There comes a moment in every parent’s life when they realize that they need a strategy.
Maybe that moment comes in the middle of the grocery store checkout line, when your 3-year-old has a full meltdown after being denied their favorite candy at the cash register. You wonder what you’re doing wrong, and if it’s too late to fix it.
Perhaps it happens at the beach, when you’re screaming into the wind and sand for your child to stay close to you. They seem content to scurry away, pretending that they have never seen you before. You wonder how you can keep them safe when they aren’t even listening to you.
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It could even be a moment that happens in your therapist’s office, when it dawns on you that you’ll do anything to raise your children in a safer, calmer, happier home than the one you grew up in.
More and more parents looking for a strategy that combines healthy boundaries, natural consequences, and respect for others are turning to a philosophy called “gentle parenting.” As the name suggests, gentle parenting is meant to give children lots of compassionate cushion as parents lead through empathy.
That all sounds wonderful, in theory. But does gentle parenting actually work? We asked a parenting expert for the pros and cons of this approach.
“Gentle parenting is a form of positive parenting that emphasizes understanding a child’s behavior through empathy and respect, giving choices versus commands, and responding in a way that considers a child’s intellectual and developmental levels,” explains Dan Peters, PhD, a psychologist and host of the Parent Footprint podcast.
The way gentle parenting looks on a practical level will vary from family to family. But the central tenets of empathy, respect, understanding, and healthy boundaries should inform the way that all “gentle” parents make decisions.
“The goals of gentle parenting are to raise children who understand and can regulate their emotions, respect and have empathy for themselves and others, and have healthy and collaborative relationships,” says Peters.
Where did gentle parenting come from?
A British author named Sarah Ockwell-Smith is generally regarded as the founder of the gentle parenting movement. She has written 13 parenting books centered around the “gentle” philosophy. Ockwell-Smith isn’t a pediatrician or a neuroscientist; she is, however, a parent of four children of her own.
Gentle parenting has become quite popular on social media. #gentleparenting has 2.8 billion views on TikTok as parenting experts and everyday parents offer tips, tricks, and examples of how gentle parenting can work in real life.
How does gentle parenting work in the real world?
Gentle parenting is supposed to be a strategy that you can use throughout your time as a parent. Starting when your children are young is the easiest way to set boundaries and establish the expectation of natural consequences.
Real-world examples of gentle parenting will look different at different phases of your child’s development. Peters gives some examples:
- If your toddler spills their milk, the gentle parenting response won’t be to scold their carelessness or respond with words of frustration. Instead, your child could be required to help clean up their mess, with your assistance. That helps your child understand natural consequences, and also that they bear responsibility for their actions.
- If a kindergarten-aged child doesn’t want to go to school and expresses their emotions with yelling and crying, the gentle parenting response would not be to dismiss their reaction. Instead, you would comment on your child’s reaction and validate them. The goal would be to communicate understanding in an effort to help your child regulate their emotions, calm down, and get ready for school.
- If a teenage child comes home past their curfew, the gentle parenting response would not be to seek out a punitive consequence. That is not to say that there would be no punishment. The parent would explain the importance of honoring the curfew agreement and communicate a natural consequence, such as taking a night off from going out, having an earlier curfew to allow for more cushion for being late, or a plan for reminders to be home on time. The consequence would be based on finding the cause of the behavior and addressing it accordingly.
What are the pros and cons of gentle parenting?
When the philosophy is implemented consistently, gentle parenting has great promise as a parenting strategy. Proponents of gentle parenting believe that the strategy offers opportunities to address children as individuals and to foster empathy and respect.
Gentle parenting does have some potential pitfalls, especially if the strategy is not applied consistently. Gentle parenting also can’t be used as an excuse for nonconfrontational parents to avoid setting any rules or boundaries with your child. The technique isn’t to never discipline your child at all. The idea is to discipline them differently.
In other words, this strategy works only if it is establishing healthy, predictable family rhythms that both you and your child feel comfortable with.
“There’s the potential for parents to be too permissive and not set appropriate boundaries and expectations for behavior. Additional potential problems include indulging a child’s emotions and behavior without guiding and teaching,” says Peters.
Is there any research to support gentle parenting?
Gentle parenting is a fairly new approach to parenting. It’s also hard to objectively quantify how many people are doing it and how they are applying the philosophy. That means that there isn’t a lot of clinical research diving into how gentle parenting affects children as they grow into adults.
The principles behind gentle parenting have a lot in common with what’s known as “authoritative” and “positive” parenting, says Peters. “Positive communication, collaborative relationships, empathy, and respect result in adults who feel confident, communicate effectively, have emotional awareness, and have positive social skills and relationships,” he says.
Research indicates that authoritative parenting leads to children with healthy self-esteem who can self-regulate their emotions. It also means they understand disciplinary methods as a way of support instead of as a punishment.
Should you try gentle parenting?
Adults who have empathy and care for other people are a gift to the whole world. Gentle parenting is a way you can start to instill those value in your children. It also fosters independence, self-confidence, and many other virtues.
Gentle parenting isn’t a way to avoid disciplining your child altogether. It’s also not a magical way to make everyone get along. It takes a lot of intention, patience, and inner work to apply the philosophies of gentle parenting to your everyday choices with your kids.
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