Q&A: Permissive v. Strict

The Next Family

Note from the editor: It is important to us that TNF expose you to both sides of the coin on parenting issues. Your child may not fit the personality described by one writer but s/he may very well be like another. Each week in this Q & A segment we will juxtapose two parenting philosophies –one as proposed by Julie & Holly (more of an unconditional parenting style), and the other by Joe Newman, who provides a more transactional parenting approach.


I’m a divorced mother of a 6-year-old. My ex is always giving in to whatever my daughter wants. When she comes back to me I feel like the bad cop because I enforce boundaries. My ex says I’m too strict, and my daughter isn’t so happy with me either. What should I do?

Answer by Holly Kretschmar & Julie Gamberg (Parents and Educators)

You’re in a difficult position and we applaud you for upholding boundaries with your daughter. Maintaining limits is especially important because she’s living in two households, which is potentially destabilizing. You have the opportunity be be a bedrock of stability, but how do you hold your own in the face of her visits to the proverbial candy factory?

Children who are raised by so-called ‘permissive parents’ – ones who avoid conflict and indulge their child’s every desire – may initially appear to be reveling in the freedom. But as kids learn they can push boundaries to potentially unhealthy levels, they lose a sense of security, trust, and safety. Inconsistent (or nonexistent) boundaries can cause kids to develop anxiety because they feel a lack of control over their environment. An overly strict environment prevents kids from exercising their judgment, though, so it’s important to strike a balance. Working through conflict with children in a constructive, positive way is a critical parenting skill that your ex is, apparently, lacking. So your daughter needs you to model compromise and negotiation so she can learn to use these skills in relationships with others.

If your ex continually removes limits in order to bypass conflict with your daughter, he risks sending the message that he would prefer to avoid her negative emotions at all costs. A parent who is afraid to tell his child “no” is telling her that he’s not equipped to handle her frustration, anger, or sadness. It’s important for you, then, to support her through these emotions, comforting her through the inevitable disappointments that life brings, coaching her through complicated feelings and demonstrating that you are there for her. Your unconditional love will pay off in the long run.

Here are some further suggestions:

• Avoid setting limits in reaction to your ex’s permissiveness. It’s important that the limits you set are appropriate, loving, and make sense to your daughter. Be clear with her and yourself about why a limit exists. She won’t think you’re too strict if she understands why you set the limits you do.

• Many of us have inflexible limits (“no running in parking lots”), but don’t be afraid to establish flexible limits as well. For example, you might have a flexible limit around bath time:

Child: I don’t want to take a bath! Daddy doesn’t make me take a bath.

Parent: It’s good to wash the dirt off our bodies.

Child: But I was inside all day today and I’m not dirty!

Parent (applying a flexible limit): You know, that’s a good point – you are pretty clean. Let’s skip it for tonight.

• Empathize sincerely and engage your daughter in problem solving when you hold a limit. For example:

Child: Daddy lets me watch TV before bed. I want to watch TV!

Parent: I know he lets you watch TV and that sounds fun. It must be hard to do things differently here but we don’t watch TV before bed. Can you think of another relaxing thing to do that we can both agree on?

Child: What if we skip bath and read another chapter? Reading relaxes me.

Parent: Sounds great!

Dismissing limits is the easy way out. By avoiding parenting short cuts, you’re investing in your relationship with your daughter and building her sense of confidence and trust in you. The fact that your parenting style differs from your ex’s could be an opportunity for you and your daughter to talk and connect. You might be surprised at how a little transparency can bring you together. By maintaining high standards for her, you’ll be demonstrating that you respect her, which she’ll come to value more than nights of watching Late Night and eating Frosted Flakes.

Holly Kretschmar and Julie Gamberg are two parents, writers, and educators who live in Los Angeles and are writing a book about parenting tools.

Answer by Joe Newman (Behavior Consultant)

When parents are separated and a child is being raised in two different households there is always a tendency to try and compensate for what the other parent is doing wrong or to compensate for the short amount of time you have with your child by being more indulgent than you would otherwise be.

So the first rule is: don’t parent in reaction to what your ex is doing.  Stick with your best instincts and work to create a balanced approach in your relationship with your daughter.  You won’t improve your daughter’s upbringing by either being stricter because your ex is too lenient or by being more lenient because your ex is too strict.  A too-strict relationship with your daughter won’t remedy the too lenient one she has with her father.  It will only mean she has two unbalanced relationships instead of just one.

Next, to the extent that it’s possible, try to unite with your ex in terms of the ways you both parent your daughter.  Try to agree on bedtimes, morning routines, and guidelines about play dates and even the ways you set boundaries and give consequences.  Perhaps you can ask him to suggest a parenting book he likes and then read it to find common ground.

After a discussion or mutual reading, I suggest writing down some points that you think are most important.  Present it to him by letting him know this is just a first step in the two of you being unified and ask him to freely change or add to anything you’ve written.  There is a lot of power in having some basic points written down that you both agree on.

Lastly, the “bad cop” feeling you’re having can be mitigated by doing your best to set boundaries in a compassionate and sympathetic tone.  Parents often feel it necessary to give consequences and enforce boundaries in a tone that tells their child how angry, upset, or disappointed they are.  It’s as though they don’t trust that the consequence or boundary will be enough to change the behavior they don’t like so they need to add an additional emotional motivator.

But the emotionally charged tone when giving a consequence is a form of emotional manipulation that undermines your relationship and the autonomy of your daughter.

I suggest trying to do two things simultaneously: be firm in your setting of boundaries and consequences, and while doing this acknowledge your child’s autonomy, respect her decisions, and keep any judgment of them out of your voice.  Let the boundary do the work of shifting the behaviors –not emotional manipulation.

Here are a couple of examples of how that might sound:

“Yes, I realize your father puts away your toys for you when you’re at his house, and if you can get him to do that for you that’s between the two of you.  But when you’re in my house you need to clean up after yourself before you do anything else.”

“Yes, I realize you hate sitting in timeout.  Timeouts aren’t supposed to be fun. But if you decide to call Mommy “stupid” you’re going to get a timeout.  You’re the only one who can control what you say, not me.  I just control the consequences.”

Joe Newman is a behavior consultant who trains parents, teachers, administrators and specialists.  During the last twenty years he’s taught 2nd through 12th grade classes, designed curriculum, and founded a national mentoring program.  His book Raising Lions is available at Amazon.com.

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