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The What, Why, and How of Gentle Parenting

Updated: Nov 1, 2023

gentle parenting

In my high school and college psychology classes we were taught about 4 child-rearing styles: authoritarian, authoritative, uninvolved, and permissive. Strict, firm but fair, absent, and pushover, respectively. They were pretty self-explanatory. Now we are inundated with lots of different parenting philosophies- free-range parenting, tiger parenting, Montessori, helicopter parenting, slow parenting, attachment parenting, and more. By now most of us have heard the phrase “gentle parenting”, and depending on who you talk to it can either elicit an eye roll or enthusiasm. But with the rise in popularity has come a lot of misinformation, incorrect assumptions, and strong opinions. In this post, we will look at what gentle parenting actually is, what it isn’t, and what it looks like in practice. By the end, you should have a clear idea of whether gentle parenting is right for your family, and how you could implement it at home.

A good place to start in defining gentle parenting is to establish what it doesn’t mean. Gentle parenting is not permissive, it is not avoiding discipline, and it is not giving in to your child or their misbehavior. The idea is not refusing to give consequences for poor choices. Instead, it says that the way we interact with our kids should be guided by respect, empathy, understanding, and consistent boundaries. Children thrive on structure and predictability. Gentle parenting establishes clear rules and consequences that are based on logic and development and looks to decipher why a child is acting the way they are in order to determine those consequences. The purpose of discipline in this context is to teach a lesson that can be applied throughout life, not to simply punish or make them feel bad. This shows them not only how they should act, but why they should act in that way. The ultimate goal of gentle parenting involves working as a family collaboratively, teaching kids to express their emotions and control their behaviors in a way that is age-appropriate and socially acceptable. The long-term vision of a child raised with this method is one who is happy, confident, secure, independent, and emotionally mature. These kids are flexible and have a high tolerance for stress and frustration that stays with them to adulthood. Gentle parenting involves modeling the behavior you want to see. The idea is that we don’t want our children to scream, hit, throw things, name call, roll their eyes, or disrespect us, so we don’t do those things to them. We help our kids regulate their emotions by demonstrating what it looks like while we are redirecting them. It is especially effective when we can model self-control during stressful times. This philosophy also involves having age-appropriate expectations. A two-year-old is much less capable of handling exhaustion or overwhelm than a 10-year-old. A 4-year-old telling a lie is different from an 8-year-old telling a lie. The ages at which children should be expected to know how to do things like sharing, waiting their turn, keeping their rooms clean, being honest, and controlling their temper is based on development research and neuroscience.

A large part of being a gentle parent is discerning bad behavior from a developmentally appropriate struggle. As an example, the attention span of the average two-year-old is about 4-6 minutes. They also have notoriously poor impulse control. It’s not realistic to expect a 2-year-old to entertain themselves for 20 minutes while you take a phone call, because they are developmentally incapable of doing so. Disciplining them would be ineffective, frustrating, and demotivating for your toddler. Your 7-year-old, on the other hand, has an average attention span of 20 minutes and a more developed prefrontal cortex meaning they have some capacity to think before they do something. If it has already been established that they are not allowed to interrupt you on the phone unless it is an emergency, then you would evaluate what is behind the behavior and enact a calm but firm and appropriate response. In a similar way, it’s not realistic to expect an 18-month-old to never put toys in their mouth. Instead of disciplining a behavior they can’t help, it would be more effective to remind them, remove the toy from their mouth, and redirect. A preschooler would absolutely know better than to put toys in their mouth and so if they were doing that it would be appropriate to take the offending toy away for a while. Not to make them sad, but to give them time to start over and make a better choice. Remember that the goal is not punishment, revenge, or “giving them what they deserve”, but helping them learn to make smart choices for themselves. It is also paramount to consider how your child’s environment will affect what is an appropriate expectation of them. A child in a calm environment who is not hungry, tired, agitated, or stressed is going to be more adept at following directions and controlling their emotions. Every child is a little bit different in terms of what causes the biggest struggle for them, and it’s good to know these things and help prevent them from being an issue. Maybe your child gets wildly overstimulated at birthday parties, or maybe missing a snack makes your child more prone to meltdowns. These are things where we can solve the root problem of the behavior and then remind them that their reaction was not okay. There will also be times when emotional stressors might make a child more prone to defiance or misbehavior. If a fight with a friend or issues at home are weighing on their hearts, it might be a hug and not a lecture that they need.

Another tenant is understanding that it is your child's behavior or choices, not them, that is naughty. It’s very important to use that lens when viewing the actions of children. You are not mad at your daughter, you are mad at her decision. This distinction can impact how discipline affects a child's self-esteem. When kids are punished frequently, especially for behavior they are struggling to regulate without assistance, it leads to them thinking they are inherently bad. This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy where they stop trying to be anything else because it feels futile and disappointing. When we don’t make sure to emphasize that bad choices don’t make you a bad person, we risk crushing their spirits and making them afraid to tell us when they’ve made a mistake. Kids tend to think in a very black-and-white, all-or-nothing manner. This has to do with what we’ve been highlighting a lot in this article- their brain development. Because they often lack the ability to instinctively see nuance, if we don’t separate people from their choices it can lead them to not only see their own value as the sum of their mistakes but other people as well. A child’s world is divided into good guys and bad guys, with very simplistic criteria for each. The message that everyone messes up, even good people, and that it’s okay to apologize and move on is invaluable for the fostering of empathy and compassion.

Thirdly, display the behavior you want to see in them. Children love to mimic their role models. Phrases like “monkey see, monkey do” are cliche but true. Think of what kind of reaction you would expect from your kids in any situation, and use that to guide your own behavior. You wouldn’t condone your son yelling at his brother for annoying him, so it would be important not to yell at him for annoying you. Our kids are sponges, constantly learning and soaking up what we show them. They are trusting us to guide them and teach them how to be human and thrive in the world around us. Everything we do is a lesson on appropriate behavior, decisions, and language. ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ simply won’t teach your kids to trust and respect you.

The final component is using empathy to guide your reactions to the behavior. Our kids want to please us. They want us to love them and be happy with them- it’s hard-wired into them. Even kids who aren’t as obvious at expressing their desire for your validation still crave it. This is important to keep in mind when assessing their behavior. Most of the time their choices are not made out of malice or a desire to hurt, but from poor decision-making skills, physical or emotional needs that aren’t being met, confusion, or big feelings they don’t know how to handle. If you can think back to a time in your childhood when you remember being scared, angry, sad, or overwhelmed, you’ll probably remember that your problem felt much much bigger than it was. Those huge, sudden emotions cause us to feel chaotic and a little scared, and can make us seek ways to feel in control, or make us melt down altogether. This can look like yelling, crying over things that don’t seem like a big deal, defiance, anger, destructive behavior, or zoning out or ignoring you. When you see your child behaving irrationally, remember that they are uncomfortable and need you to be their source of stability and calm. Another thing to help you use compassion when interacting with your child is to remember that because of their lack of life experience and still-developing brains, things often do feel like a really big deal to them. They worry there actually won’t ever be another playdate, or maybe you won’t ever come back from your errands, or perhaps their show will never come on the tv again. The older we get, the faster we perceive time to move. This is because our brain processes new experiences more in-depth. Familiar situations and experiences don’t get the same level of attention. Some examples of this are how the first time you take a drive, it feels longer than the subsequent times you take that same path. You may also remember that the older you got, the faster your summers seemed to go. Christmas seems to spring upon you now when as a child it felt like it took years to get here. For kids, 5 minutes really can feel like an eternity. Having to wait until after dinner or school to play can actually feel unbearably long to them, so remembering this when they act out can help you communicate in a way that makes them feel understood.

Why gentle parenting? What makes it different or better than any other parenting style? Lots of research has been done on what kinds of discipline are most effective, what ways of communication get kids to listen best, and how the way we parent affects their brains and personality. According to studies, children raised with gentle parenting have considerably lower levels of anxiety than those raised with other methods. There was a particular study done involving shy toddlers that showed they exhibited much less fear and anxiety when gentle parenting was used with them. These kids are also more empathetic, problem solves on their own earlier, and are better at regulating their emotions. They are less likely to keep secrets from their parents and tend to be internally motivated instead of being guided to seek a reward or avoid a punishment. This comes in handy because it means less bribery and negotiations, and children who will work hard and do what's right without expecting something for it. Gentle parenting also facilitates a more positive bond between parents and children, which promotes healthy relationships for life and increases their neural connection formation. Further, kids who feel safe and are having their emotional needs met are better able to explore, learn, and do things independently.

Another big plus to gentle parenting is that as a caregiver, it leaves you feeling more confident, capable, and happy. No one enjoys the feeling of yelling at their kids, losing control, repeatedly nagging, making empty threats, or hurting their child’s feelings. It takes a lot of patience and practice, and no one is perfect, but when you begin to consistently parent gently you will find that you feel better too. Watching the changes in your kids and your relationship with them is the greatest reward for all of your hard work. You may even notice that you’re being kinder to yourself too!

You may be thinking to yourself, “okay, but I’ve tried to do this and it doesn’t work”. You may feel stuck in a cycle of trying to be kind, being ignored, and then ending up losing your temper and going back to old habits. Parenting is hard, and gentle parenting is even harder. It requires patience, self-control, humility, and learning to regulate our own emotions. It’s especially tricky if it’s not the way we were raised because we all tend to fall into habits and the behaviors we are used to. This requires conscious decision-making on our part multiple times a day. Remember that these changes will not happen overnight. Find small ways to make changes, continue building on them, and be patient with yourself. Even when you are largely implementing this method, you will have days when it doesn’t go according to plan. That’s okay too, we are all human. I’m going to go through a few scenarios, a few dos and dont’s, and practical tips for the moment. In general, gentle parenting is a lot like the golden rule- do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Don’t name call. Instead of “you’re being a brat” you could say “your behavior is very frustrating to me, and I know you can make better choices”.

Don’t hit. In the heat of the moment, especially when tensions are running high, it can be tempting to spank. In the long run, this is not effective. There is no judgment here if you have spanked, but ultimately it is an ineffective method of discipline that doesn’t reap the intended results. Remember also that the goal of gentle parenting is to model the behavior we want to see, and we don’t want our kids to respond to their anger or frustration by hitting. Instead, say “I am feeling very upset right now and I need to take some deep breaths before we continue talking about this.” Leave the room for a few minutes to calm yourself, and then return to continue handling the situation. This does not mean you don’t discipline your kids, especially when they make seriously bad choices, but it does mean we should be selective about how we discipline to get the desired result. It should also be noted that spanking as a punishment for the child being disrespectful or mean to you is particularly unhelpful. It doesn’t teach them to respect you, it teaches them that you are unwilling to hear criticism and shows them exactly what buttons to push to make you lose control.

Don’t use guilt to motivate. Besides the fact that this can damage your child’s psyche and teach them not to stand up for themselves, this doesn’t actually instill empathy but instead teaches manipulation. Instead of “If you loved me you would do the dishes when I ask you to” or “I bet you wish you had a different mommy/daddy/nanny” stick to non-emotional arguments. “I asked you to do the dishes. I know you want to finish your game, but they need to be done now. You can finish what you were doing after”. If your child is being unkind to you, you could say, “Even if this is not what you are trying to do, your words/actions are making me feel sad. Please don’t do/say that anymore”.

Don’t jump to conclusions. Make sure to ask your child their perspective on what they did and why. Instead of “I know you colored on the walls!”, you could say “I see there is a crayon on the wall at your height. Can you tell me how that got there? Why did you do that?”. From there you have the discussion on why the behavior was not okay and enforce the consequence (the child needs to clean it up themselves, or after a second offense is not allowed to have crayons unless they are sitting at the table).

Do choose consequences that make sense to the behavior. These are also called “natural consequences” or “logical consequences”. If your child isn’t completing all their homework because they are spending too much time playing a video game, a fair consequence would be to set the boundary that they can’t play video games until homework is finished. Once they can demonstrate that this rule is no longer needed, it could be evaluated. It wouldn’t make sense to discipline your child for this behavior by making them pick up sticks in the yard, because the two are unrelated.

Do keep your voice calm, even-tempered, and respectful. The second you lose control of your voice, you lose control of the situation. Your tone, body language, and word choice will affect your child’s behavior.

Do consider your child’s physical and emotional state in your response. Kids who are hungry, tired, sick, or going through something stressful are less able to control themselves and their behavior, so keep that in mind.

Do apologize when you are wrong. If you overreact, snap, or say or do something you regret to your child, you should apologize. This is not weakness, it is showing them that it is okay to be wrong and that it is right to admit your mistakes. It will also increase your child’s respect for you and their trust in you. Try “I’m sorry I yelled at you. Yelling is not okay, and I will do my best not to do it again”. Do not include any buts. Apologies should not be conditional or excuse-laden. Avoid “I’m sorry I yelled, but you made me so mad.” or “I’m sorry I snapped at you, but that wouldn’t happen if you listened better”. Apologizing is about owning up to our actions, regardless of the circumstances that led up to it. This doesn’t mean don’t address their behavior, it just means keep it separate from taking responsibility for yours.

Do respect your child’s physical boundaries. If your child does not want to hug or touch someone, even if that someone is you, that’s okay. Asserting their autonomy is not disrespect or misbehavior at any age, and forcing them to ignore their need for space or disciplining them for it is unhealthy for them in the long run. You would not force an adult to touch someone if they didn’t want to, and so we shouldn’t require it of kids either.

Do be patient with yourself. No one is perfect, and change takes time. Parenting is a journey, just continue to take steps in the direction of the parent you want to be.

Do switch from time-out to time-in. Both involve the child taking a break for reflection, but the difference is in reframing its purpose. Time-out is having your child sit alone so they will be bored and regret their choices so they won't make them again. It says, “I can’t handle your big feelings either, so I’m going to make you sit somewhere alone”. The problem with this is that often kids need help navigating their emotions and decisions and isolating them doesn’t teach them how to behave differently in the future. It also doesn’t teach them to come to you when they are struggling, but instead to isolate themselves. Time-in is framed as an opportunity for the child to take a break from an over-stimulating environment in order to cool off (which the adult helps them do) and get to a more rational mindset so their behavior can be discussed and redirected. The child could be offered to do something that might help calm them down, like reading a book or watching a lava lamp. It might look something like this: Your 4-year-old daughter has been testing boundaries. You asked her to stop throwing her cars, but she continues to do so. You tell her that if she doesn’t play with them correctly they will be put away for the rest of the day. In response to this, she dumps the whole bucket, screams, and throws a handful of matchbox cars at you. At this point, she is not rational and it would be ineffective to try and discipline her. You pick her up and bring her to a quiet, private room, and sit with her in your lap or next to you until she stops screaming, even if she continues to yell, calls you names, or escalates. You ignore these things and wait for her to calm down. When she is quiet you say “It seems like you’re having a hard time listening today, and the way you handled your anger was not okay. We are going to take a break so you can reset and try again. Would you like to look at a book by yourself or with me?” After five minutes you ask “can you tell me what happened out there?” Your daughter tells you she wanted to pretend the cars were flying and was mad you asked her not to throw them. You say “Making the cars fly does sound like fun, but throwing them inside could hurt someone or break something. Maybe instead you can make the cars fly while holding them.” Then you ask her “What can we do next time instead of throwing a fit?” You problem-solve together that next time she should tell you why she is upset instead. You give her a hug and tell her she needs to go pick up the cars she dumped out, and then she can try playing the new way she thought of. Everyone leaves feeling calmer, and now if the behavior starts up again you can remind her of your conversation during the time in.

Remember it’s still helpful and there are still benefits even if you mix and match parenting styles to fit your family. No kids are exactly the same, and sometimes even siblings will each need a different approach.

Here is a general format to use when correcting your child’s behavior.

First, validate their feelings. Second, remind them of the boundary or rule. Third, provide an explanation. Four, offer an alternative, solution, or reassurance.

This could look like:

“I know you’re hungry and that is an uncomfortable feeling. I am making dinner, so I don’t want you to fill your tummy up with a snack. Do you want to help me cook to make the time go faster?”

“I can see that you really want that toy. Your sister is playing with it, and it’s still her turn. How about we play with this while we wait?”

“I know you want to go to this sleepover, and I know you would feel like you are missing out if you don’t, but you have soccer practice at 7 am tomorrow and you will be too tired if you go. We can plan a sleepover for a weekend when you don’t have early practice.”

“You seem really upset that you lost the game you were playing. It’s disappointing when we don’t win, but it’s still important to be a good sport. You’ll have other chances to play again. Would you like a hug?”

Your child might still fight you on this or not like your solution. Maintain your calm demeanor and just repeat what you said before. This is where patience comes in. The first time you do this it may not have the result you hope for, but stay patient and keep with it. When your child learns that you care about and understand what they’re feeling, that you mean what you say and you have a reason for your rules and that they can’t get a rise out of you, they’ll listen. Try to remember that it’s hard not being able to make your own choices, especially if there’s something you really want, and kids are still figuring out how to handle that disappointment. Some adults still can’t!

When you are in the midst of a difficult situation with your child and are struggling to maintain your composure, don’t be afraid to take a step back if you need to. Make sure to meet your own needs so your fuse won’t be as short, and you’ll be better able to be consistent in your boundaries and discipline. Ask for help when you need it, no one can do everything on their own. You may find in trying to implement a gentle parenting strategy that a lot of your own unresolved emotions and issues are coming up. It’s important to address those because that will make it easier to be the caregiver you want to be and to give your best self to your child.

That’s the gist of gentle parenting, so now when you see it discussed you know what it looks like and what it doesn’t, and that it doesn’t mean being permissive or having no boundaries. Gentle parenting is not for the faint of heart, but it does have a lot of benefits in the short and long term for the entire family unit.

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