There are two prevalent myths surrounding gentle parenting:
1. Gentle parenting is permissive parenting. It’s all about letting children get their own way because you’re too scared to upset them by disciplining them.
2. Gentle parenting is akin to martyrdom. It’s about always doing what’s best for your child, at whatever cost to yourself.
Neither of these are correct. They are not at all what gentle parenting is about.
Those parents who understand gentle parenting will know that in truth it is all about balance. Balancing the needs of parent(s) and child. Discipline plays a vital role (as I’ve discussed in more detail here and here and here) and so does self care. In fact, mistakes are essential for effective parenting, they provide an opportunity to learn not only for the parent, but the child too.
There are no ‘gentle parenting rules’ to break, no tests to fail. Gentle parenting is about one thing: respect. Respect for your child and respect for yourself. Respecting our children means following their cues. While many gentle parents choose to ‘wear’ their babies or share a bed with their children, these are merely personal choices in response to their cues of the children. If a child prefers to be ‘out of arms’ a respectful parent will follow these cues and give them their space. This is the very beauty of gentle parenting – there are no rules! Respect for our children is important, but not at the expense of respect for ourselves. If we do not respect ourselves what sort of a role model are we for our children?
Here’s the thing. All parents make mistakes, all parents have days that they are not proud of. All parents make sacrifices and compromises. No parent is perfect. It is these mistakes that are the most important in terms of our growth as parents. Each time we don’t quite do our best we can learn and we can teach our children how to handle disappointment, failure and making mistakes. We can teach them grace, honesty and humility.
When I give Gentle Parenting talks I always speak about the 70/30 rule. Be the best parent you can be seventy percent of the time and don’t worry too much about the other thirty percent. I like to think of this as a daily quota that resets at midnight each night. If I can get through an average day feeling good about my parenting about seventy percent of the time, then it’s OK to have thirty percent I’m not proud of or didn’t do quite as I wanted.
When I speak to parents I’m often asked questions like “well don’t you ever reward/bribe your own children?”, in honesty, yes I do. Sometimes. Take for example when I’m doing a radio interview to several million people and I’m expected to be ‘a parenting expert’. I have four children, very close in age, who I don’t trust to a. not yell, b. not try to kill each other or c. not decide to loudly sing Taylor Swift/rap the Fresh Prince of Bel Air/impersonate Sponge Bob/have a farting competition right at the exact point I am speaking to half of the nation about how to parent. You can imagine that any of these happening live on air would not be good for my professional reputation. So what do I do? Yes I talk with them, tell them how important it is etc…but also I know that they are only 8, 11, 12 and 13 and that they have poor impulse control. I know in all likelihood that the lure of a, b or c above will be stronger than the urge to not embarrass mummy in front of the nation. So I bribe them – more screen time, chocolate, buying films on Sky, whatever it takes to not undo everything I’ve just said on the radio. But (and it’s a big but). I try to restrict this to only thirty percent of my parenting.
Now, I’m not shy about admitting my shortcomings. In my BabyCalm book I talk about hiding my own postnatal depression, in ToddlerCalm I talk about my massive mummy meltdown and in The Gentle Parenting Book I talk about my propensity to yell (a lot). I am not perfect. In part I do what I do because I’ve been where you are and made as many mistakes as you have but want you to know you can still make it through the other side with your goals to parent gently intact. I actually inherently distrust parenting experts who come across as always being perfect. I always wonder if they are trying to hide something, or perhaps they are genuinely that perfect. Either way I don’t find it inspiring, or real.
The thing is parenting is hard work. Really bloody hard work. Harder than anything else I’ve ever done. As the children get older it doesn’t get easier, it just gets different. We have to try to balance this with work, adult relationships and keeping a roof over our heads and food on the table. It is just not possible to be everything. A much more realistic goal to aim for is that of Winnicott’s ‘Good Enough Mother’. In my book seventy percent is more than ‘good enough’. I don’t mean that you have a pass to be and do whatever you want thirty percent of the time. The key with gentle parenting is to always at least TRY to be mindful and respectful. There are times though that while you may know the ‘right’ thing to do, for various reasons it just isn’t possible or just doesn’t work quick enough. In those times I truly believe that “do your best, whatever your best is” is just fine. Just so long as it’s thirty percent of the time or less and just so long as you forgive yourself when it happens and move on rather than throwing in the towel and thinking “ah well, I screwed up, I might as well give up this gentle parenting lark.” Your best is good enough. Those times when you got it ‘right’. The times where you counted to ten and responded with compassion and understanding. Those times when you connected when you least felt like it. These are the times that matter. They are not eroded by the times you don’t get it right. They always exist. Keep them in the majority, that’s good enough. Good enough to raise the type of individual you hope to raise. One who tries their best, but understands and accepts the times, and themselves, when they cannot.
The ‘thirty percent times’ can often be more valuable than the ‘seventy percent times’ too. These are the times that are eye opening. They show us what we need to work on within ourselves. They show us our trigger points. They show us how to cope with our anger. They show us areas we need to concentrate more on with our children. They show us how to turn a ‘bad’ situation into something positive when we use it as a learning experience for our children and apologise to them. Above all else though they show us where and when we are lacking self care. If your thirty percent starts to creep up it is a sure fire sign that you need support and breathing space. Sometimes it means you need physical space. Sometimes you need physical help or to take more care of your body. Sometimes you need somebody to talk to and sometimes you need to simply forgive yourself. Whatever your need it takes priority. Nobody can nurture anybody or anything else effectively if they need to nurture themselves. This is why so much of my Gentle Parenting Book is dedicated to self care and forgiveness. If these don’t exist you can never parent in the way you hope to.
So, start tomorrow. Keep a tally of your percentages in your mind. The chances are on most of the days your ratios will look something like 90/10, but some days there will be 50/50 days, some days there will even be the odd 40/60. On these days, rather than attacking your own self worth and esteem see them as a sign that you need a break. Celebrate the 70, 80 and 90 days. Let them build your confidence and belief in yourself. You are good enough.