Permissive Parenting

Rick Mattson Uncategorized 7 Comments

Citing two separate studies, Christianity Today magazine reported recently that 60-70% of young adults who were active in church as teenagers are spiritually “disengaged” by age 23 (Ja ‘10, p24).

I attribute these alarming statistics, in part, to extremes in Christian parenting, both strict and permissive (see my post of last week on strict parenting).

Some of you have protested that I oversimplify the picture, that there are spiritual and cultural forces, not to mention genetic dispositions, at work in our children that even excellent parenting will not overcome. And that the reverse is true: failed parenting surely does not guarantee failed kids.

I would agree. But I hope this will not drive us to fatalism or prevent us from learning all we can, and doing all we can, to raise godly children—whether our own or the children of friends for whom we act as unofficial, occasional, moms and dads.

With these qualifiers, then, I believe the best of more permissive parenting looks something like this:
•    Maximizing kids’ decision-making, as is age-appropriate.
•    Emphasizing values more than rules.
•    Providing incremental exposure to nonChristian viewpoints.

This overall direction of parenting has a good chance of producing kids who feel empowered and respected, who think for themselves and make wise decisions, and take responsibility for their own actions. They will tend to view God as loving and gracious.

But permissive parenting gone overboard gives too much freedom too early, fails to teach and guide properly, and especially, is lax on discipline. Parental responsibility is abdicated. Thus, “tail wags dog,” kids run wild, and their faith is given up either through apathy or the pursuit of gratifications that were rarely curbed by parents.

So whether you are an actual parent, “surrogate” parent of sorts in your neighborhood or church, or simply imagining yourself a parent, do you lean left or right? Permissive or strict? Tell us your story. Next week I’ll tell mine.

Comments 7

  1. Rick, Good thoughts here again. However, I wonder if you will also address the cultural forces at work in these alarming trends of young adults leaving the church and the faith. Sharon and I have four grown children, three are missionaries and one is wandering from the faith. It is hard to figure what we did differently. Also, could you offer some resources, like Youth Transitions Network, John White's book, Parents in Pain, which may be helpful to parents who find themselves in the excruciatingly painful experience of having children lose their faith?

  2. Rick, I like the brevity and clarity with which you address these issues. This weekend I read and appreciated the recent Christianity Today issue, January 2010, featuring a couple of articles on this subject, one of which you quoted.


  3. Sorry, Rick, think you whiffed this one. My parents were extremely permissive but they did give me love and taught me to love truth, both of which contributed to my conversion. If you want to point a finger of blame, take a look at your typical youth group. Every church generally has two 'churches' the one for adults and the one for 'youth'. The main 'church' for youth consists of pizza parties and lame-brained bible studies. As you can probably attest most 'Christian' kids that make it to college have no working experience in being a disciple, much less a leader. There are a few exceptions and they prove the rule. If you want Chrisian kids that go to college to shine, trim the lamp when they are young.

  4. I like the general tack you are taking – which I read as equipping kids to think for themselves, and handle the complexities of the real world, all as a way of making them more resilient and richer in their faith. No whiff from my perspective, although I'd agree with Matt that there are other factors as well.

    We lean heavily on getting our kids to think for themselves in an age-appropriate way. And we don't compromise on what we believe, but we explain it, and frankly discuss why others may not share our views.

    In many ways this allows us to go deeper. The answer can't be one at the surface alone. They either sniff that out (as our 12 year old is starting to do) or they want to know more, or know what we think, or how we grapple with hard problems.

    Why does God not always answer prayer? An honest question with a multi-faceted answer. I think sharing on topics like this lets us bond better, and gives them more tools to understand the different voices they will hear in the world – some of which will be compelling while still misleading.

    I don't care for the term 'Permissive' parenting. It sounds liberal or too open. And in the extreme it can be wild as you note. Maybe instead it should be 'PERMISSION' based parenting – 'permission to fail', 'permission to wonder', 'permission to learn' and in that sense fine. That has negative connotations as well, but in the end we are trying to give our kids the permission to ask questions, to make decisions (age-appropriate), and even the permission to fail in measured ways matched to the personal authority we're granting them. etc.

    Now to the point Matthew raised – there certainly are other factors, and this is a good one. I see a real difference between churches that completely segment the adult vs. youth experience AND keep children on essentially milk, vs. providing some aspect of a matched curriculum as well as a way for youth to walk out their faith.

    A little plug here – I think Upper Room church, now in St. Louis Park, has this mix correct. As much as possible, they match the children's curriculum to the adult curriculum. I can't tell you how beneficial it is as a family to help them on a take-home activity that I just learned about, or discuss a topic at the dinner table that we all were exposed to at church.

    Also, when the youth are challenged to live out their faith in tangible ways – they understand God's calling on their lives, the gifts they have, and what it means to be a servant. Incredibly valuable lessons that affirm faith and provide lots of real ways in which they can encounter the gospel.

  5. TO DAN in a comment above: I’d like to take up the topic of cultural/spiritual forces at another time. As for divergent kids under the same roof, I sympathize deeply. So many of my friends in middle age (and above) are experiencing this with one or more of their kids. Proof that fine parenting carries no guarantees.

    The brevity (which is intentional) of my blog entries prevent me from nuancing some of these points.

    LUCY asked about my mother: I would call my parents “medium strict.” Dad was the public profile and Mom played mostly a support role. I naturally gravitated to him, but behind the scenes she became more of a confidante for me regarding relationships, both male and female.

    She was unwavering in her morality and responsibilities. There was no guess work about her punctuality, or when dinner would be served, or what she would say about any shady situation. She was not a devotee of Jesus Christ, nor is she to this day.

    Perhaps due to my position as first-born, I had the “achievement” gene going pretty strong from an early age—definitely a motivated boy. Mom’s steady hand both supported and tempered my competitive drive.

    MATTHEW thinks I whiffed on this entry. That is bound to happen! Reading his comment, however, I think we are fairly aligned. Parenting style X does not guarantee X result—I’m good with that. My post is meant to suggest general patterns—propensities—still leaving room for exceptions to the rule.

    MATTHEW and PETER comment on youth ministries. My tension on this topic is that youth pastors are under tremendous pressure from “thousands” of bosses (parents, other parishioners), to produce tangible results, including measurable participation. The more substantive curriculum most of us wish for would likely cut participation by 2/3s. Better to keep kids in the fold and get a shot at influencing them on a mission trip or whatever, than to drive them away with serious requirements.

    Then, find ways to invest in the inner core who really want to go deeper. So you’ve got the outer ring and the inner ring of students. They pick where they want to be. If the inner ring is strong, it will expand–a great goal. This is an old strategy in youth ministry that has much to commend itself.

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