The gentle parenting movement has been flourishing in recent years in reaction to harsher, more authoritarian traditional styles of parenting. Gentle parenting is a style of parenting that is rooted in connection and building a respectful relationship with your children to elicit their cooperation and willing participation, rather than a response based on shame and fear of what will happen if they don’t submit to the demands and rules set by their parents or caregivers.
Instead of children being motivated by fear and punishment, the focus is more on positive reinforcement and patient teaching and training of the child. So, rather than a threat of punishment, if a child doesn’t clean up a spill, a person following gentle parenting would come alongside the child, remind them that we clean up our messes, and offer help if they need it until the child is ready to take responsibility for cleaning up their spills on their own.
Gentle parenting aims to equip the child to make good choices by empowering the child to solve problems and modeling the good choices that they can make. Instead of insisting a child come inside right now, gentle parenting would either offer a choice, “do you want to come inside now, or in five minutes?” or invite them to problem solve with you about what would need to be done for them to be ready to come inside.
How Does Gentle Parenting Work?
At the root of gentle parenting is the idea of connection. One gains cooperation from their child by building a good connection with them. When the relationship between the parent or caregiver and child is close and happy, the child will be more eager to please and cooperate with them.
If a child is resisting your guidance, it may help to arrange to spend some focused one-on-one time with that child, doing something that the child enjoys, to reestablish that connection before moving forward.
One misunderstanding about gentle parenting is that it is permissive parenting, allowing the child to dictate how everything is to be done. But gentle parenting advocates will insist that boundaries are essential and must be enforced in a firm but loving way.
Boundaries must, however, be in line with age-appropriate expectations of what your child is capable of. You need to understand your child and their abilities to make sure that your expectations are developmentally appropriate. Doing this will help you avoid situations that might result in unnecessary frustration.
When trying to enforce boundaries or discipline a child in gentle parenting it is important to avoid any use of shaming or punishment to get the desired reaction. Both shame and punishment will undo some of the connection that has been built up thus far and sets the child against the parent, instead of dealing with problems as things that arise and are tackled together.
Right behavior is taught through directly intervening in dangerous situations, gently reinforcing boundaries, modeling right responses, and the use of natural and logical consequences of their actions as opportunities for learning.
Natural consequences are those that arise naturally in a situation, without any intervention from the parent. If a child plays roughly with his toy and it breaks, his toy won’t be as nice to play with anymore.
Sometimes in the absence of an immediate natural consequence, a logical consequence is recommended. For example, if a child breaks a friend’s toy, the child may need to find a way to replace the friend’s toy by using their own pocket money or doing extra chores to earn the money needed to buy a new one.
In gentle parenting, it is important that the child is treated with respect, and that the parent earns their respect instead of demanding it from them. As the parent, you model the appropriate way of treating others, by behaving in such a way towards your child.
Thus, it is common in gentle parenting circles for parents to ask themselves, “Would I talk that same way to an adult?” and instead choose to explain the reasons behind a boundary or a request than to simply expect immediate obedience.
When a child acts up, a gentle parent will strive for empathy, understanding that a child’s behavior communicates more about what the child is struggling with than a disregard of the parent’s authority. Thus, a child’s behavior should be approached with curiosity.
Is the child having a hard time cooperating because they are tired? Hungry? Not understanding what is expected of them or how to do it? Do they need help? Are they distracted by something else that needs to be dealt with first? A gentle parent will ask questions instead of making assumptions and try to understand what the child’s behavior is communicating to them.
In gentle parenting, any kind of physical discipline is avoided. This breaks the connection with the child and is seen as encouraging further violence and not obedience. Willing cooperation cannot be achieved through fear. Time-outs are also discouraged, as these leave the child alone to deal with their big emotions, instead of giving them the help they need in processing them.
Gentle parenting aims instead to help the child understand and process their big emotions. Time-outs also communicate to the child that either we can’t deal with their behavior, or that we don’t want to see the part of them that is loud, angry, or messy. Instead, time-ins are encouraged.
Time-ins allow the child to process their emotions with the safety of a parent alongside them. It also communicates that they are loved and respected, whatever their behavior has been like that day.
A big part of gentle parenting is the work that a parent or caregiver needs to do on themselves. Gentle parenting involves regulating your own emotions so that you can help the child to navigate theirs.
As people often carry baggage from their childhoods, and as many adults struggle with managing their anger and frustrations, if someone wants to pursue gentle parenting, they may find themselves confronted regularly with their inability to keep their own emotions in check.
And one cannot bring calm to a child struggling with big emotions when they are struggling to restrain the big emotions welling up in themselves. Thus, a gentle parent may need to address their own struggles and emotional regulation skills to be better able to help their children to learn these same skills.
Benefits and Drawbacks of Gentle Parenting
There are many benefits of gentle parenting. Children raised this way will learn healthy emotional regulation early on, as well as other key social skills like problem-solving and empathy. This should help them to become more independent and resourceful and help them develop a greater sense of self-esteem.
With the connection fostered between the children and their parents, they are less likely to keep secrets from them as a relationship of trust and safety would have been established. They would also have seen modeled what healthy relationships among adults look like.
Children raised using gentle parenting are well-placed to be able to show respect, love, and empathy to others around them, as well as regulate and express their own emotions in a healthy way. They will know how to set boundaries, make choices, and take responsibility for their actions. And the child will be able to grow and develop all these skills from a place of comfort and safety.
One of the main drawbacks of gentle parenting is that it is a very intense and time-consuming method of training up your children. It is difficult to implement well if you only have two hours a day with your child as you need to be very hands-on, redirecting your child when needed and working alongside them.
Another challenge is that some parents or caregivers may struggle with discipline problems. While gentle parenting advocates stress that it is not permissive parenting, it can be extremely hard to enforce solid boundaries using primarily natural consequences, and some parents may struggle with allowing their children to make choices to the extent that the child is the authority in the relationship.
There is a lot of good to be gained from gentle parenting, like the focus on teaching from a place of connection and respect, and the need to have developmentally appropriate expectations and to have a posture of curiosity about your child’s behavior. However, gentle parenting can be extremely hard to do consistently, especially if the parents or caregivers themselves struggle with things like emotional regulation or holding boundaries.
Parents and caregivers may not all agree about everything promoted by gentle parenting, like the different understanding of the place or necessity of punishment, but even if they do not choose to follow everything from the gentle parenting method, there is still a lot to be gained from the things that they do teach about learning to parent more gently.
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