Written by 9:00 am Parenting

Bad Parenting 101: Laissez-faire but Not Lackadaisical

Laissez-faire parenting at the playground

Yup. That’s me. On the ground. While my five-year-old kid scales a rope climbing structure at a public playground. In a few minutes, he will be close to seven metres off the ground, with nothing to stop him from falling. This spider web is no safety net.

Many would consider my parenting style substandard, mediocre at best. I am indifferent if the kid gets one out of five words correct for his spelling test, unimpressed if he can recite his multiplication tables, mildly surprised if he can write his name in Mandarin. My fatherly duties involve dropping the kid at Toys“R”Us, or Timezone, or an indoor playground, and the occasional reluctant catcher role at the park.

If a “helicopter” parent were defined as one who oversees every aspect of a child’s life with over-enthused scrutiny, I would probably be a “satellite” parent. Hands off, at a distance (preferably with access to caffeine, seating not required, perfectly fine with the floor) but surveying in silence.

(See also: Are You A Helicopter Parent? You Could be Hurting Your Infant)

Laissez-faire parenting - Jude feeding pigeons in Barcelona, Spain
Jude feeding pigeons in Barcelona, Spain

Sorry, kid, just the luck of the draw.

Leading Our Children

Much research has been done on leadership, what defines a good leader, and how leadership has evolved over time. During a Judgement and Decision-making course covering academic literature on leadership that I took as a PhD candidate, it struck me how leadership constructs compare to parenting styles, the implicit assumption being that we are all leaders of our children.

Psychologist Kurt Lewin is credited for developing a framework to reflect two opposing leadership styles: one that is autocratic and the other, laissez-faire.

Perhaps the more frowned upon archetype, and I would argue misunderstood, is the laissez-faire approach. Be it a laissez-faire leader or parent, it immediately conjures up connotations of “lazy”, “absent”, “disengaged”. Is laissez-faire leadership really all that Machiavellian?

Laissez-faire parenting - Jude having a bath, with Diego the dog
Diego observes Jude taking a bath at home

Autocratic leaders usually make decisions without the consultation of team members. This can lead to faster decision-making but also at the expense of ignoring potential useful input. Employees under such autocracy feel disempowered and demoralised, which invariably leads to disengagement and higher turnover.

I notice autocratic parents all the time; they rarely listen to what their child has to say or pause to even contemplate whether their input is worth incorporating into their final decision. Maybe it is a “tiger” parenting style, where we as adults think we know best, when in fact, we really do not.

(See also: Maya Thiagarajan, Author of Beyond The Tiger Mom, balances East-West parenting styles)

To Let Do, and Let Go

Conversely, a laissez-faire approach attempts to engage the employee or child through empowerment. A particularly good example is laissez-faire economics, a theory which restricts government intervention in the economy. However, laissez-faire economics has a bad reputation, and is often blamed for worsening the Great Depression of 1950.

Laissez-faire parenting - Jude drags a giant float
In the hallway of a hotel in Bangkok, Thailand

However, many fail to acknowledge the lack of governmental intervention on fortifying individual rights protection from disproportionately powerful corporations. The key to a strong laissez-faire economy is when the government lets the market do its own thing, but steps in to protect the rights of individuals.

Likewise, a laissez-faire parenting approach is not a “do as you please, I don’t give a damn” attitude. Instead, it puts a strong focus on protecting children’s fundamental rights, so that they can thrive. The right to education, the right to play, the right to freedom and peace. It is coming to the rescue when your child’s right to a safe, productive environment is jeopardised. It is certainly not about ignorantly allowing your child to toy with death.

(See also: 13 Places to Tackle Bouldering and Rock Climbing for Kids (+ Elliott Goes Upwall Climbing!))

Laissez-faire parenting should not be portrayed as some no-holds-barred permissive style in which parents avoid providing guidance and discipline, make no demands for maturity, and give in to their child’s every whim and fancy. Rather, it is about attempting to maximise children’s leadership potential. It is about allowing them to navigate complexities and solve their problems their way.

Jude in a doggy pool
Jude in a doggy pool

We, as parents, should acknowledge that the world is not dichotomous in nature. After all, a lot of life lessons are counterintuitive as well. How we struggle to prevent our possessions from possessing us, how we sometimes take a step back to move forward. Similarly, we love by letting go. We raise successful children by accepting that good parenting involves letting your child fumble through the greyness of life.

A Bonsai Plant

A bonsai plant is an artificial construct. Painstakingly pruned but stunted in growth, an abnormality without doubt. We control how much fertiliser the plant can have, how much sun to expose it to. Just like we moderate what a child can watch, see, do, and think. This primary school, that co-curricular activity, the extra classes, multiple online tuition, instructions to sleep at this time, read only these books, don’t watch those TV shows, eat only certain kinds of foods — all nothing but pruning attempts.

(See also: “My Daughter Wants Me to Be More Like You!”

For a bonsai, every pruning attempt opens a wound that requires more effort to heal, risking infection in the process. Children are the same; they cannot thrive if you manage them that way — manicured and shaped to your desire.

We end up educating the wonder out of them, nagging the imagination out of them, lecturing the curiosity out of them. So much effortful parenting and careful deliberation, all to prevent children from doing what they could naturally do — to grow. 

There will come a day when we will be dead and gone.
We will not be there for our children.
We will not be there to parent.
We will not be there to provide a safety net.
We will not be there to lead them out of harm’s way.
What then?

Joyful Jude floating in a pool

Would you settle for a potted bonsai, or an oak tree?

(See also: An Insider’s Look into The Coup in Myanmar)

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