A mom calms her son down from a full-blown meltdown by holding him and modeling deep breaths until he gives her a hug and articulates that he wants water. A toddler spills coffee all over his toy shelf and his mom guides him through wiping up the spill, explains why he can’t do that and gives him an alternate pouring activity. The boy complies without a fight.
If you’re on TikTok, you’ve more than likely come across a video like this. These parents are practicing gentle parenting, a parenting approach that builds on authoritative parenting, which is regarded as the healthiest of the four parenting styles to emerge from the work of Diana Baumrind, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, whose research from the 1960s still provides the definitive framework for understanding parenting styles today. While gentle parenting is certainly more complicated than what a 60-second TikTok can show, many experts say it’s an effective, if misunderstood, approach.
“Most people think gentle parenting is permissive parenting,” says Sarah Ockwell-Smith, author of The Gentle Parenting Book and The Gentle Discipline Book. “I think if people don’t really understand what it is, they wrongly assume that gentle parents have no discipline, have no rules, have no limits, and just let their kids do whatever they want. They’re viewed as parents who sit back and make excuses for their kids’ behavior.”
So what is gentle parenting really about? Meeting the kids where they are, with patience, kindness, and understanding. Now, it’s certainly not easy. But it can be effective. Here’s what to know about gentle parenting.
What Is Gentle Parenting?
Gentle parenting is a parenting approach grounded in four central elements: respect, understanding, empathy, and boundaries. It’s rooted in research that shows strong and healthy bonds with their parents can improve a child’s long-term mental health and resilience. Gentle parenting focuses on fostering the qualities parents want to see in their children by modeling them in age-appropriate ways.
“You don’t want to punish kids for being kids, just like you wouldn’t punish a dolphin for being a dolphin,” Ockwell-Smith says. “It sounds silly, but the point is, when we punish a toddler for not having impulse control, it’s like punishing a dolphin for not being able to ride a bicycle. They’re both physiologically and psychologically impossible tasks.”
As opposed to a traditional discipline strategy where the focus is primarily on punishment, gentle parenting edges more towards parents teaching and modeling proper behavior to their children. For example, if a parent is having a hard time getting their toddler dressed in the morning, they might consider whether or not they have a routine that helps the child know what to expect before, during, and after they get dressed. They would also consider empowering the child by allowing them to choose their own clothing, and use positive affirmations to demonstrate a belief and expectation that the child can dress themselves.
Giving a toddler the option to get dressed immediately or to wait for a few minutes is another option for giving them agency in the process. Of course, every parent knows that some days, toddlers will stonewall any kind of progress. That’s when calmly communicating a logical consequence and firmly following through becomes the final step in the gentle parenting process.
“Toddlers will always tantrum, and teenagers will always answer back and be rude. That’s just what they do because that’s the brain development that they have,” Ockwell-Smith says. “So while we’d like compliance, creating it or forcing it isn’t our primary goal. What we’re really trying to do is eventually create mentally healthy adults — happy individuals who can have good relationships and healthy self-esteem.”
Ockwell-Smith does make a delineation between in-the-moment discipline and emergency discipline. There will be urgent situations where parents won’t have the luxury of time to work through a gentle parenting progression with their kids.
“Emergency discipline is stopping a child from running in front of a car, or from throwing your mobile phone down the toilet,” she says. “You have to stop that behavior first before you think about being positive. And very often, how we stop that isn’t positive because we will often yell.”
Once the situation isn’t an emergency anymore, however, parents can walk their kids through why they responded that way and safer decisions their child can make in the future.
While comprehensive research on gentle parenting hasn’t been published yet, many of the principles gentle parenting is grounded in have been studied and have found positive results. For instance, a 2019 study published in The Journal of Experimental Child Psychology suggests that gentle encouragement may help shy toddlers regulate themselves better in social contexts. And a focus on discipline as a teachable moment instead of punishment was shown in a 2014 study to help children better understand how they should behave, while not exposing them to ways of speaking and acting that parents wouldn’t want their kids to emulate.
Why Gentle Parenting Is So Hard
Gentle parenting is not for the faint of heart. Parents can watch all the TikToks they want and read everything gentle parenting experts have to offer, but implementing those skills is often challenging. It requires parents to be calm when their kid is being infuriating, which is especially difficult when you’re tired or stressed.
But the shift to gentle parenting is built on the parent learning how to be patient, and unlearning some of the more controlling parenting habits they may have picked up on when they were children.
“Most of our families are really screwed up. So we, in turn, are screwed up,” Ockwell-Smith says. “Gentle parenting is really hard work because, in order to treat our kids kindly, we almost have to reparent ourselves and understand our baggage and understand what makes us who we are.”
Doing all of that introspection on the fly while adopting a new parenting framework is a lot for anyone. But the times when parents snap at their kids or don’t employ gentle parenting methods can be learning opportunities for future growth.
“What we need parents to do is to understand themselves more,” Ockwell-Smith says. “Gentle parenting becomes much more instinctive and natural when you understand your triggers in your upbringing, and why you feel compelled to yell at your child or punish them for something.”
It can be easy to fall into a shame cycle when trying to take on such a sweeping change as gentle parenting. So if you’re going to try out this parenting style, don’t be so hard on yourself when you make mistakes. Because it’s nearly impossible for parents to practice gentle parenting if they aren’t being gentle with themselves.
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