What Is Gentle Parenting and Why Should You Try It?

What It Is

Gentle Parenting is a scientific, evidence based, approach to raising confident and happy children. It is a parenting ethos characterised by the following four tenets:

  1. Empathy

Gentle Parents are ‘mind minded’, that is they raise their children in a manner that they are aware and considerate of the child’s feelings. Too many parenting styles consider only the parent’s feelings when resolving problems, yet research shows us that the best way to raise an empathic child (or what many would call “a kind child”) is to be empathic towards them.

Most difficult parenting situations arise because the child’s needs are misunderstood, this is largely because most popular parenting methods consider young children “manipulative” or “naughty”. If the parent takes time to consider the child’s feelings and the root cause of their misbehaviour, in most cases it becomes obvious that the child’s behaviour is a sign of distress, unease, anxiety or fear. Once the true feeling and cause behind a behaviour has been identified it can be dealt with and ultimately the reasoning behind the ‘bad behaviour’ is extinguished, leaving the unwanted behaviour extinct. If parents only respond to the superficial behaviour without empathy the root cause is never dealt with and the behaviour will either continue or will manifest in another undesirable behaviour at a later date.

2. Respect

Most parents demand respect from their children, yet few truly respect their children in turn. This is a two-way equation. If parents respect their children and most importantly their child’s unique feelings and personality, then the child in turn is more likely to respect the parent. It is impossible to command true respect from somebody via fear or a mis-balance of power. Think of the people you most respect in your life, how did they gain your respect? Did they demand it, or did they earn it? Did they respect you? Do famous dictators really command respect? Or do people follow them out of fear?

Once a child respects you they become intrinsically drawn to want to help you and to keep you happy. Just as you desire to help and make happy those you respect and like.

3. Understanding

Babies are not mini adults, toddlers are not mini adults, pre-schoolers are not mini adults, tweens are not mini adults and teens are not mini adults. The human brain is not fully developed until the child enters their third decade of life. It is not until sometime after their twentieth birthday that we can expect a child to think and feel like an adult. Their brains are different. Their neurological functioning means that they do not see the world in the same way as us, they do not have the same control over their behaviour, the same ‘self soothing’ skills, the same empathy skills, or the same abstract thinking skills as adults. This means that our expectations of what is normal and what is problematic behaviour needs to change.

Expectations such as when children should share, when children should sit still and quietly, when children should cease tantruming and when children should sleep through the night change when parents understand some simple brain biology. With these new expectations and understanding it becomes far easier to parent our children.

Gentle Parenting also requires parents to understand  how their own behaviour impacts on their children. If parents act violently, through smacking, spanking, yelling, biting back or so on then they are providing a role model behaviour for their children to mimic. Violent (whether physical or verbal) parents raise violent children. Modifying our own behaviour and communication is therefore vital. So to is communicating in a way that is positive and child centric, mindful of neurological immaturity. For instance telling a toddler “be a good boy” is not just meaningless (what does “being good” mean? Even an adult struggles with that concept, but to a toddler not capable of abstract through it is impossible), it can also be incredibly confusing (it doesn’t tell the child what they should or shouldn’t do) and also damaging too (labelling children as “naughty” can cause immense damage to their confidence and future motivation).

4. Boundaries

Gentle parenting is not permissive. It is not ‘lazy parenting’. These are two common insults that those who are ignorant as to the ethos’ real meaning often use. Gentle Parenting embraces discipline as a vital part of parenting. The simple difference is that gentle discipline is age appropriate, positive, respectful, empathic and intelligent.

The word ‘discipline’ actually means “to teach”. Think of the stories of Jesus and his disciples (disciples being ‘those being taught’, stemming from the same root word as “discipline”). Would Jesus have been considered such a great teacher if he taught his disciples by yelling at them, sending them to another room, smacking them, ignoring them, shaming them, taking away their beloved items or making them sit on a prescribed spot or step?

Great teachers teach out of respect, passion and understanding. To discipline a child means to teach them the qualities you most want them to have in life. If you want a child to be a free-thinker, should you really discipline them for questioning an instruction you give? Positive discipline fosters the traits you would like your child to develop as they grow while helping them to understand how to display them in an appropriate and socially acceptable way in the interim.

Many conventional parents over discipline, saying “no” becomes reflexive, the big stuff gets muddled up with the small stuff, which is confusing to a child. Gentle Parents take time to set limits and boundaries for those things that really matter to them (things like “not hurting others”, or “not throwing objects indoors”) and importantly they always enforce them. Having less, but constantly enforced, boundaries is very important. It allows the child to feel safe to explore the world having clear areas that they know are ‘off limits’. A world without boundaries is a confusing place, we all need them.

The manner of discipline is different too in gentle parenting. The discipline used is done with the aim of teaching the child and also with their level of brain development in mind. What does a two-year old learn when they bite another child and are forced to sit on the naughty step for two minutes? Their brains are not developed enough for empathy or analytical thought so they cannot consider how the other child feels, or that what they did was ‘wrong’. Instead they sit on the step quietly for two minutes, because like a dog in an obedience class, they learn that if they sit still and quietly they will eventually be allowed off of the step. No change has happened in their motivation. They will still bite again. In this popular parenting example the parent has failed to understand  two important things 1. the motivation and feelings behind the behaviour and 2. the neurological limitations of the toddler brain.

In the same situation gentle parents would work on helping the child to express their ‘big feelings’ that motivated the behaviour (perhaps fear, anxiety or anger) and would teach them more appropriate ways to demonstrate them that don’t involve hurting others. This would be done as a team effort, there is no ‘winner’ or ‘loser’ in Gentle Parenting. No parent triumphing over their naughty child. Just families working together. Punishment should not play a part here, for it does not teach the child what they should do instead or how to help them to release their big feelings in a more socially acceptable way, it just makes them sit with these uncomfortable big feelings for longer.

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What It Isn’t

Gentle Parenting is not permissive parenting. Gentle parents can often be more ‘strict’ than more mainstream parents. They just choose their boundaries wisely with the neurological capabilities of their child in mind.

There are three main types of parenting style that can classify all others:

Authoritarian

This is ‘old school’ parenting. It expects a lot from the child, in fact too much – authoritarian parents expect their children to behave in ways an adult would and are blind to the difference in brain development. In most cases there is a lack of emotional connection between the parent and child (in turn this lack of connection can often spur the child to misbehave). Punishment plays a big role here and the power is all given to the adult. Authoritarian parenting techniques include smacking/spanking, sending to their room, time out, naughty step, controlled crying and ‘cry it out’ sleep training. Research has shown that this style of parenting can damage the child’s confidence, happiness, intelligence and can often lead to more problematic behaviour as the child ages.

Authoritative

Authoritative parenting expects a lot from the child, however the expectations are age appropriate. Authoritative parents don’t expect children to be ‘mini adults’, they understand that their brains work differently and expectations are adjusted accordingly. There is a strong level of emotional connection and a large amount of mutual respect. Authoritative parents respect their children and their children respect them. Discipline plays a big role, though it is true and positive discipline with the aim of learning and growth and not punishment. The parents will guide their children to more appropriate behaviour and will also help them to control and regulate their behaviour until the child develops their own emotional regulation skills. Authoritative parenting has been shown time and again to be the most effective parenting style for raising confident, happy, intelligent and independent children.

Permissive

Permissive parenting is classified by low expectations of the child. They may not necessarily be age appropriate and permissive parents may be heard saying “oh he’s only a child” to excuse behaviour that is truly inappropriate for a certain aged child. Permissively parented children “get away with stuff” that they really shouldn’t do. Permissive parents commonly have a good attachment with their child and a strong emotional connection. This style of parenting however can prove damaging. It is often classified by a lack of discipline and guidance, which can lead to children growing to be insecure, anxious and out of control.

Gentle Parenting is Authoritative Parenting! The style of parenting science has proven time and again to be the healthiest way to raise a confident, happy, independent, intelligent kind child.

Gentle parents come from all walks of life. They are not uninformed (far from it – they can usually quote the latest scientific research on all aspects of parenting), they are not lazy (gentle parenting is often far more taxing for the parents than authoritarian or permissive), they are not ‘hippies’ (there are no rules to say parents should make any lifestyle choice – they can and do eat meat, wear clothing from the high street, use a buggy or stroller, use disposable nappies, use formula milk, birth in hospital and like music in the current charts. Some are vegan, some wear tie die, some babywear, some use cloth nappies, some breastfeed, some homebirth and some like to listen to whale music but that’s far more about their own personality, not the style of parenting they choose).

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Why Should You Do It

Gentle Parenting comes with numerous benefits, for the parent and child – unlike most mainstream parenting methodologies where the benefits are almost always to the benefit of the parent to the detriment of the child.

Benefits include:

Plus it’s a lot more enjoyable, being friends with your child and teaching them is much better than being their enemy and punishing them. Gentle Parenting creates a parent-child bond for life and a strong relationship over the years to come. Who wouldn’t want to be the type of parent that their children would always turn to in the future, however old they are?

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What’s Wrong With ‘Normal’ Parenting?

Most mainstream parenting practices are outdated and/or not supported by current scientific evidence. There is a lot wrong with parenting today. A lot of the most popular parenting methods today are remnants of our own parenting, our parents parenting and our grandparents parenting. In the days before large-scale psychological research. In the days when, simply put, we didn’t know better.

Some research is filtering through into everyday parenting practice, for instance most (though sadly not all) people now believe that it’s wrong to hit a child to discipline them, other practices though are muddier. Most parents don’t know the risks of sleep training, of overly praising or rewarding a child, or of punishing them through isolating methods such as time out or the naughty step. This is sadly not surprising given the outdated and un-evidence based views presented in most popular parenting television programmes, books and magazines. What many don’t understand however is that the information presented by the mainstream media today usually comes from childless journalists and ‘experts’ who at most have had a few years nanny training. The *real* experts, the doctors, the professors and the researchers, usually present a very different picture.

How You Do It

As a starting point consider the four elements of empathy, respect, understanding and boundaries. Make sure that you understand normal child development and how the brain develops at each stage. It is especially important to have realistic expectations of babies and toddlers as these tend to be the most misunderstood years.

Consider your child’s feelings as well as your own and try to understand the big feelings that are causing them to act in the way that they do.

Ditch the naughty step, time out, superficial praise and rewards, controlled crying  and other traditional styles of sleep training.

Once this is in place it’s time to move on to choosing, setting and enforcing boundaries and knowing what to do ‘in the moment‘. For a much more in-depth answer the upcoming ‘Gentle Parenting Book‘ covers ‘how to’ at all ages from birth to eight years of age.

Gentle Parenting at Night

Parenting is a 24/7 job. As much as most parents would like, their role doesn’t end at 7 or 8pm everyday when the children are in bed. Gentle Parents understand the importance of night-time parenting and why what you do at night matters just as much as you do during the daytime.

Children do not stop having needs, emotional or physical, just because the sun sets. Traditional sleep training is ignorant to these needs and poses many risks to the child’s developing mind and body. Many sleep ‘experts’ try to scare parents by telling them that “you must teach your child the important life skill of being able to put themselves to sleep”, or they will say “unless you teach your child to self soothe, they will not got enough sleep and this will be harmful to them”. They are wrong.

You cannot teach a child to self soothe, you cannot teach a child to effectively parent themselves at night, they still need you to do that, just as they do during the day. Responding to a child at night with empathy, understanding, respect and boundaries is just as important as it is during daylight hours.

What If It Doesn’t Work

Gentle Parenting sounds great, but what if you’ve tried it for a week, a month, a year or more and your child still doesn’t 1. sleep through the night, 2. stop having tantrums, 3. stop biting/hitting/screaming/whining? Does it mean the method has failed? Or does it mean you have failed to apply it? The answer is ‘neither’.

Parenting is a long-term business. No matter how many ‘experts’ may tell you that they can fix problems in one, two or three days, they can’t. What they can do is superficially – and temporarily – mask a deeper underlying problem, but there is categorically no way they can resolve it in such a short space of time. Why? Well inherently part of the ‘problem’ *is* childhood itself and all of the underdeveloped emotional control and understanding it brings. You simply can’t fix a child whose only problem is “being a child”.

Gentle parenting understands this. It understands the limitations of a child’s brain and it understands the longitudinal aspect of molding and shaping a growing individual. Gentle parents understand that all of the effort that they put in today may not truly bloom and blossom for another ten or twenty years. Gentle parenting isn’t about making an easy life for yourself today, it’s about investing in the future. It is parenting without selfishness. Gently parented children still cry, tantrum, hit and bite, because they are children. One day however they have a much better chance of being the type of person we all would hope to raise.

Being Gentle On Yourself

Whoever said gentle parenting was ‘accidental’ or ‘lazy’ clearly has never tried it. It’s hard, really hard. Parents have a tendency to put themselves last in the ‘needs equation’, but this is a mistake. An emotionally wrung out and stressed parent will be a parent prone to snap and yell. A parent who takes care of their own physical and emotional needs is one who is far more likely to be patient, calm and kind. Gentle parents need to be the latter, which means taking care of themselves and their own needs is just as important as taking care of their child’s.

Gentle parents still make mistakes, just like their children, they are learning too. The key here is to learn from the experience, forgive yourself, apologise to your child if necessary, take time for ‘self nurturance’ and vow to do better tomorrow. No parent will ever fully meet all of their child’s needs. Gently parented children still cry and sometimes that’s OK. Gentle parents cry too, often in front of their children, and that’s just fine too. In fact it’s a great way to teach children about emotions and why it’s good to release them.

Gentle Parenting Resources

Want to learn more?

The Gentle Parenting Book  

The Gentle Parenting Book on Facebook

The Gentle Sleep Book

The Gentle Sleep Book on Facebook

The Gentle Parenting Website

Gentle Parenting on Facebook

The Gentle Parenting Facebook Discussion Group

GentleParenting_DRAFT (1)

Sarah

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About SarahOckwell-Smith

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

2 Responses to What Is Gentle Parenting and Why Should You Try It?

  1. Nikki Edgecombe says:

    Hi Sarah, I really like these ideas. I am struggling with parenting at the moment, and hope I can use these resources to straighten out my “style”. I have a specific question prompted by your comments above, and wonder if you could please talk about how “gentle parenting” applies. I have a toddler who bites, and other parents have given me different advice about how to deal with it. Some say time out, like the naughty step; some say they will just grow out of it; some even say bite the child so that they understand that it hurts and will stop biting others. How would gentle parenting apply to this problem?

    • Hi there, that’s a very small question for a very huge answer. Have a look through the relevant age sections of this website for some suggestions and also http://www.gentleparenting.co.uk. There are ‘toddler biting’ suggestions on both, but the key is in the ‘understanding’, a suggestions for one family is not the same as the other as all situations are unique. Suffice to say though it wouldn’t be any of the methods you have mentioned.

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