Family researchers have known for years that healthy families create environments that balance large doses of love and warmth with sufficient firmness and structure. Kids thrive in these settings. Without love and warmth they tend to feel abandoned and resentful, and without firmness and structure they will often become anxious and/or have behavior problems.
Over the past fifty years, families of all socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds have become significantly more soft or permissive than in the past. In part this shift is seen as a reaction to the overly stern or authoritarian parenting dealt out by previous generations, as is reflected in the often-uttered statement “I’ll never treat my kids the way I was brought up!” Other permissive parents grew up in families where their own parents were also too permissive.
One explanation links today’s increased permissiveness to current economic stresses. As both mothers and fathers spend extra hours working outside the home, they have less time to be with their kids. The guilt stemming from this shortage of family time, and from divorce as well, often prompts parents to be more lenient—an understandable but unhelpful means of compensating.
Although being together as a family is important, the quantity of time devoted to it is not nearly as crucial as the quality of interactions and the methods of discipline we use. In most families where kids are misbehaving, the hierarchy is upside down, with the kids wielding more power than their parents.
When asked why they allow their children to wield so much power over them, many parents say that discipline will injure their child’s self-esteem. In reality, letting children get away with too much can be as damaging to their feelings of self-worth as being too strict. When kids have too much power, they become anxious about the impulses they cannot control, and as a result they feel bad about themselves and guilty about the pain they are causing.
Another pattern of permissiveness often develops when parents feel sorry for a child and proceed to allow inappropriate behavior. One mom realized in therapy that she had relaxed the rules too much with her eight-year-old daughter because of recent family traumas. The parents’ divorce was immediately followed by the loss of their home in a wildfire. The child had lots of feelings about losing her family and all of her possessions, but was also acting out as a way of testing boundaries. Receiving more limits and structure dramatically helped to lessen her anxieties.
Permissiveness can also stem from a parent’s fear of making waves. Some adults are simply conflict avoidant. This can be due to many factors—our temperament (more on this later), our upbringing, our cultural backgrounds or religious beliefs. For some parents it’s too important to be their child’s best friend. One thing that helps these parents is to find social support and more of a life outside the family. It’s better not to have all of your emotional eggs in one basket. We have a favorite adage about this dilemma:
If your child isn’t upset with you sometimes, you probably aren’t setting enough limits.
Although parents should be in charge, this doesn’t mean that they deserve respect but their children don’t. Respect must flow in both directions. Children who feel respected and understood for their feelings, in turn, listen better to their parents— not like little robots or phony people pleasers, but also not like defiant insurrectionists.
No child can be expected to do exactly what mom or dad says the very first time they say something. Children are still children, and it is part of their nature to stretch limits, test, and experiment with the world around them. However, parents in healthy families know that they can enforce their requests, and when they really mean it, their child will comply.