Chapter 2: Foundation-Building Toolset                                                                      33


The Under-Controlling Parenting Style (Permissive)

Parents who don’t control their children enough are also called permissive. At first glance, it may seem to be a positive parenting style because there is no harshness, criticism, or punishment. It is, however, as equally imbalanced as the over-controlling style, but in the opposite way, and also has many negative long-term effects. There are also two kinds of under-controlling parenting styles, the Avoider and the Over-Indulger. They are more different from each other than the two kinds of over-controlling parenting styles. There are some common traits, however, to most under-controlling parenting styles.



What is the parent’s job?

It is the parent’s job to avoid conflict and make or keep children happy. This usually includes protecting children from disappointment, frustration, and getting in trouble.

Who has rights?

Most permissive families revolve around the children; their rights and needs are more important than the parents’.

Who gets respect?

Under-controlling parents try to treat their children with respect, hoping they will feel happy and, therefore, behave better. Since parents put their needs and rights below children’s, they are more willing to accept disrespectful behavior from their children. While it’s clear most parents aren’t getting respect in these families, the children are also not getting real respect.

How are mistakes handled?

When children make mistakes, permissive parents might listen to the child’s feelings, but not hold them accountable for the results of their actions. Children have unlimited chances to correct their behavior, with few or no consequences for misbehavior. Some under-controlling parents are overprotective so the children will not make mistakes. Most under-controlling parents rescue their children from mistakes by making excuses for the child’s behavior or by blaming others (including themselves).

 How are problems solved and decisions made?

Most under-controlling families solve problems and make decisions based on the children’s demands or what will make the children happy. Some under-controlling parents solve problems for their children. Most let their children make whatever decision they want, even if it is impulsive or irresponsible. When a problem arises, these parents deny it exists, hope the problem will go away, or view it through filtered lenses. They only acknowledge a problem’s existence when it gets so bad that they can no longer ignore it.

Who decides how children should behave, which interests they pursue, and the goals they set?

Children make behavior, interest and goal decisions. The parents are usually willing to let the children do whatever makes them happy.

Who is responsible for controlling the child’s behavior?

Being responsible means “to be accountable for” our behavior. We consider our options, the possible risks, make the best decision we can, and accept the positive or negative effect of the choices we make. Therefore, children from under-controlling families are not responsible, but are definitely controlling their behavior choices (even if their choice is to behave irresponsibly).

 Who makes the rules and how are rules enforced?

Children can usually do as they please, since under-controlling parents rarely set limits or enforce rules. They use reminders and polite pleading to convince children to behave properly. If they set limits, they rarely enforce them. If the children don’t like others’ rules or experiencing the effects of breaking rules, their parents often request special treatment or rescue their children.


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How do parents discipline?

Under-controlling parents rarely discipline because it’s too inconvenient or because they fear losing their children’s love. When repeated pleading doesn’t work, parents often say, “I’ve had it. I’m tired of being ignored.” They either give in or jump to the other extreme and try to regain control through over-controlling means.



In Active Parenting, author Michael Popkin calls under-controlling parenting “permissive.” He uses the symbol of a zigzag line, which symbolizes freedom and choices, without any limits. We use his symbol to represent the under-controlling parenting style. 



  • An under-controlling parenting style poorly prepares children for the real world. Most societies offer some freedom, but within consistent, reasonable limits that protect the rights of others. Since these children can usually do what they want and experience few discomforts, they have little motivation for changing or improving themselves and are unprepared for the harsh realities of the real world. Children who lack self-control, self-discipline, and respect for others have difficulty operating within the rules of structured settings like school and work. They test limits, hoping they can manipulate others into loosening the reins. When their efforts to change others or their environment fail, they often quit, saying “School (or the job) was too hard (or restrictive).” 
  • Children from under-controlling families are used to others rescuing them or excusing their behavior, so they don’t accept responsibility for their actions. They seek out rescuers and blame everyone—parents, teachers, employers, spouses—for their problems and failures. Because they’ve been pampered, they can’t handle criticism or suggestions for improving themselves. They use their energy and creativity to manipulate others into taking care of their needs and desires. They spend more time trying to get out of responsibility than in developing responsible independence.


Under-controlling parenting can involve two extremes—not doing enough (avoidance) or doing too much (over-indulgence) for children. The following descriptions detail the ways these two extremes expand on the general traits of the under-controlling parenting style.



Some under-controlling parents are Avoiders. In these families, the parent’s needs are most important. Parents don’t teach skills, set limits, supervise, or follow through because it takes too much time; they are either too busy or too tired (lazy?) to be bothered. Extreme Avoiders are physically or emotionally neglectful.

Personality Traits of Avoiders

Avoiders are into comfort—their own comfort. They are often easy going, undemanding, and let their children do for themselves. They avoid responsibility and commitments because they are too busy or too relaxed to be inconvenienced. They often break promises at the last minute, because they no longer feel like doing it. They are often emotionally detached and rarely take the time to talk or listen.

What Avoiders Believe

Children will learn skills and proper behavior on their own, just from trial and error. Children should not inconvenience parents. Problems (and problem behavior) will eventually go away if parents ignore them or pretend they don’t exist.


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How Avoiders Handle Negative Feelings

They avoid stress, negative feelings, and conflict. Even if people are upset, they should not express it. They often perceive even healthy disagreements and assertiveness as fighting or arguing and insist on eternal family peace. 

The Avoiders Tools

Avoiders have a hands-off approach to parenting. They let their children do whatever they want, as long as it doesn’t inconvenience them. Parents who are into their own comfort are often preoccupied with adult conversations and activities. They don’t pay attention to children, allowing them to do whatever they want, even if it is inappropriate or hurts others.

Long-Term Effects of Avoidance Parenting

  • Letting children learn by trial and error has its merits, but Avoiders don’t take the time and effort to teach their children good decision-making skills or help children process what they learn from their mistakes. If children are unsupervised or alone a much of the time (e.g., latch-key kids), they become bored and often make impulsive, poor decisions.
  • The children often respond to problems and mistakes as the parent does—they deny responsibility, make excuses (“I’m too busy” or “I don’t feel like it.”), and expect special treatment. When the real world holds the children accountable and they fail, their parents want to avoid further disappointment, so they often give up on the children and “write them off.”
  • Children of Avoiders usually have a poor sense of self-worth because their parents didn’t make an effort to show they cared.


Over-indulgence is the more common, positive, yet still imbalanced, type of under-controlling parenting style. Here, the parents don’t set limits because it might make their child unhappy.

Personality Traits of Over-Indulgers

These parents are usually sensitive and understanding people, in touch with others’ feelings and desires. These are positive traits, if used properly. Over-indulgent parents want to be loved, liked, and appreciated. They try to please others to earn this approval. They sacrifice their own needs and rights to keep the peace or make others happy.

 What Over-Indulgers Believe

Children should have a happy, carefree childhood. Over-Indulgent parents want their children to have the things they didn’t have and protect them from negative experiences, even if these experiences could offer valuable lessons.

How Over-Indulgers Handle Negative Feelings

They do whatever it takes to keep others happy and rescue them from their negative feelings. These parents usually sense what their children want or need and are afraid to disappoint or frustrate them. So they give in or give undue service, hoping that if their children are happy, they’ll cooperate more.


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The Over-Indulgers Tools

Too often, these parents give and serve too much, at the expense of their own rights and needs. They suffer from “affluenza,” doting on their children, emotionally and materialistically. They usually take on too many responsibilities, becoming maids, cooks, toy stores, tutors, financiers—and doormats.

Over-indulgers are great rescuers, protecting children from even healthy hardships. They often volunteer their time to the child’s activities so they can intervene or prevent problems from occurring. They deliver forgotten lunches and retrieve homework left at school so their children won’t experience disappointment. Perfectionistic Supervisors are overly involved so they can control the situation or child and look like good parents. Over-indulgers are overly involved so they can protect children and serve their children’s whims.

Long-Term Effects of Over-Indulgent Parenting

  • Children from under-controlling homes develop a distorted perception of reality—they think the world revolves around them. At first, they may feel powerful, because they can take advantage of others. Eventually, they resent the people who don’t have the courage to set limits. Because they’ve been protected and rescued, they have trouble coping with the normal struggles of adult life. They expect success, but aren’t willing to work for it.
  • Over-Indulgers, who bend over backwards to keep their children happy, are often shocked when their children become ungrateful, demanding, and disrespectful in return. But the children know who’s really in control—them! Children learn to manipulate by using “please,” promises, and logical arguments to get their parents to give in.
  • Young adults from under-controlling families have difficulty operating within the limits of a job, its rules, and with authority figures. They often drift from job to job, trying to find the perfect job. When they can’t support themselves, their parents welcome them home, offering the standard of living to which they are accustomed. The parents think this is their job and they like feeling needed.

A Personal Story. When I was in college, I worked at a runaway shelter. I expected most runaway teens would come from negative, controlling families. I was surprised to find just as many who ran away from perfectionist-controlling families and permissive ones. Runaways from permissive homes thought their parents didn’t care about them. They tested how far they could go before their parents would set limits. I rarely saw a child who had run away from a family that wasn’t over-controlling or under-controlling.


The angry teens of the 60s blamed their parents and authority for their problems and vowed to raise their children differently. Instead of keeping what their parents did well (such as setting limits and teaching respect for authority) and rejecting what they did poorly (such as demanding blind obedience and trying to control children’s individuality), they went to the other extreme. These changes tipped the scale to the other extreme—permissive parenting.


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In 1970, Thomas Gordon developed P.E.T.: Parent Effectiveness Training, the first parenting curriculum that was widely accepted in America. It taught effective communication skills such as problem-ownership, active listening, I-messages, and problem solving. These skills greatly improved family relationships by fostering effective communication. In fact, P.E.T.’s communication skills are so effective, nearly every major institution still uses and/or teaches them, including business, education, counseling, human relationships, and parenting. Parents and professionals eventually became frustrated with P.E.T. because it contained no guidelines for discipline—and they labeled it “permissive.” Today, a few popular parenting resources encourage parents to throw out all the important valuable skills P.E.T. taught, simply because it was missing one important skill area. P.E.T. was not a permissive parenting program, just an incomplete one.

By the 1980s, problems that started in the 60s had reached epidemic proportions. Many families were touched, in some way, by problems such as widespread drug use, teenage pregnancy, AIDS, gangs and violence, child abduction, and sexual victimization. Many people rightly blamed permissiveness for most of these problems. Other problems, such as abduction and sexual victimization, had their roots in abusive parenting and autocratic practices that taught children to blindly obey any authority at the expense of their own rights. Some people said parents should go back to autocratic methods to regain control. They had obviously forgotten, or didn’t know, the reason permissive parenting became popular in the first place— because autocratic parenting had a long-term rebound effect. The pendulum was swinging away from permissive, but was going too far again into the autocratic zone, without finding and maintaining a healthy balance. Since autocratic and permissive parenting both resulted in negative results for children and society, it is wise to avoid both of these extreme, imbalanced parenting styles.