What Is Gentle Parenting? Here’s What You Need To Know

If you have a parent who spends time on social media, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of “gentle parenting.” On Instagram there are over 650,000 posts with the hashtag #gentleparenting; on TikTok, videos with that hashtag have received more than 1.7 billion views.

So what does gentle parenting mean actually involve? The philosophy is not very clearly defined. As New York Times opinion writer Jessica Grose put it: Gentle parenting is a bit of an “open-source melange, interpreted and remixed by moms across the country.”

But parenting experts generally agree on a few basic principles: It’s about being responsive to your child’s needs and curious about their feelings, setting and maintaining firm boundaries, and improving behavior through discussion and modeling, instead of of using punishment and reward.

“Rather than viewing children as in any way ‘less than’ the adult, gentle parenting is about mutual respect and collaborative problem-solving,” parenting coach Sarah R. Moore — founder of Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting — told HuffPost. “It’s about shifting our mindset from ‘parent versus child’ to ‘parent and child, together, toward whatever problem we’re trying to solve’.”

Another part of the gentle parenting ethos is to recognize where your child is developmentally and adjust your expectations of them accordingly. For example, it is developmentally normal for preschool children to have difficulty sharing; they can’t even grasp the concept until the age of 3. So scolding your toddler for being possessive about their favorite toy isn’t going to do either of you any good.

“We parent the whole child, looking at needs, feelings and individual development, rather than simply managing behaviour. It’s not punishable,” Moore said. “We work under the assumption that children do the best they can with the emotional tools and resources they have at any given moment. We give them grace to be human.”

“The goal is to be able to go to bed most nights feeling good about our relationships with our kids, and knowing that our kids think we’re pretty good most of the time, too.”

– Sarah R. Moore, founder of Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting

Gentle parenting overlaps with other approaches you may have heard of, such as positive parenting, authoritative parenting, and mindful parenting. While there may be some nuances between them, try not to get hung up on the subtle differences, Moore said.

“There’s no ‘quiz’ you have to pass,” she said of being a gentle parent. “Instead ask these questions: Do I feel peaceful most of the time, and does my child also experience my parenting as peaceful? Do I lead by love or fear?”

The goal is to act as your child’s emotional safe place, Moore said.

“We want to be benevolent guides. We will never go wrong by showing respect, emotional regulation and compassion.”

What gentle parenting looks like in real life

Moore gave an example of a young child who just made a big mess in the living room with their toys scattered everywhere – an all too familiar scene for many caregivers. Some parents may get angry and tell the child to clean everything themselves – and if the child refuses, they will face some kind of punishment.

However, someone who practices gentle parenting will understand that making a mess with toys is developmentally normal for a child of this age and will approach the situation differently.

“Kids are not ‘wired’ to care about mess,” Moore said. “Their brains are supposed to be all about play. That’s how they learn.”

“To meet them where they are developmentally, we can choose to get playful too – inviting them to let the stuffed animals “drive” the cars and trucks back to their “garages” – [aka] the toy bins — next to us,” she added. “It gets the job done and models what we want the end result to be. However, we teach the child in ways that make sense for their growing minds.”

Parenting coach Destini Ann Davis, who has gained a huge following under the handle @Destini.Ann on Instagram and TikTok, shared an example of what to do when a child is chatting with friends instead of doing their homework.

“As a gentle parent who prioritizes connection, curiosity, communication and cooperation, I can proceed in the following way: First, I will connect with my child through empathy and understanding: ‘I see that it is really difficult for you right now. ‘ Then I’ll get curious, ‘What’s going on?'” says Davis, author of the forthcoming book “Very Intentional Parenting.”

She will then use that information to communicate her concerns in a compassionate way. Something like, “Ahh, I see. You really want to finish talking to your friends. Understandable! My concern is that if you don’t do your homework before practice, it won’t get done at all because you’re always so tired afterward,” Davis said.

Finally, she would move to the collaboration stage and try to figure out a way to solve problems together by saying something like: “I wonder if there’s a way you can talk to your friends and still get your homework done before practice? Do you have two hours? Can we think of a realistic way to allocate time to both?” Davis suggested.

What people get wrong about gentle parenting

People often criticize soft parenting for being too permissive. But setting and maintaining healthy limits is actually a core part of the philosophy, Moore said.

“However, the difference between this way of parenting and many others is that we rarely create rules unilaterally. We value our children’s perspectives and work, where possible, to find win/win solutions.”

Parents should strive to be firm and consistent in keeping these boundaries. For example, say the kid in the homework example above promises to get off their phone in 30 minutes and then doesn’t hold up their end of the bargain.

“A parent can use a boundary to gently maintain the mutually agreed upon expectation,” Davis said. “Hey, I see you’re still on the phone after our agreed time. I would like you to end that call. I believe you can handle it. If it becomes a challenge, I’m going to hold the phone until you finish your homework.”

“I can say with certainty that breaking generational patterns and unhealthy cycles is some of the hardest, yet most important, work parents can do.”

– Moore

Others may assume that gentle parenting is lazy or the easy way out. Moore said it’s quite the opposite.

“In my experience coaching parents around the world, I can confidently say that breaking generational patterns and unhealthy cycles is some of the hardest, yet most important, work parents can do.”

On the other hand, other parents may say that soft parenting is too difficult – they prefer that their children just obey them without question. Although gentle parenting can be difficult to practice, especially at first, Moore has found that it tends to make the parent-child relationship smoother and stronger over time.

“That [obey without questioning] mindset is fraught with potential problems, but putting that aside for now, I’d argue that with a little practice, gentle parenting actually becomes a lot easier than many of the alternatives,” Moore said. “If our children feel emotionally connected to us, they naturally want to do good for us. We will have less power struggles and meltdowns, and more genuine joy together.”

Don’t stop trying to be the perfect gentle parent

Like all parents, gentle parents make mistakes. It’s all part of the process, and no one can age this way 100% of the time.

“We have to apologize to our children. We sometimes struggle with our answers. Some of us shout sometimes. Some of us sometimes enforce punishments. Some of us inadvertently lean into ego or fear-based discipline strategies,” Davis said.

The difference is what you do in the aftermath of your less-than-tender parenting moments.

“We take responsibility for our actions and apologize to our children when we fall short so that we can keep the relationship an emotionally safe space,” Davis explained. “We find the support we need to grow and become better for ourselves and our children. And we are committed to trying our best every day to show the kindness, generosity, resilience and respect that we try to teach our children.”

Moore echoed a similar point: You won’t always practice gentle parenting perfectly (nobody can). It is the drive to do better that counts.

“The goal is to be able to go to bed most nights feeling good about our relationships with our kids, and knowing that most of the time our kids also think we’re pretty awesome,” she said. “Start very small if you must; every peaceful interaction counts.”

And keep in mind that you don’t have to adopt one parenting style – gentle or otherwise. You may want to incorporate aspects of gentle parenting while also continuing to use rewards such as sticker cards or punishments such as time-out. You don’t have to give up on things that work well for your family just because they don’t fit the gentle parenting rubric.

Economist Emily Oster, author of books like “Expecting Better” and “Cribsheet,” recently addressed this in her Parentdata newsletter.

“As with almost everything in parenting, there is a tendency to try to stick to a type. I want to be an attachment parent. I want to be a free-range parent. I want to be a tiger parent,” Oster wrote. “Of course, the reality is that you don’t have to stick to type, as your parenting journey is your own. You can take parts of these approaches and make them work for you.”

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