The Permissive Approach

Permissiveness emerged in the 1960s and 1970s as a reaction against the hurtful and autocratic nature of the approach. Many parents were looking for a more respectful method of raising children based on the democratic principles of freedom, equality and mutual respect.

Putting these principles into practice however was not as easy as it sounded. This was uncharted territory for those who grew up with the punitive model. How do you do it? Is it a simple matter of relaxing your rules and expectations and giving children more freedom and control? That’s what many parents tried but the experiment backfired because a vital ingredient was left out – firm limits.

Freedom without limits is not a democracy. It is anarchy and children raised with anarchy don’t learn respect for rules and authority or how to handle their freedom responsibly. They tend to think of themselves first and have an exaggerated sense of their own power and authority.

Let’s return to the sibling conflict and see how this problem is handled from the permissive approach.

As the parent arrives on the scene the children are fighting for control of the couch.

Mom: Hey guys I don’t like all this yelling and screaming. It sounds like a battle zone around here. (she walks out of the room, but the quarrel continues)

Mom: (Entering the room once again, annoyed) Did you guys hear what I said? Would you keep all the noise down and stop all the hassling? Okay? (She leaves but the quarrel continues)

Mom: (Entering the room a third time) How many times do I have to tell you? Do you think I enjoy repeating myself? Can’t you guys be nice to each other for a change? I can’t stand living in a house where people argue and shout all the time! Some day, you will regret the way you are treating each other. Now please, try and get along! (the quarrel continues)

Brother: I was sitting here, and she kicked me.

Mom:(Angered) If you both were on your own sides of the couch there wouldn’t be a problem which means that one of you must be lying. Tell me the truth. Who was really on the other side of the couch?

Sister: His feet were on my side. When he tried to kick me I kicked him back.

Mom: Why don’t you guys take turns sharing the couch?

Brother:Okay, it’s my turn first. (He places his feet on the edge of the couch, taunting his sister)

Sister: No, it’s my turn first. (She places her feet on the far edge of her side, nearly touching her brother)

Mom: (Exasperated and yelling) That’s it! I have had it with you two. (She threatens to turn the TV off and tells the kids to get off the couch until they decide to cooperate)

Brother: That’s not fair! We didn’t do anything wrong.

Sister: Yeah, we were just sitting here.

Mom: No, you were about to start a fight.

Brother: We were just playing.

Sister: Yeah.

Mom: If you both promise to keep your feet to yourself and stay on your own side, you can stay on the couch with the TV on.

Brother: I promise.

Sister: I promise too.

Mom: Good, no more fighting okay? I really mean it. (Within minutes, the quarrel

Brother: She kicked me harder this time.

Sister: He kicked me first.

Mom: Okay, if fighting is the only thing you know how to do then go ahead and battle it out but do it quietly. (She leaves exasperated)


Permissive parents constantly shift gears and use different verbal tactics to convince and persuade children to cooperate. The underlying belief is that kids will cooperate when they understand that cooperation is the right thing to do.

The assumption generally holds for compliant children but not for strong willed children who require more than words to be convinced. Permissive methods involve a lot of repeating, reminding, warning, second chances, reasoning, explaining, pleading, cajoling, lecturing, arguing, bargaining, debating, negotiating, compromising and other forms of persuasion.


Consequences or actions, if they are used at all, are typically late and ineffective. Basically, it’s lots of words and very little action. The methods are respectful, but not very firm.

How do children respond? Compliant children usually cooperate, not because the signals are clear, but because their underlying desire is to please and cooperate anyway. Compliant children give parents a wide margin for ineffectiveness.

The opposite is true for strong-willed children. When they encounter messages that lack firmness or clarity they usually test to see what the market will bear. They tune out, ignore, challenge, defy, argue, debate, dawdle, procrastinate or just dig in their heels and push for the walls. They know from experience that if they resist long enough there is a good chance their parents will compromise away their limits or give in altogether.


From a training perspective, permissive methods have limited instructive value because children don’t make the cause and effect connection between what we say and what we do.

They hear the words “no” and “stop” but they don’t experience the action that supports them and gives them meaning. To kids, the message sounds something like this: Cooperation would be nice but you really don’t have to. Would you cooperate with this message? It does not stop misbehaviour.

It does not teach respect for rules or authority and it does not teach the lessons we intend about responsibility, respectful communication or cooperative problem solving. The methods inspire testing and power struggles.

Permissiveness is humiliating to parents.

Parent Behaviour Child Behaviour
Siblings Quarrel
Unclear Signal
Ignore/Tune Out
Makes A Request
Quarrel Continues
Appeals for Cooperation
Repeats and Reminds
More Appeals
Continue to ignore
Blame and accuse each other
Suggest Solutions
Argue with each other
Frustration and Drama
Threatens Consequence
Feels guilty; gives in
Secures promises; bargains
Breaks Promises
Quarrel Continues
Gives up in exasperation

Reasonable Solution

The first thing you probably notice is the length of this diagram. Permissive parents invest a great deal of time and energy in methods that do not work. This parent is no exception. She begins at point A with a lot of repeating and reminding. The kids respond by ignoring her.

So, she tries lecturing and pleading but that does not work either. The kids continue to ignore her. So, the parent suggests a reasonable solution taking turns but neither child is willing to cooperate if the solution means letting the other go first. The parent becomes frustrated and shifts gears again. She threatens to turn off the TV and make the kids get of the couch. When they protest she gives in.

Next, the parent tries bargaining for their cooperation. Promises are made then broken and she finally gives up and leaves the room discouraged. She never did succeed in stopping their misbehaviour or teaching them better ways to resolve their disputes.

Why didn’t the siblings cooperate? The reason is simple. They didn’t have to. Cooperation was optional not required. Their parent was unwilling to support her words with effective action. Instead, she relied on words alone to get her message across.

The Permissive Approach

Parents Beliefs

  • Children will cooperate when they understand that cooperation is the right thing to do

Power and Control

  • All for children

Problem Solving Process

  • Problem solving by persuasion
  • Win-lose (children win)
  • Parents do most of the problem solving

What Children Learn

  • Rules are for others, not me. I do as I wish
  • Parents serve children
  • Parents are responsible for serving children’s problems