You are a number of my friends. You are a close relative. You are many people I see at the park or supermarket. You all love your young children, are utterly devoted parents, think deeply about how to raise your offspring in the best way possible, but unfortunately often get it wrong.
You want to be nice to your little ones all the time. You don’t know how to say no. If you ask your child to do something and they ignore you, you let it go. If they do something really inappropriate, for example hit another child, you seem to be incapable of reacting with the seriousness such behaviour warrants. I’m not advocating punishment, but you don’t seem able to even get them to sit down so you can talk about what just happened.
A number of you have children who speak in a whinge or a whine. You respond as if a five-year-old talking like a baby is fine. You seem to think that asking them to speak in a strong, loud voice will cause lifelong trauma. You don’t seem to realise that by ignoring the toddler-talk they’ll quickly get the message and speak properly.
The results of this permissive parenting are catastrophic. It seems to break down on gender lines: the boys tend to be out-of-control mini-thugs, and the girls demanding and prone to tantrums. Both seem immature in their appreciation of the needs of others. They are often hard to like, and you are often exhausted and miserable. At times you lose your temper, and shock your children by shouting or screaming at them.
I’m not blaming you. Those of you I know all seem, tragically, to have one thing in common. You had at least one parent (usually the father) who was harsh, over-controlling and often punitive. You’ve resolved never to be like that. So you’ve gone to the opposite extreme. In a desperate attempt to not be authoritarian, you’ve become permissive. You forget that the best way is to be authoritative: warm, loving, child-centred, but with an understanding that limits and boundaries are crucial to children’s healthy emotional development.
A couple of you have asked in desperation what to do, and I’ve given my opinion, which you’ve welcomed. You try to change how you manage behaviour, have some initial success, but seem to slip back into the permissive pattern. I’ve come to the conclusion that just trying to change your reactions doesn’t deal with your own underlying hurts, and that you probably need therapy to tackle your unresolved pain and your ambivalence about control.
Parenting has evolved in so many good ways in recent decades. Harsh physical punishment is no longer the norm (I suspect it’s not a coincidence that violence in society at large has decreased at the same time). Children’s emotional needs are given far more consideration than before. But young children need to know the world is a safe, containing place, and that there is someone there who can psychologically hold them, and control them if necessary, through the extremes of ego-centrism they experience.
Be gentle. Be kind. Be caring. Be empathetic and understanding. But be in charge. Because one day your wild, spoilt toddler will be an angry, unsocialised teenager, and by then it’ll be too late.