How to be a Gentle – Not Permissive – Parent

I was chatting with a journalist recently who was writing an article about forcing children to say sorry (based upon a piece I wrote for the HuffPost a while ago). In the piece I talk about the importance of parenting mindfully, leading by example and teaching children well – but not enforcing discipline because of societal rules, if those rules don’t fit with what we know to be a good fit for the capabilities of children. She asked me what I would do instead, or more specifically she asked “but, what happens if you don’t make them say sorry? Would you be OK with them never apologising as they got older?”. I explained that actually, they would be far more likely to apologise as they grew, if they had done something wrong, because the discipline I would use (namely being a good role model), would be far more effective.

I come across this misconception time and time again; that if you don’t make your child do something (in an authoritarian way), then they will never learn and will grow to be rude and feral. People seem to forget (or perhaps don’t realise in the first place) there is a sweet spot in the middle – something known as Authoritative Parenting. You can see more about the different styles below:

Despite the popular myth; there is a huge difference between Gentle Parenting and Permissive Parenting. Gentle Parenting falls into the official definition of Authoritative Parenting (not to be confused with Authoritarian which is harsh Victorian style parenting!).

Authoritative Parenting is characterised by the parent having realistic expectations of a child’s behaviour, a good degree of empathy and compassion and a good balance of control. ie giving children control where it’s appropriate with the parent taking the lead when it isn’t – or, what is better known as having consistent boundaries.

Permissive Parents tend to have unrealistic expectations of their children (believing they are less, or more, capable than they really are) and tend to give children too much control and not have consistent boundaries. You can see more about the different parenting styles and how Gentle Parenting fits in in the introduction to my Gentle Parenting book HERE.

To stop yourself straying into permissive parenting; the key is to first have a good understanding of what your child can and cannot do and can and cannot understand. To make sure that you are not expecting too little of them (or too much!) when it comes to their behaviour. In short, you need to have a fairly good understanding of child brain development.

Next, it’s about setting age appropriate boundaries and most importantly – sticking consistently to them. See THIS post for more on how to do this. An Authoritative (Gentle!) Parent would uphold boundaries even if their child is crying. What makes the parenting gentle is not the avoidance of crying, but how you respond and react to your child when they are upset – by staying empathic and offering them comfort.

A Permissive Parent is far more likely to drop a boundary if it upsets their child, for fear of them crying and they are also less likely to have boundaries in the first place. It is this setting and consistency of boundaries – and the acceptance of your child’s emotions – that marks the biggest difference between the two styles I think.

For more on what to expect of children at each age, how to choose and enforce appropriate boundaries and to stop yourself straying into permissive parenting, see my Gentle Discipline Book. Available in the UKUSACanadaAustralia and the Rest of the World.

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About SarahOckwell-Smith

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