You’ve probably come across the phrase “gentle parenting.” It encompasses a lot of ideas, leaving plenty of room for disagreement. And since the name implies a certain amount of judgement (who would want to be called an ungentle parent?), it can also evoke strong reactions.
To its detractors, gentle parenting is what happens when kids are allowed to call the shots and walk all over the adults. Grandparents or other older relatives might see a parent responding calmly to a child’s misbehavior and remark that “back in my day, a kid wouldn’t have gotten away with that.” Through this lens, gentle parents seem soft and ineffective.
Critics of harsher parenting tactics, however, maintain that while punitive and shame-based parenting practices may be effective in the short term at getting kids to behave, they fail to teach kids the reasons to act with kindness and respect. In addition, harsh parenting tactics (spanking is the classic example) negatively impact the parent-child relationship and may even be considered abuse. They are the sort of memories that, as adults, we bring up in therapy — and they motivate many parents to approach discipline differently.
We asked several experts what they think the phrase “gentle parenting” means and why many of today’s parents are eschewing the disciplinary tactics they grew up with and turning to a new set of tools.
What is gentle parenting, and where does it come from?
While it has entered our lexicon relatively recently, the concepts behind gentle parenting aren’t new, particularly when viewed from a more global perspective in which Western cultures aren’t the presumed norm.
The term “gentle parenting” was coined by author Sarah Ockwell-Smith in “The Gentle Parenting Book: How To Raise Calmer, Happier Children From Birth To Seven,” which was published in 2015 — though she doesn’t take credit for inventing the type of parenting mindset her book describes.
Nanika Coor, a clinical psychologist in Brooklyn, New York, told HuffPost that the kind of “mutually respectful parent-child dynamic” that gentle parenting describes could be found in Indigenous cultures, “before brutal colonization practices attempted to erase it.”
In an episode of the podcast “Your Story Medicine,” Leslie Priscilla of the Latinx Parenting Association says, “While I was exposing myself to gentle parenting by reading all of these books by white people, I was like, ‘This sounds really great, but I do not see my experience reflected here.’ I learned that the practices of gentle parenting were actually stolen from us… It’s another thing that’s actually been appropriated, which happens so often, right? This gentle parenting actually does not belong just to white folks.”
While each of the experts HuffPost spoke with had their own personalized take on what defines gentle parenting, they all emphasized how this style recognizes children as fully-formed people who deserve respect.
Parents aiming for a gentle approach “try to understand the world from their child’s perspective, treating the child as an individual with their own point of view, and approach to the world, rather than as an extension of the parent,” said Jenna Hermans, a parent coach and the author of “Chaos to Calm: 5 Ways Busy Parents Can Break Free From Overwhelm,” told HuffPost.
Like Coor, Hermans emphasized the respect a gentle parent holds for their child. This does not mean that a child is always right, or gets to do whatever they want. But it does mean that a child has their own experiences and feelings, and that a parent can be open to hearing about them.
Gentle parenting involves a different approach to discipline.
In gentle parenting, the emphasis is on demonstrating good behavior, rather than forcing kids to behave in a certain way via punishments and threats.
“Rather than inflicting physical or emotional pain, exclusion, shame, or punitive consequences from a stance of adult supremacy,” Coor explained, ”‘gentle’ discipline centers around guidance, teaching, and modeling along with age-appropriate limits and boundaries.”
Hitting (such as spanking), isolation (“Go to your room and stay there!”) and shame (“What is wrong with you?”) are all off the table. Instead, parents focus on understanding why the child is doing what they’re doing in the moment and teach them how to do something different instead.
Chazz Lewis is an educator who posts parenting and teaching content. He refers to his framework as “conscious discipline,” which he believes falls under the gentle parenting umbrella. He called it “connected and collaborative-based approaches, as opposed to fear- and control-based strategies.”
Lewis explained that part of the process involves reinterpreting what your child’s misbehavior means. Rather than assuming that your child is intentionally trying to drive you crazy (because it can certainly feel that way!), you see their behavior as coming from their lack of some other skill. Perhaps they do not understand how to wait their turn, for example.
Coor gave the following example: You are having a conversation with someone and your child runs up and interrupts you. Rather than telling them that they are being rude and that they should go away and be quiet (isolation and shame-based consequences), you might say something like, “You’re really excited to tell me something, and I’m talking to someone else right now. It’s so hard to wait!”
With this kind of a response, Coor explained, “you’ve honed in on the needs underlying their behavior, which helps your child feel understood.”
An added bonus is that “this has a calming effect on their brain and nervous system,” she added, noting that a parent’s calm can help their child regulate their emotions.
“Ideally,” Lewis said, “we’re to a place where they’re regulated, [they] feel safe and they feel connected.” From here, they will have an easier time learning from you and working with you to find solutions to the problem at hand.
“When a child feels safe and connected, then they’re able they’re able to access more parts of the brain. We’re able to learn and practice new skills and do better next time,” Lewis continued.
What if the child is dysregulated, as in throwing a tantrum? A gentle approach to handling this, Hermans said, involves validating their feelings, “instead of dismissing their feelings or punishing them for their big emotions.” Hermans explained that a parent might say something like say, “I see you’re upset because you can’t have the toy you want right now. It’s hard to not get what we want sometimes.”
“You can offer them a hug, tell them it will be okay and that you love them very much, and then keep going about your day,” Hermans added. Note that she isn’t suggesting that you buy them the toy, or promise to purchase it at a later date. You can validate their emotions while maintaining your boundaries.
Gentle parenting is not permissive parenting.
One misconception that each of these experts mentioned was that gentle parenting is not the same thing as permissive parenting, which lacks rules or structure. A permissive parent might stop their conversation with another adult to answer to their child, rather than teaching their child to wait, or purchase that toy their screaming child is demanding instead of teaching them that they can handle big feelings. For those who are conflict-averse, permissive parenting has it’s allure. You give in to their demands, and your child’s behavior improves — but unfortunately, it doesn’t allow them to learn how to handle life’s disappointments.
Permissive parenting goes beyond acknowledging the child’s perspective and centers it — and the results aren’t healthy or sustainable for parents or children.
“Gentle parenting involves setting clear boundaries and expectations, and enforcing them in a kind, respectful way, rather than through punishment and fear,” Hermans said.
There is room for parents to make mistakes.
Parents can’t expect that they will always be able to live up to a gentle parenting ideal. At some point, they may yell in a frightening way, or do or say something they regret. Proponents of gentle parenting say that going back and doing repair work when these moments occur is part of the whole journey.
Coor said it’s a misconception that “you’re going to ruin your child forever if you veer off track and yell or shame or punish in a moment of stress or overwhelm.” Your response to such moments is key. Rather than shaming yourself, or giving up on gentle parenting all together, she recommended that you “circle back to them to take accountability for letting them down, let them know that you’re remorseful about having done so, be compassionate with yourself, and authentically try to do better next time. This way your child learns that ruptures in relationships can be repaired.”
This could be as simple as saying something like, “I’m sorry I yelled earlier today. I was frustrated and tired and shouldn’t have raised my voice,” Hermans suggested.
Lewis also mentioned that, as a parent, you can learn to recognize your triggers and hit the pause button when you feel like you might blow up. By announcing that you are going to take a minute to step away from the conflict and calm down, you’ll present this as a strategy your child can use themself.
But it’s possible to take gentle parenting to an extreme.
Emily Edlynn, a psychologist and the author of “Autonomy-Supportive Parenting: Reduce Parental Burnout and Raise Competent, Confident Children,” worries that some parents who strive for a gentle parenting ideal may overdo it.
While she heartily supports gentle parenting’s emphasis on the parent-child relationship, Edlynn told HuffPost, “there’s this real centering of the child’s experience, and that we as the parent need to be using all these strategies to respond just right to our child. And that just creates so much pressure.”
“It kind of undermines the whole purpose,” she continued. “We’re not as authentically present in the relationship with our child, because we’re so concerned about getting it right.”
While corporal punishment, shaming or the kinds of screaming that evoke fear in kids are all damaging to the parent-child relationship, Edlynn believes that there’s nothing wrong with a bit of regular old yelling from time to time.
If we’ve asked twelve times for our kid to do something and finally yell in frustration, she thinks it’s “okay to blow up.” In fact, it may help kids understand the impact their behavior has on others. Rather than apologizing afterward for yelling, Edlynn suggested that a parent could say, “I was really frustrated because I felt like you were ignoring me. How do you feel when people are ignoring you?”
Rather than “holding up this unrealistic way of being human,” Edlynn said, having our own outburst can “show our kids that we do too, and it’s okay and we can recover from it.”
These occasional outbursts of frustration can help us release emotion and avoid even bigger, and potentially damaging, larger outbursts in the future. Repressed emotions can also be damaging in families: “If a child grows up in a household where no one ever yells, but there’s a lot of that kind of silent anger, unexpressed anger, children are very intuitive and they pick up on it,” Edlynn said. It may even impact their ability to manage conflict in future relationships.
Whether you choose to label your own parenting preferences as “gentle” or not, we’re all doing our best to raise emotionally healthy kids who are capable of fulfilling and meaningful relationships in their lives.
It’s easy to fall back onto fear-based discipline practices with our own kids, especially if these were the ones we grew up with. But proponents say that the rewards are worth it. Recognizing your child’s feelings is a powerful way to teach them empathy, Lewis said, and contributes to our own personal growth as well.
“That helps us not only in just the parent child relationship, but in all your relationships,” he explained.
Your child will be able to utilize the skills you both teach and model, such as empathy and emotional regulation, in their relationships with friends and siblings, too.
“They’re able to take that with them forever,” said Lewis. “One of the most valuable heirlooms that you can pass down is things like healthy communication and … ways to learn how to navigate conflict in a healthy relationship.”