Why Gentle Parenting is NOT Permissive Parenting

It’s a common misconception, those who parent their babies and children with respect and compassion are deemed “permissive parents”. These gentle permissive parents are seen as always letting their offspring get their own way, thus creating future selfish ‘me, me’ and ‘I want it all – NOW’ adults.

Many describe gentle parents as being “too child centric”. Often they are accused of “mollycoddling” their children or being “too scared to discipline them in case they make them cry”.

What these dissenters are really voicing however is a total misunderstanding of deeper infant psychology and the parenting philosophy they are attacking.

I am not disputing that there are some who follow gentle, or attachment, parenting principles who are permissive, but that isn’t unique to this parenting philosophy. Yes, some APers or GPers could do with learning more about the importance of positive discipline and implementing the strategies, but so could other parents who don’t follow these principles.

I have met some ‘extreme attachment parents’ (for want of a better way to describe them) who are adamant that their child should never cry because of them, that they should always be left ‘to experiment’ and to ‘express their freedom’, and are reluctant to discipline. They are the extremes though, not the norms. It is wrong to judge a whole parenting philosophy by a handful of extreme families (usually the ones reflected in the media because of their extreme ways!).

Compassionate, respectful parenting that is mindful always of the importance of attachment and the parent-infant dyad however never prescribed that parents should always let the child get their own way. There is no gentle parenting rule book that says children shouldn’t be set firm boundaries – in fact it is quite the opposite!

I describe Gentle Parenting as simply “parenting with empathy, respect, understanding and boundaries.” In my opinion the boundaries are just as important as the empathy and the respect.

Gentle parenting focuses on understanding and responding to a child’s needs and sometimes, often in fact, the child needs steering to help them to understand the demands and expectations of society and to develop an understanding of social rules. In order to do this we need to set firm boundaries and limits for our children and sometimes we need to discipline them too!

Take for example a naturally curious two year old, forming a schema about the properties of liquids, the little bundle of exploration finds a bottle of mummy’s expensive shampoo on the side of the bath, the flip top lid allows the child to open the lid easily and the soft bottle allows for easy squeezing, the toddler is enthralled by the shiny, glossy, thick liquid coming out of the bottle and making patterns in the bath, over the bath towel and on the floor. How fantastic it is to then use daddy’s new toothbrush to move the liquid on the floor around into new patterns. The toddler is learning more about the properties of liquids in these ten minutes than she would in any science lesson!

In this example permissive parents would allow the toddler to carry on, reluctant to apprehend, knowing if they take the shampoo and toothpaste away the toddler will cry. This is not true gentle parenting though. A truly gentle parent would take the shampoo and toothpaste from the toddler, explain why they cannot play with them, offer them an alternative for ‘messy play’ with limits, such as using pouring toys whilst the toddler is in the bath, and sit with them during the resulting tears and tantrum that will ensue.

I agree it isn’t nice to know that you as a parent have made your toddler cry, but sometimes it is necessary. It is an important part of their development! Indeed it is a vital part of their development!

Those who parent with compassion and respect are not afraid of making their child cry through their attempts at reinforcing limits, they are strong enough to sit with the resulting strong emotions that will surface in the toddler.

Those who parent with compassion set firm boundaries and are not afraid to reinforce them wherever necessary.

Those who parent with compassion know how important it is to say ‘no’ or ‘stop’, they don’t give the child a biscuit just before their dinner because they don’t like to upset the child, they don’t let their toddler climb over a relative’s sofa because ‘they are just exploring and being a toddler’.

Those who truly parent with compassion and respect value and understand the need for discipline and limits as much as they respect and value the need for attachment and love, for a child really does need both in order to thrive.


Published by SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.

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