In parenting, where is the line between freedom and neglect?

Feb 28, 2014, 9:51 PM | Updated: 9:51 pm

How one parents — with an approach that is authoritarian, authoritative or permissive — stops being a matter of personal style when it becomes a legal issue.

That happened recently in the United Kingdom when a British High Court ruled that a mother's “permissive” parenting style may be more neglectful than it is simply casual and hands-off.

The ruling has raised questions around the world about parenting styles and appropriate boundaries.

“A mother who let her sons play computer games for hours on end and was more like their 'friend' than a parent has had them removed from her care,” wrote The Telegraph's John Bingham.

He said that the woman, 41, left her tween and teen, 11 and 14, to amuse themselves for “extended periods while she chatted on the telephone, used her iPad or took naps.”

The boys reportedly didn't have regular bedtimes, were often late to school and generally lacked boundaries. Judge Laura Harris gave custody to the boys' father, 43, saying that their mother had “significantly failed” to parent them correctly.

The judge said in her ruling, “I am satisfied that there is a failure to provide proper guidance and boundaries essential for the social and emotional development of these preadolescent and adolescent boys.

“Further, I have real concerns about her as a role model,” Harris said. She also noted that the mother had apparently gone out of her way to try to poison the children's thoughts regarding their father.

“Many parents today misunderstand their role,” parenting expert Leonard Sax, a family doctor who has both an M.D. and Ph.D. in Chester County, Penn., and who wrote 'Girls on the Edge and Boys Adrift,' told WebMD's Lisa Fields. “They often see their role as making sure the son or daughter gets into a top college and protecting the son or daughter from disappointment. They are there, providing the safety net in situations where it might be wiser to let the kid experience the consequences.”

The article noted ways in which parents are too permissive, including failing to set limits or establish routines, avoiding conflict, letting kids use school as an excuse to avoid doing chores and responsibilities, trying to be a friend rather than a parent and “rewarding kids with technology.”

At Aha! Parenting, Dr. Laura Markham said parents who don't set limits harm their children. “Kids need limits for healthy emotional development,” she wrote. “Not unreasonable limits, and definitely empathic limits in the context of a strong parent-child connection, but kids do need appropriate limits.”

If parents don't set limits, there are a number of risks, but it boils do to the fact that “the permissive parenting style undermines the parent-child relationship,” she said.

“We've heard plenty of criticism of parents who 'helicopter' their kids; who timetable extra-curricular activities into every last corner of the day and who hover relentlessly, constantly checking that they are doing something 'improving' or 'educational,'” wrote The Independent's Joanna Moorhead.

“The cases in the news, though, point up the opposite end of what can go wrong in parenting — a kind of extreme laissez-faire; an attitude that kids can do what they want as long as they're not in physical danger,” Moorhead said.

As for advice, “luckily, there are alarm bells for parents — and most of us are alert enough to respond when one goes off. For example, the High Court heard that the boys in the custody battle were often late for school or absent from it, or hadn't done their homework,” continued Moorhead. “All of these are massive, neon-lighted signs that a parent needs to change.”

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In parenting, where is the line between freedom and neglect?