In the last decade, the concept of “gentle” or “respectful” parenting has gained considerable traction. The basis of the idea is to be a parent who is emotionally focused on their child, and tries to understand the reasons behind their behavior.
There’s great value in this, but that’s not the whole story. Children also need their caregivers to set clear boundaries.
A common theme of gentle parenting is that parents should not rush in and condemn their children immediately if they do not like what they are doing. Instead, they should stop and listen to their child and then confirm their feelings. For example, they might say “so you’re angry and screaming because you think your brother was unfair when he took your toy, and that upset you”.
Gentle parenting suggests that when a parent shows understanding for the child’s emotional state, it will help the child to calm down. Only after this is done should the parent decide what to do. This approach also has the long-term goal of promoting emotional intelligence. The idea is that as children get older, they will learn to identify their own emotions more thoughtfully and act more appropriately.
Higher emotional intelligence is associated with less emotional problems and higher school performance.
This article is part of Quarter Life, a series on issues affecting those of us in our twenties and thirties. From the challenges of starting a career and taking care of our mental health, to the excitement of starting a family, adopting a pet or just making friends as an adult. The articles in this series explore the questions and bring answers as we navigate through this turbulent period of life.
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But we also know that when it comes to the parent-child relationship, how the parent responds to their child is crucial. After listening and clarifying what the child is feeling, the parent should then build on this to help the child think calmly and positively about the problem and find a good solution.
Respond to children
Parents who do this “react sensitively in the language of child development” to their children, both when the child is upset and when they are happy. A research study of more than 1,000 pairs of children and mothers showed that children whose mothers reacted sensitively in their first three years of life had better social skills at age 15 and also performed better academically.
What’s more, parenting like this can be learned. I did research with colleagues in which groups of parents and children attended a two-hour session each week over three months. During this time, parents are encouraged to go down to the floor to play with the children in a specific way where they make positive comments on the child’s play activity and maintain a positive tone.
They also avoided asking questions, which interrupted the child’s imagination and enforced the adult’s agenda. This has led to an improvement in parents’ sensitive response. It has also led to lasting improvements in child adaptation and reading ability, as seen in our follow-up study of children into adolescence.
However, that’s only half the story. In addition to the warm close relationship created by sensitive reactions to a child, boundaries must also be set. Children need to be able to live with other people in the world and get along with other children and adults. They need to learn how to fit in with externally imposed rules and that there are consequences if they do not. Children need both love and boundaries.
The art is to set calm boundaries and not be angry or explosive as a parent. A frustrated reaction is often unconscious and related to the way the parents themselves were raised; they may know no other way.
The good news is that parents can learn calm, effective discipline. If parents pay close attention when children misbehave, they are more likely to continue to behave badly. The drive for children to feel connected to their parents is so strong that, especially in a background where there is not much attention to go, they will prefer negative attention over none. They soon learn that they have to play to connect, so misconduct becomes more frequent.
The solution is to pay close attention when children are misbehaving, followed by cordially dealing with them when they are behaving better. At this point, emotional feelings can be vented and an appropriate response must be instituted. Such a seemingly simple regime requires a little learning, but usually has a striking effect on improving behavior.
It is also important that if children are encouraged and given warm attention when they are behaving well, they will do more of it.
There is good evidence that it can be helpful to listen to your child and show that you understand them, as long as the next step is to react sensitively and set a calm limit if necessary. All of this should be in the context of a positive relationship where the parent takes the time to have fun with their child.