Few parents would comfortably admit to seeing themselves as permissive. That’s usually a disapproving description dished out by others, especially when those pesky parents’ unruly children are being particularly inconvenient. Permissiveness is, in any case, often in the eye of the beholder. It can range from parents who never serve fresh vegetables “because the kids won’t eat them”.
It may include parents who buy whatever their children say they “must have”, or those who have no idea that children might benefit from routines and regular meal and bedtimes because their own lives are so over- or under-regulated, or those who think whatever their children say it’s cute because they have said it, or those who risk their children’s (and other people’s) lives and health by allowing access to alcohol, cars or sex because saying “No” has long since become impossible or ineffective.
A friend who gives respite care to a variety of children tells me that one of the most difficult things to deal with is children who have no idea how to go to bed at a remotely reasonable time. Without any expectation that there is such a thing as “bedtime”, these children become increasingly frantic as the night wears on, yet resist all attempts to put them to bed until they literally collapse. When they are at home they are also often watching late-night violent television, not just because the television is constantly on but also because making decisions about what children should and should not view is, for many families, as remote as deciding when children should go to bed and how much sleep children need (lots!).
It’s easy to be moralistic on these issues – to no effect.Most people are understandably defensive when it comes to their parenting habits and especially when they feel helpless to change. But when parents raise the kind of children whom teachers dread and other people cross the road to avoid, they are doing them no favours whatsoever. Such children risk being socially isolated. They also risk feeling inwardly unsteady. Without limits, guidance and example, children lose their best chance to learn self-awareness and self-control. Those are the foundations for self-esteem and precious resilience, so they matter. Just as seriously, children being raised with only their own needs in view will find it extremely hard to discover what they are entitled to and what they are not. Our newspapers are full of stories of social catastrophes, often caused because someone feels entitled to be angry, drunk, unpleasant, rude, violent or ruthlessly self-interested. This might erupt in sport, business, between neighbours, or within families. Again this can range from the trivial – doing something mindless because you “feel like it” – to the common workplace scenario where someone feels fully entitled to their day’s pay but takes little or no responsibility for their day’s work, to the very serious, when someone feels entitled to intimidate, threaten or abuse another person, or steal or cheat on them or cause them harm, again because for that person only their own needs “count”.
This kind of behaviour is not always the result of permissive parenting. Human behaviour is never that predictable. Nevertheless, many of life’s most crucial lessons are learned in the intimate interactions of home. They include learning how to keep the lid on your sense of entitlement by noticing – and responding to – the needs and reality of other people. The irony is that many parents who risk their children becoming excessively “entitled” adults may feel genuinely unentitled to say no, or helpless about how to create those thoughtful limits. My experience is that with even small changes, benefits quickly follow. What’s more, taking note of the devastation caused by boorish, self-focused behaviour may be unpleasantly confronting, but could also be exactly the encouragement a wavering parent needs.
First published, Good Weekend, 2008. Please do not reprint without permission.