78. The Myth of the Permissive Parent

I’d like to try making some dents in what I consider the myth of the permissive parent. In my mind, a permissive parent is someone who lets his/her children do things you wouldn’t let yours do, or at least hasn’t figured out how to stop them yet. What you allow your children to do is so individual that two parents next door to each other may be shaking their heads all the time, disapproving of the absence of limits next door.
Take television (please), for example. Unless you have an active civic association that comes up with strict guidelines, each family has separate rules about when, how long, and which programs children are allowed to watch. If some family has no rules about it, that’s still only one pocket of permissiveness; there may still be limits galore when it comes to other issues.
Benjamin Spock’s name comes up in many people’s minds when they hear the word “permissiveness.” There are people who seem to believe he single-handedly caused the political unrest in the 1960’s by advising parents not to spank their children. If it weren’t for Spock, teenagers would have marched off dutifully to Vietnam instead of marching in picket lines. Personally, though I admire Spock, I think that’s giving him a little too much credit.
I know many parents who set very strict limits without resorting to spanking. I think setting limits is important in all relationships, and I don’t think it’s ever necessary, appropriate, ethical, or ultimately effective to use violence (spanking, for example) to set those limits. If you want to get along with someone, there’s certain behaviors you have to agree to. If not, you have to deal with the consequences. But getting hit should not be one of the consequences.
I think it would be useful to relinquish the label “permissive parent.” It sets up a very arbitrary and unnecessary boundary. If your neighbor allows her/his children to do things you don’t allow your children to do, you can just accept it or engage in dialogue with your neighbor if you think that would be useful. But I’ll bet limits are there, whether you see them or not, and it may even be that your neighbor would like help setting limits, or figuring out where limits should be set.

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