When I first became interested in attachment parenting, I admit, I wondered to myself, “Is attachment parenting permissive parenting?” Because I was brought up in a strict, authoritarian household I worried about the effectiveness of gentle discipline and if I was being too soft and loving with my little ones.
Of course, now it seems silly that I worried about such things, but back then I had no examples of attachment parenting or gentle discipline and it was a legitimate concern.
Maybe you’re reading this because you have the same concern. Maybe a well-meaning friend or family member is concerned that attachment parenting is just another name for lazy parenting or permissive parenting and you’re looking for a way to calm their fears. Either way, you’ve come to the right place today.
Is Attachment Parenting Permissive Parenting?
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The quick answer to the question is a resounding No! Attachment parenting isn’t permissive parenting. Let’s talk about how attachment parenting and permissive parenting differ.
Types of Parenting: Authoritarian, Authoritative, Permissive and Neglectful
You’ve probably heard of the four main types of parenting. If you haven’t, here’s a must-read article on the four parenting types.
Authoritarian parents are no fun to grow up with. They can be cold and emotionally and physically abusive. These types of parents usually value submission to authority, devalue those they feel are inferior and have rigid ideas about what’s right and what’s wrong. Authoritarian parents tend to be controlling and many of their values are simply fear-based. Authoritarian parenting is hard on children and doesn’t promote proper emotional growth or healthy self-esteem.
Authoritative parents set up rules, expectations, routines and consistency for their children, but they also provide a warm, loving environment in which children are allowed to share their ideas, opinions, and objections without fear of punishment. Authoritative parents are generally emotionally intelligent and open-minded. While every parent experiences anxieties about parenting, authoritative parents don’t parent or discipline from a place of fear or frustration. Attachment parenting done correctly is authoritative parenting.
Permissive parents tend to be loving and warm, but don’t provide adequate expectations, structure or consistency for their children. In my experience, permissive parents tend to be emotionally immature. Permissive parenting stems from fear-based ideas just like authoritarian parenting does. Permissive parents may hesitate to establish healthy boundaries and structure for their children for several reasons. They may fear losing their children’s love, seeing their children upset or having to deal with their children’s big emotions.
Another type of permissive parent is the lazy parent who simply doesn’t want to deal with the work involved with creating routine, structure, and consistency in their children’s lives. Maybe, they simply don’t know how to create those things because it was never done for them. Maybe they have low-impact mental health issues, low-grade addictions, or conditions, such as ADHD or health problems, that make it difficult-to-impossible to parent in a consistently healthy way.
Some parents swing from authoritarian to permissive and back again. This is especially confusing for children.
Neglectful parenting is exactly as it sounds. Neglectful parents fail to provide a loving or structured environment for their children. Often neglectful parents are plagued with extreme limitations such as poverty, psychotic or neurotic mental health issues, chronic, debilitating health issues or all-encompassing addictions. Some neglectful parents come from generations of abusive, neglectful parents and know no other way of parenting.
Attachment Parenting Done Right is Authoritative Parenting
No parent is perfect, but when attachment parenting is done well it most closely resembles authoritative parenting. I believe there are many naturally authoritative parents who don’t consciously or intentionally practice attachment parenting but their parenting style looks very similar to attachment parenting in the first five years of their children’s life.
When parents leave behind the “baby b’s” years of parenting and children move into the elementary-age years a focus on gentle discipline with natural or logical consequences merges the attachment parenting and authoritative parenting styles.
When Attachment Parenting Gets Confused With Permissive Parenting
As I’ve already said, attachment parenting done correctly isn’t permissive parenting. However, some attachment-parenting-minded parents aren’t emotionally healthy and when the time comes for more deliberate discipline (teaching our children socially appropriate behaviors) some parents may swing more to the authoritarian or permissive side of parenting.
Again, these parents are usually making their discipline decisions out of fear – if I don’t spank my children, they’ll be out of control or if I give my children expectations and structure, they’ll hate me/be sad. Neither is true, of course.
Sometimes people confuse attachment parenting with permissive parenting because the practice of gentle discipline tends to naturally follow the practice of attachment parenting with babies and toddlers. Gentle discipline forgoes the use of harsh punishment, especially physical punishment. And our society tends to equate not spanking a child with being a permissive parent.
However, gentle discipline is not permissive. Gentle discipline requires a lot of intuition, intention, and proactivity. It requires far more from parents than a reactive swat or frustrated yelling.
Attachment parenting and gentle discipline include setting healthy boundaries, creating structure and routine, laying out attainable expectations for behavior and following through with consequences that help a child to learn appropriate behavior and achieve success.
Attachment parenting and gentle discipline don’t focus on controlling or stifling children and they don’t allow for inadequate supervision, teaching, or correcting.
Attachment Parenting v. Permissive Parenting – A Practical Example
Let’s talk about toddler tantrums for a minute. When a toddler has a tantrum the authoritarian parent might respond by “giving them something to cry about”. The neglectful parent might not respond at all. Truly, a toddler raised in an authoritarian or neglectful environment might not express big feelings at all due to attachment issues.
When a toddler in a permissive home has a tantrum the permissive parent is likely to do whatever it takes to stop the tantrum. This happens because the parent wants to avoid conflict and have peace no matter the cost, is overwhelmed by the child’s emotions or is afraid that the child will be harmed by experiencing bad feelings.
Authoritative and attachment-minded parents know that a toddler having a tantrum doesn’t threaten their authority. They aren’t easily overwhelmed by their children’s big feelings. They allow their children the space to express themselves and help their children find more socially appropriate and effective ways to do so.
Set a Good Example for Attachment Parenting
That mom you saw in the park breastfeeding and babywearing her 8-month-old but yelling from the park bench at her preschooler to stop throwing sand at your child without ever getting up to actually physically stop her child is not a good example of perfect attachment parenting.
She’s an example of a good mother, possibly overwhelmed in the moment while trying to manage the needs of two (or more!) children. She’s an example of real life parenting. No one has the right in that moment to scoff and say, “Those AP moms are so permissive!”
As well, you can’t judge a mom who loses her cool with her children in public as being strictly authoritarian. Maybe she practices all the principles of attachment parenting but is having a hard day.
If you’re an attachment parenting mom all you can do is set the best example you can when it comes to parenting. If you know you aren’t a permissive parent, but people who care about you are concerned that attachment parenting is permissive simply live your life and show them differently. Don’t waste time arguing the merits of attachment parenting – just set a good example.