Lately I've been hearing a lot about a style of parenting called "Permissive Parenting," and upon searching it, I learned that according to researchers the style is mainly defined by two key traits. The first trait listed is that permissive parents are generally very nurturing and warm. Well, that's a good thing, right? I'm a lovey dovey person, so nurturing and warm sounded right up my alley. But the second trait was less attractive: permissive parents are reluctant to impose limits on their children. That sounded very bad and so foreign to what I knew. I was raised by what researchers today might consider "authoritative with a slice of authoritarian" parents. My siblings and I received a lot of love, support, and opportunity from our parents, but we also knew that we better rep well for our family, and better not disobey or disrespect and most of all shame our parents. We knew the rules and we kept them. Oh my gosh, we kept them. Same goes for my British husband — he was raised in a similar fashion.
My husband and I are not nearly as disciplined in our parenting as our parents were. We do demand responsible behavior from our kids, but we give in more than our parents did, and slip up a lot more often. But even if we are a bit more lax than we'd sometimes like to be, we still impose plenty of boundaries, set lots of limits, and say "no" and things like, "over my dead body," and "check yourself before you wreck yourself" a lot. We're both snuggly, warm, and loving people so there are a lot of hugs and smooches and words of encouragement swirling around our home, but we also want to raise kids who feel comfortable making mistakes every now and then. We believe in letting our kids make decisions for themselves, but to let them make decisions completely unguided without any notion of limits? To give our kids the title of "shot caller"? Um. No. So why do people tout the benefits of permissive parenting? Was I missing something? To be totally honest, I wanted to find out.
Like I mentioned, I grew up with strict rules and firm boundaries, pretty much the opposite of what permissive parenting prescribes. Much was expected of my siblings and me, and we were greatly rewarded for our positive actions with love and encouragement. Though I was generally happy in my life as a high achiever and very rule-abiding child, I always wondered what it'd be like to not have any boundaries, have the same freedom as grown-ups, and to live life without a wall in front of me at all times.
Of course, now that I'm a parent, I pretty much know exactly how the "no boundaries" thing will play out, and it doesn't seem pretty. Even so, I was still curious. So I decided to conduct a little experiment and try permissive parenting, imposing no limits or demands on my kids for a week.
Here's how it went down, and what I learned from the process.
Permissive Parenting Is Not For Control Freaks
On the first day, it was nearly impossible for me to let go of my need to control. My daughter wanted to pull a roll of bubble wrap out of the drawer. So I started off with the usual, "Stella! Put it back. I don't want you wasting that!" (I needed to use it to send a package) but then I remembered the experiment. Relax, it's just bubble wrap, I told myself. "OK," I said, "go ahead, babe. Do what you want with it." By that time she'd already put the wrap back, shut the drawer, and was well on to the next activity. I felt like I'd missed my window to allow Stella to act without my adult-imposed boundaries. But she seemed so fine moving on to something else. This is weird, I thought. Then I got weird. "WAIT! No, hey Stella, go play with the bubble wrap." I was desperate for her to feel like she could what she wanted. She was so already over it that she didn't even know to what I was referring.
Go ahead and play with the bubble wrap.
Stella stood looking at me with a half-smile, half-scared look on her face. She surely thought it was either a test or a trick, and she was waiting for the next clue. After I all but demanded that she play with the bubble wrap, she dashed like lightning back to the drawer scrambling to pull out the bubble wrap before I was no longer possessed by some strange, rule-breaking, freakishly obsessed with bubble wrap weirdo. Then it hit me: Did I just demand that she play with bubble wrap? Yes. Yes, I did, and it was not very permissive parenting of me. I had to remind myself that this experiment was about letting my kids establish their own boundaries, and the first step to that was me letting go of control.
I shook it off and encouraged unadulterated, boundary-less bubble wrap play. It was fun. We made Stella a skirt 24 ways with that one long piece of bubble wrap, and then we popped those little bubbles to our hearts' content. This isn't so bad, I thought. And for a few minutes, I wondered if this would be one of those experiments that makes me see the errors of my current ways, and that helps me relax as a parent a little bit more.
Toddlers Adapt Immediately
And then, in the midst of all the bubble wrap euphoria, Stella asked me for "a little treat." My kid is smart. She saw an opening, and she was gonna take it. I'd let her play with the bubble wrap — so what else could she get?
It was nearly lunchtime, and she's a poor eater as it is. "A little treat" in Stella-speak means candy, chocolate, or cookies. I looked at her wearing her bubble wrap wrap skirt and a hopeful grin. Oh, why the hell not. I poured her a small bowlful of M&Ms. Stella clearly saw the difference in my actions and reactions, and I was excited to really be embodying the permissive part of this experiment. What cracked me up the most was that Stella didn't wait for an explanation. She moved ahead requesting "treats" and turning her nose up at "not treats" because this weird, possessed version of her wasn't demanding that she eat her veggies or fruit, and Possessed Mommy certainly wasn't getting pissed off when she refused to eat them. She loved it, and in away, so did I.
Whenever I agreed to something I normally don't agree to or showed no signs of discipline when I'd catch her doing something I usually get upset about, Stella would look 30 percent bewildered and 100 percent excited, ready to scoop up whatever authority I'd just left up for grabs.
Me? Not So Much
Two days of bubble wrap-wearing and M&M-eating quickly turned into limitless possibilities for a 3 year old, and mine sensed the opportunity to reign supreme, like a lion in the Serengeti, and I was a knobby-legged wildebeest. You know, the one that got confused and somehow separated from the stampede and is galloping around aimlessly, scared as hell.
So far this experiment, coupled with Stella's confidence and take-charge attitude, left me wide open for the proverbial kill. And she quickly pounced on me. I allowed my 3 year old to do whatever she wanted (with the exception of anything that would be physically harmful) and I found myself pinned down and helpless with my self-imposed bonds of no boundaries parenting.
I was beginning to realize just how quickly permissive parenting was becoming my undoing. By going with the flow, Stella controlled the flow, and I was feeling completely helpless.
My Son Really Milked It
Over in another corner, my 13-year-son was happily pushing the boundaries, but not completely abandoning them. He's got the advantage — nearly a decade on his younger sister — so he's pretty aware of what it means to following our house and family rules at this point.
On the first day of the experiment, I agreed to let Evan not only get a canister of weird-flavored Pringles, but let him eat them in his bed. Gross. But even more significantly, I let Evan watch the Patriot's play the Broncos, and because we live in Hong Kong, game time was 4 a.m. on a school morning. I bit my tongue and grimaced at the thought of him trying to focus in school so sleep-deprived that day, but I said yes regardless. And just like my daughter, my son was all about stretching the limits on exactly what I'd say yes to.
Evan pushed his bedtime to 10:30 that evening before the game, woke himself up at 4, watched the game, and got ready and out the door for school on time. Maybe this experiment was going to show me that he is even more mature and independent than we thought, and maybe letting him take a little bit more ownership or what he's capable of might actually be a good thing. Or maybe he just knew that to keep these crazy, extreme privileges coming, he'd better show good behavior.
Whatever it was, it worked.
Kids Need Limits
For the first three or four days, Evan handled our lawless household fairly well, doing his best to keep some structure in place for himself. Sure, there was the occasional departure from his normal screen-time allowance and the no-sitting-on-the-couch-to-eat rule. But it was bedtime where he took all liberties. On the fifth night, after bedtime had been pushed incrementally for nearly a week, I woke to go to the bathroom and noticed that Evan was still awake on his computer at 3 a.m.!
I couldn't help myself: I pushed open that door and demanded that he shut down his computer and get to sleep. He seemed relieved to see the old me. And frankly, it felt good to tell my son what to do, especially when it was in his best interest. Going to bed at 3 a.m. as a 13 year old is really pushing it. I realized that I didn't mind making small allowances for him to do things every now and then, but staying up this late on a school night just didn't make sense. He'd be tired, cranky, likely falling asleep in class, and it would turn our entire routine upside down. More than anything, though, was the fact that an all-nighter when you're a teen just isn't healthy, mentally or physically. So I just that sh*t down immediately.
Did Permissive Parenting Work For Us?
It's fine for a day or even a few days, but all in all, permissive parenting, in my experience, is a fast track to everyone losing their marbles. It started out alright, and even felt kind of fun to see the surprised, excited looks on my kids' faces, but when I continued past the momentary vacation from the rules, everything became chaotic and depressing — not just for me, for everyone involved.
On my end, I didn't like feeling like a pushover, and that's how I felt my kids saw me. I wanted to be seen and felt as a figure of authority, a protector, the parent! I felt lazy and actually worried about all the time I'd have to spend reversing the damage a week of permissive parenting had done — all the behavioral issues and bad habits that were quickly forming and gaining power.
In addition, allowing my kids to do whatever they wanted with little or no consequence blurred the parent-child relationship and put us more on par with one another. My kids started to feel as though they had implicit permission to do whatever I was able to do. I caught my daughter on my computer without permission one evening. I even had to quell a tantrum one morning when I wouldn't let my daughter wear makeup, just like me. And my son was starting to test limits with movies and music. For our weekly movie night, every movie he suggested we watch was rated R, something he knew was not an option for him.
I did notice that my relationships with my kids even started to change a bit, though. They still found me fun, loving, and encouraging, but according to Dr. Laura Markham, kids, especially very young kids, want someone to guide them through decision making and emotions. As early as day two, Stella would start to fuss and even cry out of the blue while doing something she'd normally consider fun and demand that she either go to sleep or that she needed a Band-Aid. Even though I was giving her all the attention she requested as a playmate, she presented scenarios in which I'd be forced to shift back to the authoritative, protector role by way of putting her down to bed or taking care of her "injury." I couldn't help but think that she was crying out of frustration. I pretty much wanted to end my full commitment to permissive parenting the second I realized that Stella was having a hard time.
To each their own, and perhaps those who choose this method of parenting have better luck with the results and more positive experiences coming out of it. When I first started the experiment, I tried to reason that I was just giving my kids permission to be kids! But I didn't realize that my kids aren't ready to self-regulate yet because they're just kids. And beyond that, they have the decision-making ability of a kid. Plus, sometimes they're just little assh*les. And I realized I'm just not into giving my kids the power to do and act however the hell they want with such limited consequences. As someone who's always been skeptical of permissive parenting, I can now say I gave it a shot, and it's been made abundantly clear that we all do better with boundaries.