Just What Is Permissive Parenting?

When Robin Malone* of Edgemont and her 17-year-old son were on a college tour, he spent the night with a friend and staggered into Malone’s car the next morning, cradling his head. 

“Mom…I’m so hung over,” he admitted, bracing himself for punishment.

Instead, Malone said, “I’ll get you a Coke and some Advil.” And then she added, “Not a great feeling, is it?”

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“I didn’t want to punish him,” Malone recalls. “I felt that being hung over and feeling awful was punishment enough. In fact, I’m glad he had a couple of drinks now, rather than going crazy as a freshman in college. If that’s permissive, it’s also realistic and safety-conscious.” 

But Cindy Gecaj, a senior at Horace Greeley High School, says her parents would mete out punishment for an evening unaccounted for. 

“They’d rather I go to the city for the day than go to a guy’s house,” she says. “If I’m in constant contact with them, they’re more relaxed; but if I’m out till 2
am and I don’t say why or where I was, they take away a privilege.”

Those sweet elementary-school days, with their DARE t-shirts and parades, can seem laughably naïve when “kids at 14 are watching celebrities snort coke on YouTube,” then seeing other kids go to parties, drink beer, and smoke pot,” says Alexander Lerman, MD, a psychiatrist at Northern Westchester Hospital and director of residency training at Westchester Medical Center. “The rate of drug use among Westchester teenagers, by the time they are seniors in college, is 50 percent. For parents, it’s challenging to know what to do.” 

Plus, according to Dr. Lerman, prescriptions for ADHD stimulants—quite common in affluent Westchester, where “if you have a 95 average, you’re not getting into Yale”—have gone up 700 percent.  

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Add to these stats the seismic pressure of a culture in which parents act, dress, and talk like their child’s friends—not mothers and fathers—in a bid to be the “chill mom” or “hip dad,” feeding their egos and perhaps giving them the chance to relive their adolescence.  

Malone admits to allowing her son’s girlfriend to spend the night in his room, noting that they have been in a two-year relationship. “They’re doing it anyway; it might as well be in his bed and not in the backseat of a car,” she says. “Especially in Westchester, are we going to shelter kids and then send them into the world without knowing about drinking, drugs, or sex? I’d rather they explore all that here first, in the comfort of home.”

But Christina Leone* of Mount Kisco doesn’t necessarily agree with that rationale. “There are a lot of things kids want to explore, and maybe they’re not ready to explore them yet,” she says. “I’m not going to drink  with my son or allow him to drink at home so that he doesn’t do it behind my back. Do people really think if they allow risky behaviors at home, their kids won’t do it outside? They’ll do it at home and outside.”  

Dr. Lerman says that teens can misunderstand parental behavior as a ‘green light’ for reckless activity. “Parents who are acting like teenagers in front of their children may have trouble exercising authority as adults two hours later,” he says. That includes taking such risks as texting while driving. 

On the other hand, he says, overly strict parents “sometimes get involved in a power struggle with their kids; and as soon as the child perceives the parent as trying to win a spitting contest, the game is over.”  

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It’s important to deal with reality, so “total abstinence—‘you’re grounded for six months!’—is an unwise model,” Dr. Lerman explains. “It’s unrealistic.” By the same token, “letting your child have a beer keg in the backyard is like buying them a high-performance sports car—abdicating your parental role. Do you really expect your child to exercise good judgment?”

Barbara Ressler*, a guidance counselor at a Westchester high school, says she knows from experience that kids will find a way to use alcohol and drugs. “In fact, if you’re too strict, the child will lie to their parents or find a way to drink anyway,” she says.

Ressler says she took a pragmatic tactic with her daughters, now in their early 30s. “I told them: ‘If you drink too much, you’ll pass out and die; and if you vomit, that’s pretty disgusting, too.’” After pondering the consequences, her daughters and their friends developed a detailed chart with a carpool system; each driver would not only remain sober, but would also take responsibility for the people in her car.

“She was not happy the first time her friend puked in her car,” says Ressler of her older girl. “And so they really policed each other. Would I have preferred they not drink at all? Of course. But I know it’s a rite of passage. I wasn’t condoning it, but I did turn my back once I knew they’d be safe. Because I knew forbidding it was not going to work.” And yet when Ressler left on a quick errand one Friday evening, and returned to a party raging in her basement—word of a parent-free house had spread quickly—she grounded her daughter on the spot. “I told her, ‘You have to feel the pain, and your friends have to see you feeling it,’” Ressler explains.  

One challenge with teenagers, says Leone, is that, “logic doesn’t work. Showing them statistics about drug abuse or unwanted pregnancies doesn’t work. They’re driven by hormones and by what they want. If what they want happens to coincide with what is good for them, that’s a bonus.”

For many parents, the idea of their teens engaging in risky behavior can trigger a tidal wave of anxiety. But, experts say, silence—avoiding discussions completely—can be read as the ultimate in permissiveness. 

“My son and I are very close and talk candidly about everything,” says Leone. “Sex, drugs, the whole shebang. I don’t expect him to be a monk. But my feeling is, you’re not staying out till three in the morning or going to an all-night party in the city because I need you to ‘like’ me. I’m his mother and I love him; I’m not going to allow him to do something that I know is bad for him because I want to be popular.” 

Without a doubt, “parents must talk to their kids about drugs, alcohol, and sex,” says Martha Mendez-Baldwin, PhD, an assistant professor at Manhattan College who runs self-esteem workshops for children in Dobbs Ferry and the Bronx. “Studies show that kids who have open discussions with their parents are less likely to engage in risky behaviors than kids whose parents do not talk to them about these issues. It is normal for teens to be curious, and it’s better they get their information from you than from other kids who may be misinformed, or from the Internet.”

Even after you’ve talked and talked, you still need to be vigilant about guiding your children. “Just because they nod and say, ‘yes, Mom, I understand’ does not mean you’re free and clear,” says Leone. “I figure that if we have 50 conversations and one of them resonates, that’s at least a good start. It’s not wise for a parent to have the ‘not my kid’ mindset.”

Should parents “own up” to having used drugs or alcohol? Experts disagree, with some recent studies saying parents should not admit to previous drug use. “I personally think that some measure of honesty is preventative against the lies and hypocrisy that surround substance abuse,” says Dr. Lerman. “Speaking from experience about drugs and their consequences is more persuasive than saying, “No, I never did this; neither should you.’”

Gejac, the senior at Horace Greeley, says her parents “are more like friends, sometimes” when she shares openly with them—like the time she stayed out till 4 am shuttling her drunken friends home. Many parents over time become more relaxed over curfew, co-ed sleepovers, or M-rated video games, rationalizing that good grades have earned children the right to bend the rules.

Mendez-Baldwin isn’t so sure. “If you set a rule and then change it, kids learn rules are flexible and can be worked around—not a good life lesson.”

Is there a middle ground? 

Scarsdale psychologist Kristi Bracchitta, PhD, on “permissive” vs. “authoritaritan” parenting.

If we think about parenting along two dimensions—degree of warmth and degree of control—we can define permissive parenting as high in warmth and low in control, with parents reluctant to set limits and preferring the child make choices for himself. But the 10-year-old who wants to stay out until midnight may not be able to think abstractly about the consequences, and may need adult intervention to help guide their choices. If children do not learn boundaries and limits at a younger age, they may not be able to set limits for themselves as they get older. 

The same line of thinking can be applied to the opposite type of parenting, sometimes termed ‘authoritarian’: a parent who is low on warmth and high on control. When a child is given the rules and the limits in life without explanation, they are not learning to make their own decisions and, therefore, may not be as self-reliant.  The middle ground can exist and that is to be warm but firm. Help a child to explore and think about the consequences of certain behaviors. Help her to understand the limits and why they exist. This can foster more self-reliance and self-regulation. It can start from an early age with seemingly simple things, like making healthy food choices. This way, by the time the child reaches adolescence, they have the tools necessary to make better decisions.

*Names changed to protect privacy

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