The Natural Child Project The Natural Child Project
View shopping cart

The Fear of Being Permissive

People have never been surprised to find that many irresponsible, delinquent, drug-addicted, or otherwise troubled children have been raised in very poor home environments. This relationship between the "sick" home and the "sick" child has been known for centuries. It is entirely reasonable to expect, and repeated experience has confirmed, that children raised by parents who are morally defective, infantile, indolent, irresponsible, incompetent, or criminal should turn "bad." ("Like father, like son.") We may infer safely that in such families the parents set a poor example, failed to teach proper ethical standards and paid insufficient attention to the child's physical and emotional needs. We may even suspect that such parents did not really want or love their children. Common sense tells us that "problem children" should arise within such a family context.

However, what has been extremely puzzling to parents for centuries is the problem of how to explain those "wild," irresponsible, delinquent children who were reared by parents believed to be honest, responsible, and hard-working citizens. This opposition between the parents' morality and that of the child has occurred so regularly throughout the period of man's recorded history that it has become part of our folklore. Numerous novels and stage plays center around a prominent person whose son becomes the town's ne'er-do-well or the clergyman's daughter who becomes the town harlot.

Historically, in their attempts to explain this phenomenon, the public has utilized three major theories. The oldest of the three held that the bad child had been possessed by the devil or some other evil spirit. Common sense then dictated that the proper course of action to cure the condition was to "beat the devil" out of the child. As mankind turned away from this primitive demonology, a new idea more compatible with modern, scientific thinking developed. This was the theory of the hereditary transmission of behavioral or personality traits. According to this theory, if a "bad" child suddenly showed up in the middle of a "good" family, it was suspected that one of his ancestors had possessed a defective gene. Presumably then, this gene suddenly manifested itself in the child wino was the carrier of the "bad seed." Gradually this idea, too, came to be discredited by twentieth-century geneticists, biologists, and psychologists. There remained, then, but one widely accepted explanation for this phenomenon which has not been refuted by more advanced thinking.

This third explanation places the blame for delinquent children on permissive treatment by the parents. This theory has always coexisted with the other two. But now, since the other two theories have passed from the scene, this one has emerged as the overwhelming favorite.

Specifically, according to this explanation, the parents of delinquent children have been either too ignorant or too irresponsible to have punished their children for various minor and major transgressions. Accordingly, it is the parents' failure or refusal to have used firm, fair, consistent, and even harsh punishment that permitted the child to develop a wild, irresponsible, or antisocial pattern of behavior. Since, according to this theory, the parents' aversion to using punishment as a restraining force permitted the child to develop his delinquent pattern, this particular form of parental failure is known today as permissiveness.

As I said previously, this explanation which holds the parents to blame is no less ancient than the demonic and hereditary theories that it has survived. The fact that it is labeled with the rather contemporary-sounding word "permissiveness" merely disguises its antiquity. Its roots, however, can be clearly seen in admonitions to parents such as, "As the twig is bent, so grows the tree," and "He who hates not his child, spares not the rod."

Currently, then, warnings against parental permissiveness represent the major theoretical guideline available to parents and responsible authorities in their efforts to understand, prevent, and treat behavioral disorders, including prominently today the excessive use of dangerous drugs.

I hope to convince you that permissiveness should not be accepted as a valid explanation for what is wrong with large numbers of young people today. This is not to defend or condone overpermissiveness. To the extent that it is practiced it would have a detrimental effect on a child's personality. However, my own experience with a great many families has convinced me that there are very few people in this country sufficiently remote from the mainstream of information available as to have remained uninformed concerning the dangers of genuine overpermissiveness. Such information is provided daily in massive amounts through churches and school systems, through the courts and law-enforcement agencies, through government-sponsored education programs, and directly and indirectly through all the forms of the mass media. The dangers of over­permissive­ness are described in full-length books, in magazine articles, in the advice columns of daily newspapers, and in pamphlets produced by public-spirited citizens. The majority, popularly held viewpoint is presented almost universally as the most valid model for parents to follow.

At one time during the course of my work as a psychologist I was employed by an institution that provided custodial care and treatment for mentally ill patients. These people had been declared insane, and legally confined within a locked institution. In my talks with these patients, many of whom were parents, I found that they were acutely aware of the dangers of permissiveness in the raising of their own children. Years later I worked extensively with adults diagnosed as either borderline or mentally defective (IQs of 65 and below). Most were eligible to receive financial aid from the state because of the severity of their intellectual deficit. These people, too, in their own inarticulate way, described to me repeatedly how careful they had to be in raising their children in order to avoid spoiling them.

It is unlikely that any subject in this country could produce such widespread agreement as that of the dangers to the child of parental permissiveness.

Yet, what I hope to convince the reader is that the "enemy" of the child is not permissiveness, but rather the fear of being permissive. It is this fear which drives good, middle-class American parents to behave toward their children in those callous, unsympathetic, insensitive ways which ultimately result in youthful delinquency. It is this fear of permissiveness which frightens parents away from demonstrating those humane, constructive, conciliatory forms of behavior which would enhance rather than destroy their relationship with their children. It is the parents' fear of permissiveness that forces them to abandon as the major child-rearing resource their own legitimate Judeo-Christian heritage which stresses gentleness, kindness, trust, faith, and forgiveness in one's relationship with others. Having been forced by an antiquated theory to abandon those forms of behavior which could produce loving feelings in their children, the parents must inevitably produce angry feelings with tragic consequences.

The new insight I am trying to present to the reader is that, contrary to what you may now believe, vast numbers of children who become delinquent and turn to the use of dangerous drugs have not been raised permissively. Nor do they come from homes in which the parents have been irresponsible, incompetent, or otherwise derelict in meeting their responsibilities to their children. Rather, these drug-using children have been reared by parents who are the most well-organized, highly informed, sincere, intelligent, dedicated, and responsible members of the community. It is the average, middle-class parent, being guided primarily by the fear of being permissive, who, during the normal process of responsible child-rearing, produces unknowingly a degree of hostile feelings in the child which in turn produces various forms of antisocial behavior.

For centuries, people have been raising their children following the age-old theory that a sufficient degree of punishment judiciously applied would create good character and good behavior. Yet, as I have already indicated, the failures of this technique are so numerous that they have become enshrined in our literature. How does one account for the incredible longevity of this ancient theory in the face of massive, non-supportive evidence? I should like to discuss several reasons with you in detail so that you will be better able to assess the usefulness of this fear-of-spoiling theory for your own children.

The primary reason for the persistence of public confidence in the effectiveness of punishment is that punishment does affect behavior and the results are almost immediate. Particularly when the child is young, punishment produces the immediately observable changes in behavior the parent desires. As any parent knows, if a young child's hand is slapped often enough and hard enough, the child will stop doing with that hand what the parent does not want him to do with it. This immediately observable cause-and-effect sequence gives the use of punishment the appearance of indisputable validity. The common sense of the parent inclines him to accept the evidence of his own senses. Thus, logic and "common sense" backed up by widespread social approval dictate that parents continue to depend on the theory that demands punishment for misbehavior, rather than gamble on some more abstract theory that promises good behavior later, but provides less immediately observable results in controlling the child's behavior here and now.

Let us look at a case history and see how the parents become increasingly confident that their technique of child-rearing is the correct one.

The parents were able to eliminate their child's tendency at age two and one half, to open certain cabinet doors by slapping his hands. (Punishment "worked") When he was three and one half, they were able to put a stop to his temper tantrums by spanking him. Occasionally, they used a long stick if the bare hand alone was insufficient. (Punishment "worked".) When he was five years old, they put a stop to his using "dirty" words by washing his mouth with soap. (Punishment "worked".) He presented no problem at the dinner table because he was punished if he showed poor manners. If he "ate like a pig" or refused to try new foods, or if he didn't finish all the food on his plate, he was sent to his room. (Again punishment "worked".) At age nine, the parents stopped his tendency to come home late for dinner by "grounding" him for one week each time he was late. Thus, all the child's behavior problems were "solved" by the consistent use of mild to moderate degrees of punishment.

Now "suddenly" at age thirteen, the child becomes apathetic and hostile. He does not work in class and is in constant conflict with school authorities. He uses foul language right to his mother's face. To culminate a sequence of minor delinquent actions, the child is caught "popping" pills in the lavatory at school.

What would any sensible parent believe was called for next? Obviously the same thing that had been successful in "solving" all the child's behavior problems during the preceding year. Only now, because of the seriousness of the child's misbehavior, a more severe punishment than had ever been used before would appear appropriate. In such a situation, the avenge, sincere but now terribly alarmed parent might administer the most severe beating the child had ever received.

As you can see, the fact that punishment appeared to work successfully every time it was used makes it impossible for the parent to conceive of using any other technique. Thus, the immediately demonstrable effect of punishment has seduced generations of sensible adults into embracing it as the technique of choice in raising children.

The second factor that accounts for the longevity of this old approach is the overwhelming public belief in its effectiveness. This massive public belief in the usefulness of punishment is itself created by factor number one described above. However, once the nearly universal public acceptance is achieved, the public pressure itself becomes a factor that perpetuates the belief. The individual parent is hopelessly intimidated by the existence of a theory that historically and to the present has achieved the status of an unassailable virtue.

For the individual parent to deviate from this accepted dogma would have the same meaning and social consequences for him as if he had deviated from one of the Ten Commandments. First, of course, he would feel guilty because he would believe that he was contributing to the destruction of his own child. Secondly, for the individual parent to deviate from the accepted pattern would expose him to public rebuke, ridicule, and condemnation. The parent's belief in the correctness of what he is doing with the child reinforced by the massive societal approval for his actions makes it almost impossible for him to deal with the child in any other manner than is prescribed by the "Don't spoil them" approach.

Thus, the responsible parent is trapped by his conscience into alienating the child. But the theory itself maintains its aura of rightness. The blame, if things go wrong, ultimately comes to reside in the child, whose nervous system presumably was so defective that it would not respond correctly to the obviously correct system of discipline.

A third reason for continued public acceptance of this archaic theory is the ready availability of numerous rationalizations that explain away all failures of the theory to produce the desired results. It has proven extraordinarily difficult to discredit this theory because of these rationalizations. The proponents of this theory do not reassess its validity when it produces unwanted consequences. Rather, they seek to blame one of the participants involved in the situation, either the parents, for failure to use it sufficiently, or the child, for failure to respond to it properly. These attempts to redistribute blame become so distorted at times that obvious failures of the theory are redefined as success. If these obvious failures are viewed as successes, it is all but impossible to assess this theory with any degree of objectivity.

The foremost of these rationalizations takes the form of blaming the parent for various deficiencies. The first deficiency attributed to the parent is that he was not sufficiently intelligent or informed to be aware of the dangers of permissiveness. The assumption is made, automatically, that whenever a child becomes delinquent the parent has raised him permissively. This is only an assumption, since there is usually no evidence whatsoever that the child was raised permissively. What is taken for "evidence" is the fact that the child is "in trouble." This type of reasoning is circular and logically indefensible.

This assessment of the situation is most likely to occur in those cases in which the parent of the delinquent child is a publicly known figure who is politically liberal and/or wealthy. The consensus of public opinion, then, is that the liberal parent raised his child permissively, consistent with his liberal political philosophy. The wealthy parent is presumed to have spoiled his child "rotten" by giving him "everything he ever wanted." Even in the absence of independent confirmatory evidence, liberals and wealthy people may find it very difficult to prove that they did not, in fact, spoil their children.

But with increasing frequency now, it has come to the attention of the public that many irresponsible, delinquent, drug-using, suicidal children come from homes in which the parents (even if wealthy) are known, unmistakably, to be responsible, civic-minded, and politically conservative. Such parents might include clergymen, physicians, law-enforcement officers, police chiefs, judges, career military officers, conservative businessmen, politicians, and workingmen.

What do proponents of this theory do with the evidence that delinquent children come from homes in which the parents were obviously well-informed as to the dangers of permissiveness and spoiling? One would hope that this would weaken the public's belief in the value of the theory. However, this does not occur. Rather, new rationalizations are introduced that vindicate the theory, but find fault with the parent. Now, since these parents have publicly embraced the virtuous theory so that it must be assumed that their children were not raised permissively, the excuse is offered that the parents themselves were defective people. The new position taken, then, is that the theory they used was correct but they were such non-virtuous people that the theory could not produce its good results.

Thus, the public begins the intriguing but uncharitable search for flaws or defects in the parents' character. There are many variations of what the conservative parent may be accused of. Hypocrisy is currently the "in" word. The reasoning goes approximately like this: "Oh, yes, I know that Senator (an ex-FBI man) would never have raised his child permissively, but you know politicians are all hypocrites. How else would you expect the son of a hypocrite to turn out?" (The parent might also be accused of having been covertly alcoholic, a swindler, and/or an adulterer.)

Who among us has not seen the final confrontation scene of the television drama in which the teenage son, locked up in jail for drug use, snarls at his outwardly respectable father: "It's your fault. You've been playing around with your secretary for years? In another variation of this, the teenager blames both parents for his predicament-his mother uses prescription drugs for her headaches and his father spends too much time at the office. (The father's "sin" here is materialism.)

Such ideas, of course, find a receptive audience among young people who enjoy holding such fantasies of adults whom they both fear and envy. However, it is highly irresponsible for mature adults to present such distorted fantasies as if they represented sensible explanations for children's misbehavior.

The purpose of these rationalizations, encouraged and supported by public opinion and the mass media, is to demonstrate to the audience that the traditional theory is valid, but only when applied by virtuous parents. Even respected experts are sometimes guilty of this form of rationalization.

On April 5,1971, Time magazine quoted Mr. Barr, the headmaster at Manhattan's private Dalton School, as follows: "The trouble with many children is that their fathers are mothers and their mothers are sisters." Apparently desperate to find any rationalization that would appear to support the old theory of parental incompetence, Mr. Barr would have us believe that paternal homosexuality is the significant factor in childhood delinquency.

The following statement appeared in Time magazine, August 17, 1970: "It is among many middle- and upper-class Americans that the estrangement of the young is strongest ... Parents who lose control of their children are usually confused about their own values and identities. Lacking authority, such parents cannot provide the key ingredient of growing up: a loving force to rebel against." The article continues, "Psychoanalyst Helene Deutsch believes that many parents themselves are still emotional adolescents and it is evident not only in their adoption of youthful dress and fads but in a lack of inner maturity as well."

And the noted authority on infant care, Dr. Spock, comments, "The delinquent child is often acting-out his parents' unconscious desires." Thus, if you can't find an obvious flaw in the parents' personalities, search for one that is deeper-hidden and unconscious.

The message from these people is always the same: "Our theory is correct. If it appears that it didn't produce the desired result, it must be someone else's fault The parent didn't know about the evils of permissiveness." If he did know and the knowledge didn't help, then the parent must have been secretly defective. If an obvious defect cannot be discovered, an unconscious one can be postulated. If the "unconscious" defect is not demonstrable, then the society can be condemned en masse as hypocritical. With all those rationalizations available, you can see how well insulated against objective criticism this theory remains.

The following are two case histories that illustrate again how other rationalizations keep this theory from being discredited:

After the death of a young adult who had committed suicide while under the influence of drugs, I spoke with his father. This man was a law-enforcement officer. As part of his service to the community, he had given lectures on the evils of permissiveness.

One might suspect that the death of his son would have forced a reassessment of his views. However, this was not the case. Rather, the father told me that he had raised his son properly (i.e., non-permissively), but that he had "let up" on him too soon. The father recalled that when the son first began wearing his hair too long and dressing "freakishly," the father had not protested vigorously enough. The father believed that he had failed his son and "lost" him that one summer when he had not forced the son to trim his hair and to dress differently.

Here is another example of a similar situation that came to my attention. Note, again, how the traditional theory escapes with its reputation intact in spite of its obvious failure:

A six-year-old boy who was attending private school had been acting very mischievously in class. Following a conference between the parents and the principal, the conclusion was reached that the child had been "spoiled" and that what he needed was more discipline. The principal asked that he and the teacher be given permission to use various forms of punishment at their own discretion, with the promise that their firmness would "straighten the child out(' for the parents. Note in the principal's offer the implication that the parents themselves were either weak-willed or incompetent.

Parental permission was given. Subsequently the child was punished in all possible ways known to the school authorities, from loss of privileges to severe beatings with a paddle. After one month of this the child had regressed to a completely infantile level of functioning. His speech regressed, he was incontinent day and night, and almost wholly unresponsive to adult authority.

It took a year of kindness, patience, and understanding on the part of the parents to return this severely regressed youngster to his appropriate age level of functioning.

It is to be hoped that after an experience of this sort, the authorities who recommended the "no nonsense" approach would go through a period of prolonged reappraisal of their pet beliefs. This was certainly a situation in which some learning should have occurred. Unfortunately, however, no new learning took place. The school authorities expelled the child. But they did not apologize to the parents for having been wrong. Instead, they told the parents that the child had been spoiled so badly that even the school had been unable to straighten him out. Undoubtedly the school authorities, in good conscience, will use this case as a "horrible example" to illustrate to other parents how dangerous it is to spoil a child.

It is time now for us to stop trying to place the blame for delinquency on either the parents, the child, or society as a whole. These modern attempts to find a source of evil somewhere inside the child, the parents, or society represent nothing more than a sophisticated, twentieth-century form of demonology, in which the public and some professionals are playing the role of high priests in assigning the guilt

Although it will be difficult to do so, we must desist from our self-righteous intellectual, yet basically superstitious, attempts to find fault with the parents' intelligence or character or morals when children become delinquent. We must come to recognize that the average middle-class parent in this country is neither mentally, morally, or psychologically defective. We should all graciously, generously, and compassionately accept the idea that the majority of those parents whose children turn any from parental values or toward the use of dangerous drugs are just as intelligent, informed, sincere, conscientious, moral, and responsible as we ourselves. If we could grant them these virtues instead of attempting to assign blame, we could focus our attention on the real "enemy": the theory and approach to child-rearing prevalent in this country that forces parents to interact with their children in ways that inevitably accentuate angry rather than loving feelings - and thereby produces delinquency. Moreover, we could more readily comprehend the apparent paradox that has been a source of perplexity for centuries: why it is that the most conscientious parents would be so highly prone to producing rebellious, delinquent children.

In the introduction to this book1 I stated: There is no necessity for your child to become remote from you, to turn away from your most respected values, or to turn to the use of dangerous drugs - if you have the courage to act toward him in a manner consistent with those compassionate, humanitarian principles which you have learned from your own Judeo-Christian religious training.

Why is it that I recommend something as commonplace and unsophisticated as the principles of a religious tradition to the post-Freudian, twentieth-century parent? Because upon careful analysis, when all the irrelevant elements are removed, the essence of the problem of drug abuse and other forms of delinquency are the feelings of love or lack of love that exist between people.

Therefore, whoever has spoken most authoritatively on the subject of love between people hat also spoken most authoritatively on the subject of delinquency. In my opinion, no one has ever spoken with greater clarity or authority on this subject than have certain of the Old Testament prophets, the scholarly rabbis, and Jesus.

In various discussions in this book I have attempted to persuade the reader that delinquency is a "disease" which is produced by mismanaged feelings. I have said that the child turns toward drugs and delinquency as the relative strength of his feelings of anger gradually comes to outweigh the feelings of love he holds toward his parents.

If parents understood how positive or negative feelings were created in children, they would know also how delinquency was created. If parents could learn how to produce loving feelings and to avoid producing anger, they would have it within their power to eradicate delinquency. The most excellent guide available for parents in this endeavor is that body of ethical principles given us centuries ago by the Biblical authorities described immediately above. These principles comprise the most complete statement possible on the subject of creating love and reducing anger.

The following is a list of the basic principles which I urge parents to follow at all times in dealing with their children:

The usefulness of these principles derives from the fact that each of them does something constructive about the child's feelings toward the parents. While stated originally as "moral" principles, each of them is in reality a powerful and practical psychological "tool" that can be utilized by the parent to produce loving feelings in the child and to prevent the buildup of anger.

You will recall that I explained in Chapter 1 that it was not sufficient for the parent merely to love the child "inwardly" but that the love had to be demonstrated overtly through specific actions which revealed the love. The value of the principles I am describing here is that each one tells the parent precisely how he is to act toward the child in order to demonstrate his love to the child. This, in turn, produces those loving feelings in the child which immunizes him against delinquency. These principles given us by our greatest thinkers make up in a sense for what nature did not provide us "instinctively" - a clear awareness of the connection between the inner feelings of love and its outward manifestation.

These principles have been thoroughly tested by time. The difficulty with them has never been that they have failed to work, but that people have been too fearful to use them. An act of faith and courage is necessary before an individual dares to depend upon these principles: faith that the power of love is greater than the power of fear for improving the behavior of errant individuals.

1 Craig, Sidney D. Raising Your Child, not by Force but by Love, Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1973

2 See also Jan Hunt's article The Parenting Golden Rule: One Size Fits All.

Excerpted from Craig, Sidney D. Raising Your Child, not by Force but by Love, Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1973, pp. 15-18, by permission of the publishers.