Laura Berlinsky-Schine

Have you ever worried that you're going "too easy" on your children? As a growing number of parents today are choosing to emphasize a parenting style that prioritizes explanations and positive reinforcement over traditional discipline, that's a concern many folks are having. Where exactly does one draw the line between humane, progressive values and a harmful lack of order — which, in modern-day speak, is being billed as "permissive parenting"?

What is permissive parenting?

Essentially the opposite of helicopter parenting, permissive parenting is a style in which parents ask few demands of their children while affording them unlimited freedom and indulgences. Originally described by Psychologist Diana Blumberg Baumrind as one of three major parenting styles, along with authoritarian parenting and authoritative parenting, permissive parents are characterized as being “too soft” on their children.

Dr. Blumberg based these styles on parental responsiveness, the degree to which a parent responds to her child’s needs, and parental demandingness, or the amount of responsibility and maturity she expects her child to exhibit. She described the authoritarian parenting style as a high level of demandingness with a low level of responsiveness (overly strict), and permissive parenting style as a low level of demandingness with a high level of responsiveness. Meanwhile, she considered authoritative parenting “just right”: a high level of demandingness and responsiveness. Authoritative parents, she believed, were the ideal to which parents should strive.

While these terms may sound a little clinical to our modern-day ears, the permissive parenting style still exists in many manifestations. You’ve probably seen it: the house that has no rules and plenty of candy where your child occasionally plays; the kid throwing a temper tantrum in the parking lot because he wants ice cream, and the father who buys it for him. Perhaps you even fear that you practice this parenting style yourself sometimes.

Permissive parents are often overly indulgent. This type of parenting style can be harmful to children, since they grow up with few rules and boundaries, and see their parents more as peers than authority figures. Think Lorelei Gilmore in Gilmore Girls.

Are you concerned that your style of parenting is too permissive? Read on for some signs that you might be overly indulging your children and what you can do to peddle back.

What are the consequences of overly indulgent parenting?

Permissive parenting practices have been linked to numerous problems in children that exhibit themselves while they’re growing up and when they reach adulthood. These issues include:

• Poor academic performance and general lack of achievement in many areas
• Behavioral issues, such as throwing frequent temper tantrums or displaying anger when they don’t get what they want
• Lack of self-discipline and motivation
• Poor decision-making
• Aggression and violence
• Insecurity
• Controlling or selfish behavior
• Inability to cope with setbacks
• Poor time-management skills
• Overly high self-esteem or very low self-esteem

Am I too permissive?

No parent is perfect. Everyone has moments when they feel they’ve been too lax or didn’t handle a situation in the best way they could have. If you can think of times you may have been overly indulgent or didn't set firm enough boundaries, you probably don’t need to overthink them. However, if you’ve made your overindulgence a habit, you could be practicing overly permissive parenting. Here are some signs that you might want to adjust how you interact with your kids and respond to their demands:

• You never see your child exhibiting bad behavior, but other people, such as teachers and parents, have commented that they have observed it happening.
• You rarely, or never, punish your children, even when you know they did something wrong.
• You bribe or accommodate your children when they complain or throw temper tantrums, such as giving them what they want despite their poor behavior.
• There are few or no rules in your household; rules that do exist are constantly changing and evolving, and you don’t always enforce them.
• Your children may weigh in on important household decisions; there is no hierarchy.
• You want your child to see you as a friend, rather than an authority figure.
• You don’t want to reprimand your children out of fear of her disliking you.
• Friends of your children describe your household as more relaxed and rule-free than theirs.

If you see yourself in some of these characterizations, you may want to consider setting more boundaries for your children.

How do I assume more authority?

If a lack of authority and control has been a long-brewing problem in your household, you should address it sooner rather than later. You want to ensure that your children recognize that you are the authority figure and adult, and they are the children.

You don’t have to change the way you run your household overnight—in fact you probably shouldn’t. Your kids may not understand and be less receptive if the entire structure–or lack of structure—with which they were familiar is replaced by a new one. Instead, work through the issues and introduce new rules gradually. You may want to start with a discussion about how you, as the parent or parents, are going to be setting some more boundaries and rules. Here are some general guidelines you might follow as you develop new expectations:

• Explain the consequences of your children’s actions when they exhibit poor behavior. You might use examples, such as pointing to a specific time when they hurt a friend’s feelings by refusing to share.
• Create a few simple household rules. Start off with a couple specific chores and instructions your children will need to start follow. Explain why these rules are important and how they will contribute to the family. For instance, you might ask that they put away their toys every day to keep the house tidy for themselves and their parents.
• Describe the possible penalties for breaking the rules. Also make it clear that there may be other consequences and punishments at your discretion. For example, you might say that they won’t be able to watch television if they don’t make their beds in the morning.
• Follow through. Once you’ve outlined the rules and punishments, do what you say you’re going to do. Otherwise, you’re making it clear that the rules don’t acutally mean anything.

Be sure to recognize good behavior, too. This is a way of quashing any fear that you might be turning to an authoritarian parenting style. If your children respond well and make an effort to follow the rules, you might reward them with a treat. Make it clear that they shouldn't expect a reward every time they behave well, though; they should learn to do so without a prize.

Remember: It’s okay to ask for help. No one was born knowing how to be a parent, and nobody is the perfect parent. Sometimes, especially if your children are used to indulgence and a lack of rule-setting, it may be difficult to change the household dynamics.

You may want to seek help from friends or family members who are also parents and whose parenting practices seem to be working well. You could also ask a licensed therapist for assistance. Through family therapy, you can learn tools and strategies for setting limits on your children and your own permissiveness, while still giving your children love and support. Your children, in turn, can learn how to respond to you as an authority figure, cope with the changing dynamics of your household, and understand that sometimes, they will receive punishments for bad behavior, but it doesn’t mean they’re bad people.

Also remember that exerting control and discipline over your children doesn’t mean you love them any less. In fact, setting limits is a demonstration of love, because you’re doing it to help them grow into mature, capable, and confident adults.