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!

attachment parenting, permissive parenting, toddler tantrum 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.



About SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.
This entry was posted in Preschoolers, Toddlers, Tweens and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Why Gentle Parenting is NOT Permissive Parenting

  1. Thank you so much for this brilliant article! Although you talk mainly about toddlers here, I think it has as much relevance for new mums too. I encountered The Baby Whisperer and Gina Ford during a brief wobble in confidence when my daughter was a few weeks old. Their use of the phrase “accidental parenting” is not only insulting it’s damaging to a parent’s self esteem. It made me doubt everything I was doing. I’d never done this ‘job’ before, so perhaps an ‘expert’ really did know best. However their techniques, routines etc made us all miserable, tears from me and my baby. Looking back on those dreadful days, I cannot imagine that the motivation for writing those books was fuelled by anything like compassion and respect for new mums and babies. My instinct told me to bin the books, tune back into my baby and respect her needs and mine.

    • Abi S says:

      YES YES YES. Went through all this doubt with my first child and it took me two years to realise my instincts worked best. Trying hard not to get sucked into the ‘he should fall asleep in his cot by himself’ mantra that the local health visitors spout.

  2. Laureen says:

    This article was reassuring to me, as the few parents I have known who claimed to be following the Attachment Parenting style were actually very hesitant to set any boundaries at all, or say no to their children about anything unless it was literally life-threatening. The children are now grown, and in hindsight, one supposedly AP mom told me, “Although my adult daughter is confident, self-assured, and successful, I also inadvertently taught her that my needs don’t matter in the least. She has very little respect for me, and not a whole lot of compassionate for anyone else. If I had it all to do over again, I’d be a bit more selfish at times, and teach her that the world does NOT revolve solely around her needs.” Another family who claimed to be AP ended up literally raising a member of the ” trench coat mafia” in Columbine. I certainly applaud any parent who is trying to be present, compassionate, and fully engaged with their children. However, as you say, setting appropriate limits is one of the most important ways to meet a child’s needs. Children need to know they are loved and special, but they also need to learn how to accommodate the needs of others!

  3. Roxanne says:

    This is wonderful! I have always felt this way about parenting! I feel that children do not “misbehave” because they are trying to be bad. They are curious, bored, grumpy, tired, etc. Us adults act this way too sometimes! Instead of saying “no” to my daughter, I politely stop her from what she is doing, explain to her why we shouldn’t do this, and suggest an alternative or try to solve the problem. I am understanding that she has her own likes and dislkies, and feelings. I truly respect my daughter. Some people would call that crazy because she is only 4 and call me naive because I am a young mom (I had my daughter at 16, I am now 20) but even with criticism I continue to stand strong in how I treat her. And after sometime, I have had some parents try this method and tell me how sorry they were and how great their children are behaving! It’s so great to see this coming from someone else. It’s also great I have a respectful and loving family that backs me up. I also feel like when a child picks you a flower or draws you a picture you should show them how thankful and impressed you are. How sweet is it that in their mind this amazing thing, or something they worked hard on, that they would be so thoughtful as to give it to you! Also when a child is learning something new I never approve of criticizing the mistakes, instead encouragement! And when they achieve the goal, or even make a step towards it, extreme praise is due! My daughter is extremely respectful, intelligent, and caring. She knows she can trust me. We have a relationship of mutual respect and this is so much better than a child fearing you or not respecting you and trying to sneak. In my home punishment almost never occurs, not because I am a pushover, but because it’s hardly ever necessary, redirection is my philosophy.

  4. Kim says:

    I just had the up enjoyable experience of one of these parenting styles. She claims they are not “permissive parents”. They are icons of permissive parents! The child pees on the carpet and a remote because mom doesn’t feel its respectful to hold the child in one place to change a diaper. A poopy diaper! Then, to help him understand that it wasn’t a bad thing to pee where he wanted, she hands him chocolate and he proceeds to the sofa and smear chocolate everywhere, whilst pulling on the blinds. We went to a restaurant to eat. I can’t even talk about he nightmare there. I had to go back the next day to apologize. It was horrible! (She came to see us for a few house at a rental house at the beach that we rented for a week for vacation.
    Then a couple of weeks later they all came to our home. She put our dogs water on the counter so the kid didn’t play in it. She let him run around with pizza and smear it all over our windows and cushions. She allowed him to play IN MY CUPBOARDS, pull things out and telling him he could but it had to stay in the kitchen. Why? He’s already destroyed the house, why limit little Johnny now? She asked me to help keep the kid in place while she attempted to change his diaper. Two people to change a diaper? He was allowed to climb on the stools and be on the counter where I was preparing meals. He grabbed an axe and then told my daughter (16) to not scare him by telling him no, he could hurt himself. He pulled all of our board games out of a cabinet and successfully made an atrocious mess in the living room. She sat on the sofa looking at her iPad. This was all okay because he’s a curious toddler. My 11year old son cleaned the mess. On the morning they left, she casually tells me there’s grease all over the sheets in the guest room from the kids diaper cream. Obviously she changed him in there and didn’t keep him from playing with the tube or his butt!
    She says they do the “attachment parenting” thing. Great, you sleep with your kid. You never tell him no. You allow him to create messes that ruin or destroy someone else’s house.
    People need to get a cold slap of reality in the face! THIS IS NOT OK! THIS IS NOT FUN FOR ANYONE. THIS IS NOT COURTEOUS, RESPECTFUL OR EVEN NORMAL. Your child will grow up DISrespecting you and everyone around him. If he never hears the word no, he will grow up having absolutely no self control.
    My whole family is still trying to understand and get over this visit. They will not be allowed back as a result. Why would you allow your child to ruin and run someone else’s home? And to defend myself as to why I didn’t make boundaries with her??? Well, they day they flew in she had to be taken to the emergency room for a anxiety attack and tells me she’s on medication for it. Hmmmmmmm, I wonder why!!?? I was about to have a panic attack! My kids were nervous around them.

    And during all of this, our husbands were fishing. :-). I’m so glad they had fun! And I mean that…

    So, what would you say to a friend like this? I’m so glad our kids are older. They were a blessing! They kept a lot of painful accidents from happening.

    • Tess Oliver says:

      Sorry to hear you had that awful experience.
      I think that’s one of the ‘extremes’ the writer is referring to. This isn’t one of these ‘parenting styles’ such as good gentle parenting, it’s just an extreme nightmare. I’ve also seen parents who are not gentle attachment parents with kids who behaved like that – running amok in someone house and wrecking their things.
      I am a pretty gentle person and was a fairly gentle parent, but I would never have allowed my kids to wreck someone’s house in that way. I am sure the writer is not advocating that.

  5. alerfh says:

    fab. but, kids need messy play and some kids really really need the full experiences of messy play to learn to function in a messy world. Yes take the toothpaste and shampoo from the child but pouring water is not equivalent. Get some cheap toothpaste and shampoo to play with. Messy- smell, texture, foaming qualities….
    or just have you kid make a big mess with old fashioned messy experiences like ‘helping’ out in the kitchen or eating on their own.

  6. Tasnim says:

    What kinds of boundaries are necessary though? Sometimes I feel we put too many restrictions for the child to resist and it would be easier if we changed our standards?

  7. Megan McClure says:

    So glad my parents brought me up with strict rules!

  8. sharon says:

    And, during the days of the Neanderthal, the parents sat around and discussed the pros and cons of letting the baby cry him/her self to sleep.

Would you like to comment on this?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s