When does laissez-faire parenting become neglect?

A mother has lost custody of her children because she gave them too much freedom. So how do you draw the line between liberalism and laxity?
  • @JoannaMoorhead

When is a parent too permissive? Or, to put it another way, when does permissiveness become "neglect"? Two stories in the news recently have brought the question into focus. One was the High Court ruling this week that an unnamed 41-year-old is to lose custody of her two sons after the judge heard that she would leave them to their own devices for up to three hours when they came in from school while she chatted on her phone, took naps or was on her iPad. The other was a letter to parents sent last week by Caerphilly head teacher Morian Morgan after pupils as young as six were found acting out violent and sexual scenes in the playground, some resulting in actual harm, from the 18-rated computer game series Grand Theft Auto, in which players take on the roles of underworld criminals.

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". 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 (and as the Grand Theft Auto story illustrates, a parent's notion about that may be naive).

The truth is, when your children are very young, the boundary between being relaxed and neglectful is fairly clear. But as they get older, it's much easier to leave kids to do their own thing, knowing they're unlikely to come to any harm while you take a bath/nip out to the shops/make some calls or work on your iPad.

But the big question a parent needs to be asking, all the time, is: am I meeting my child's needs? Of course, parents have needs, too. We have to meet our own needs for outside stimulation, friendship and relaxation so we can be better parents; and, as the mother of 12- and 15-year-old children myself (the court case mother's boys were 11 and 14), I know how constantly demanding kids of this age can be. Sometimes, it's tempting to buy yourself some peace by turning a blind eye to exactly what they're up to but, says Dr Carol Burniston, a Wakefield-based clinical child psychologist, what absolutely matters is being receptive to them when they come looking for contact, or direction, or advice. There's no doubt whatsoever, Dr Burniston says, about what matters most for children: it's communication and relationships. Better to work less so you can afford fewer "things" for them, but have more time to be with them. "Your children will tell you that money and 'stuff' is what matters most, but what they'll remember is whether you were there to talk the day they came looking for you because something had gone wrong, or whether you were buried in your iPad," she says.

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. All of these are massive, neon-lighted signs that a parent needs to change. Equally, Mr Morgan's letter to parents in his school should have alerted them to the need to revisit what computer games their kids are playing.

Like so much in parenting, being reflective goes a long way. Children's needs change all the time and individual children differ in terms of how much space they need and when it's time to lay down boundaries. Kids need both; but most of all, they need parents who are properly tuned to their needs, because permissiveness isn't a byword for "uncaring".