Gentle Parenting Is A Parenting Style That’s Not for the Weak of Heart

A mother calms her son from a full-blown meltdown by holding him and modeling deep breathing until he gives her a hug and articulates that he wants water. A toddler spills coffee all over his toy shelf and his mother guides him through cleaning up the spill, explains why he can’t do it, and gives him an alternative pouring activity. The boy complies without a fight.

If you’re on TikTok, you’ve more than likely come across a video like this. These parents practice gentle parenting, a parenting approach that builds on authoritative parenting, which is considered the healthiest of the four parenting styles stemming from the work of Diana Baumrind, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley. whose research from the 1960s still provides the definitive framework for understanding parenting styles today. While gentle parenting is certainly more complicated than a 60-second TikTok might show, many experts say it’s an effective, if misunderstood, approach.

“Most people think gentle parenting is permissive parenting,” says Sarah Ockwell-Smith, author of The Gentle Parenting Book and The Gentle Discipline Book. “I think if people don’t really understand what it is, they mistakenly assume that gentle parents have no discipline, no rules, no limits, and just let their kids do whatever they want. They are seen as parents who sit back and make excuses for their children’s behavior.”

So what is gentle parenting really all about? Meet the children where they are, with patience, kindness and understanding. Now, it’s definitely not easy. But it can be effective. Here’s what to know about gentle parenting.

What is gentle parenting?

Gentle parenting is a parenting approach grounded in four central elements: respect, understanding, empathy and boundaries. This is rooted in research that shows strong and healthy bonds with their parents can improve a child’s long-term mental health and resilience. Gentle parenting focuses on fostering the qualities parents want to see in their children by modeling them in age-appropriate ways.

“You don’t want to punish children for being children, just like you wouldn’t punish a dolphin for being a dolphin,” says Ockwell-Smith. “It sounds silly, but the point is, when we punish a toddler for not having impulse control, it’s like punishing a dolphin for not being able to ride a bike. These are both physiologically and psychologically impossible tasks.”

In contrast to a traditional discipline strategy where the focus is primarily on punishment, gentle parenting is more towards the parents teaching and modeling proper behavior to their children. For example, if a parent has trouble getting their toddler dressed in the morning, they might consider having a routine that helps the child know what to expect before, during, and after getting dressed. They will also consider empowering the child by allowing them to choose their own clothes, and using positive affirmations to demonstrate a belief and expectation that the child can dress themselves.

Giving a toddler the option to get dressed right away or to wait a few minutes is another option to give them agency in the process. Of course, every parent knows that some days toddlers will disrupt any kind of progress. That’s when calmly communicating and following through on a logical consequence becomes the final step in the gentle parenting process.

“Kids will always throw tantrums, and teenagers will always talk back and be rude. It’s just what they do because that’s the brain development they have,” says Ockwell-Smith. “So while we want compliance, it is not our primary goal to create or enforce it. What we’re really trying to do is ultimately create mentally healthy adults — happy individuals who can have good relationships and healthy self-esteem.”

Ockwell-Smith does make a distinction between in-the-moment discipline and emergency discipline. There will be urgent situations where parents will not have the luxury of time to work through a gentle parenting process with their children.

“Emergency discipline is stopping a child from running in front of a car, or from throwing your cell phone in the toilet,” she says. “You have to stop that behavior first before you think about being positive. And very often, how we stop it is not positive, because we will often shout.”

However, once the situation is no longer an emergency, parents can tell their children why they reacted that way and safer decisions their child can make in the future.

Although comprehensive research on gentle parenting has not yet been published, many of the principles upon which gentle parenting is based have been studied and found positive results. For example, a 2019 study published in The Journal of Experimental Child Psychology suggests that gentle encouragement can help shy toddlers to better regulate themselves in social contexts. And a focus on discipline as a teachable moment instead of punishment was shown in a 2014 study to help children better understand how to behave, while not exposing them to ways of speaking and behaving that parents do not want their children to imitate.

Why gentle parenting is so hard

Gentle parenting is not for the faint of heart. Parents can watch all the TikToks they want and read everything gentle parenting experts have to offer, but implementing those skills is often challenging. This requires parents to be calm when their child is angry, which is especially difficult if you are tired or stressed.

But the shift to gentle parenting is built on the parent learning how to be patient, and to unlearn some of the more controlling parenting habits they may have picked up as children.

“Most of our families are really messed up. So we in turn are confused,” says Ockwell-Smith. “Gentle parenting is really hard work, because in order to treat our children kindly, we almost have to readjust ourselves and understand our baggage and understand what makes us who we are.”

Doing all that introspection at once while adopting a new parenting framework is a lot for anyone. But the times when parents are watching their children or not using gentle parenting methods can be learning opportunities for future growth.

“What we parents need to do is understand themselves more,” says Ockwell-Smith. “Gentle parenting becomes much more instinctive and natural when you understand your triggers in your upbringing, and why you feel compelled to yell at your child or punish them for something.”

It can be easy to fall into a shame cycle when trying to tackle such a drastic change as gentle parenting. So if you’re going to try this parenting style, don’t be so hard on yourself if you make mistakes. Because it is almost impossible for parents to practice gentle parenting if they are not gentle with themselves.

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