never develop self-discipline and thus cannot work at goals, a necessary part of creating a happy life. Permissive parenting sabotages her ability to achieve in life.

5. The child never learns that happiness is not derived from wish fulfillment.

After having one desire met after another, a child may not have the opportunity to learn that happiness, in fact, can be maintained in the face of disappointment. He is likely to spend his life pursuing one “thing” after another that he thinks will make him happy, but ultimately find that happiness eludes him.

6. The child may have a harder time developing stable internal happiness.

A child may not learn that happiness is not dependent on outside circumstance, because she has a harder time developing deep positive regard for herself. What does that mean? Stable internal happiness comes, most simply, from having one’s full range of self accepted and understood, including one’s angry, sad, disappointed self. Parents who act like that part of the child is to be avoided give the message that that part of the child’s self is unacceptable. The takeaway for kids is that they are not fully lovable.

7. Kids need to know that their parents have a different role than they do, which includes keeping them safe.

When people say thing like, “Kids will keep pushing till they find the limits,” this is what they mean. Kids want limits because they want someone to be in charge. It’s pretty terrifying to a child to think that no one is in charge, protecting them from what can be a terrifying world.

8. Permissive parents make compromises about things that are important to them.

For instance, they may let their child treat them badly. Or they may let their child over-indulge in screen time rather than focusing on school work, even though they know it sabotages their child’s academic learning. These compromises make parenting much less rewarding, because the parent sacrifices expectations that are important to them — and would also be beneficial to their child.

9. The permissive parenting style undermines the parent-child relationship.

When children can’t trust that parents can help them with the full range of their emotions, they don’t feel connected to the parent. When a child doesn’t trust that parents will enforce rules that keep the child healthy and safe (“Okay, I guess you don’t have to wear your bike helmet if it makes you that unhappy,” or “Okay, I guess you can spend the night at that party without the parents there”) the child disrespects the parent and becomes more challenging, looking for limits — and proof that he’s actually loved. When a child mistreats the parent, naturally the parent gets angry and resentful and is less nurturing to the child.

But strict limit-setting can be just as rife with pitfalls as overly permissive parenting. Kids thrive when limits are set with empathy. Here’s how.

Click here to watch Dr. Laura’s videos “The Sweet Spot Between Strict And Permissive Parenting” and “What Are the Dangers of Permissive Parenting?”

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on Aha! Parenting and was republished with permission. 

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