It didn’t always used to be a verb, you know, people just used to be parents without really thinking very hard about it.
In the Victorian era there was a shift towards thinking of the act of child-rearing as a science, and as we moved into the 20th century a new wave of research, changes in traditional gender roles and a move towards labelling our identities, we started to see an explosion of the word “parenting” as a verb, and a multitude of styles of parenting to go with it.
Gentle parenting is one approach to raising children that seems to be becoming more and more popular every day.
But what is it, how does it work, how does it differ to other styles of parenting, and should you start using it with your own children?
Let’s start this beginner’s guide to gentle parenting by looking at the four, broad styles of parenting and how they differ.
What are the four parenting styles?
Research conducted by Diana Baumrind in 1966, subsequently expanded upon by Maccoby and Martin in 1983, has identified four main styles of parenting. Different researchers may name them slightly differently but they can be categorised as:
- High, often unrealistic expectations of child
- Emotionally distant
- Parents are to be obeyed
- Uses punishments and reward systems to get children to behave in the desired way
- Children expected to be emotionally independent and behave like adults
- Low expectations of both child and own parenting authority
- Avoids confrontation or making child upset
- Own needs are prioritised over the child’s
- Passive and with little time for the child
- High but realistic expectations that take child’s age and developmental capacity into account
- Responsive and warm towards child
- Flexible but able to assert clear boundaries
- Democratic and willing to listen
- Understands that so-called “misbehaviour” is a child’s way of communicating
This is the parenting style arguably most prevalent in mainstream society, having been passed down from generation to generation since Victorian and Edwardian attitudes about children needing harsh discipline became the societal norm.
Authoritarian parents are low in warmth and responsiveness towards their children, expecting more independence and emotional and developmental capacity than their children are really capable of – in other words, authoritarian parents expect the same behaviours and level of understanding from children that they do from adults.
They are also big on punishment systems (and the counterpart, rewards systems) including things like time-out and the naughty step. At the most extreme end of authoritarian parenting lies physical punishment such as smacking or spanking, which is sadly still legal where I live.
Unlike their authoritarian counterparts, parents who are permissive and indulgent are generally very warm and responsive to their children. However, they have either inconsistent or non-existent boundaries and indulge the child’s wishes, usually out of fear of upsetting them.
These parents have few, if any boundaries with their children and the boundaries they do attempt to set quickly disintegrate as soon as the child challenges them. “Yes darling, whatever if you want” is the mantra of the permissive parent.
While children of permissive parents tend to grow up well-socialised and emotionally secure due to the warmth and emotional responsiveness they grew up with, they tend to be more impulsive, have a sense of entitlement, and exhibit problem behaviours when expected to conform to societal expectations.
Neglectful parents are fairly self explanatory – they essentially leave their children to get on with it and show little interest in actively participating in their children’s lives.
They show little to no warmth or responsiveness towards their child, neither do they attempt to instill boundaries or discipline. Most often these parents experience a range of difficulties such as mental health issues, financial stress, or alcohol or drug dependency.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, children with neglectful and disengaged parents generally experience a range of social, psychological, emotional and physical difficulties growing up and are associated with some of the worst child outcomes.
Very much not to be confused with authoritarian parenting, authoritative parenting is generally viewed by child development specialists as being the most successful approach and the one most likely to result in positive outcomes for both children and parents.
Authoritative parenting is high in warmth and responsiveness, but also holds high expectations. Instead of the authoritarian approach of having inappropriately high standards for the children, however, these are high expectations of the parent’s ability to handle situations with confidence and authority, whilst having age-appropriate expectations of the child. The authoritative parent recognises which stage of development their child is at and adjusts their expectations accordingly.
In contrast to permissive parents, those practicing authoritative parenting will consciously and consistently implement reasonable boundaries and age-appropriate discipline, but they do so with an aim of helping the child to understand the logical consequences of their behaviour and take responsibility for their actions where developmentally appropriate.
The authoritative parent empathises with their child, seeks to help them overcome their developmental struggles, and models the behaviour they wish to see in their child.
what does gentle Parenting mean?
As far as I can tell from my research, the actual term “gentle parenting” was first coined by parenting author Sarah Ockwell-Smith, who has written 10 books on the subject, including The Gentle Parenting Book. Gentle parenting falls under the category of authoritative parenting as outlined above. It places an emphasis on respect, understanding and empathy for the child as well as embedding a strong foundation of child development knowledge into its practice.
The gentle parenting umbrella could be used to describe more specific forms of parenting such as Attachment Parenting, which focuses on creating secure attachment from birth onwards, and some people use different terms such as positive, respectful or responsive parenting.
Personally, I think of myself as practicing ethical parenting – my focus is on the overall ethics of my parenting practice and I take things such as environmental, economic, social and political considerations into account, alongside an understanding of child development and ethics surrounding discipline tactics.
For the purposes of this blog I’m going to use the term “gentle parenting” to describe a broad approach, but bear in mind that there may be subtleties in the differences between some specific gentle parenting philosophies – whilst Attachment Parenting is a form of gentle parenting, not all gentle parenting is Attachment Parenting. At the end of this post I’ll provide some resources for you to take a look at so you can go further in depth and learn more from the major names in the gentle parenting world.
what are the benefits of gentle Parenting?
As I said in the section on authoritative parenting, there is strong evidence to suggest that this form of parenting is the most successful one to adopt when looking at both child and parent outcomes.
Overall, in gentle parenting households you’ll find that gentle parents are happier, there is less conflict, children rate higher in terms of intelligence, emotional self-regulation, self-esteem and brain development, and they grow up to have healthier relationships with their parents and other people.
If that’s not enough to convert you, I don’t know what is!
does gentle parenting work?
This is a question I hear a lot from people who have just started to learn about gentle parenting – “Does it WORK?” The first thing I think is really important to establish is, what exactly do you mean by “work”? If you mean “Does it work to bring up psychologically and emotionally stable, healthy, self-assured, resilient and generally awesome kids, teenagers and, ultimately, adults?” then YES, it absolutely does work! That list of benefits above is a tiny fraction of the positive outcomes of gentle parenting (Sarah Ockwell-Smith has a longer list HERE)
What I find a lot of parents mean though when they ask “Does it work?” is, “Will it help to make my child behave the way I want them to, be compliant and generally obey me?” Gentle parenting groups are littered with frustrated posts about toddlers who keep on doing their dastardly toddler deeds even after their loving parents followed ALL the gentle parenting “rules”! In answering the question “Does gentle parenting work?” I’m going to pull apart the question itself.
Gentle parenting does not seek compliance and “good” behaviour from the child as the main goal. That’s a mainstream, authoritarian approach to parenting practices. The purpose of a reward chart, for example, is to get desirable behaviours from the child in the moment. Gentle parenting, however, sees that giving rewards in return for desirable behaviour is a disastrous long-term strategy, since it teaches the child that they should only behave in a pleasant way if they’re going to get something in return. On top of that, as the child gets older and the appeal of gold star stickers wears off, the rewards need to get bigger and bigger in order to see the desired results. Before you know it, you’re practically paying your teenager in iPads to come down and help set the table for dinner, an activity that should be done simply because it’s helpful and all capable members of the family should contribute domestic labour to the household.
The goals of gentle parenting are not complicity in a given moment e.g. to instantly stop a toddler temper tantrum or turn off sassy teenage backchat. The goals are long-term ambitions including emotional security, resilience, healthy child-parent relationships and ending up with an adult who can function well in their relationships and society as a whole.
But, if you really want to know whether gentle parenting can, for example, stop a toddler tantrum or get them to apologise for their misdemeanours, well yes it can. Gentle parents allow and support all emotions in their children and I can tell you from experience that using gentle parenting techniques have remarkable results when it comes to my 2-year-old daughter Ursula. She’s goes from 100-0 on the meltdown scale and comes running into my arms for a huge cuddle just from me sitting down on her level and saying, “I can see how upset and angry you are and I understand. I’m here for you whenever you need me”. She’s also spontaneously come and apologised for knocking over a jug of water and offered to help me clean it up, even though I didn’t scold her and I’ve never once tried to force her to say sorry for anything.
By meeting the child where they are, empathising with the fact that they have different experiences to us as adults, and being both warm and responsive to their needs, we can have happier, calmer and more peaceful relationships with them, WITHOUT falling into the traps of indulgent, permissive parenting.
When people hear about gentle parenting, they often assume it’s permissive parenting where the children run riot and lack any discipline whatsoever. Nothing could be further from the truth. Gentle parents still have boundaries and we stick to them, we just do so consistently, for a good reason (not just because we’re the “boss” and we said so) and we support our children through their upset, anger or frustration at having boundaries enforced. In doing this, we can make sure our children stay safe, don’t do things that are inappropriate, maintain our own boundaries and sense of well-being, and have a more desirable overall quality of life as a result.
how do you discipline with gentle parenting?
I’m not going to go super in-depth into the methods of gentle parenting discipline as I want to point you in the direction of other authors and practitioners who have written extensively on the subject, but I will give you some examples of gentle discipline approaches so you can get a sense of how it works on the ground:
keep everybody safe
This is the first step in any situation involving small children – it is absolutely your role to keep your children, yourself and others around you safe in any given moment. Safety trumps gentleness too, so if your toddler is about to run into the middle of the road, hit their younger sibling or put their hands in the blender, it’s crucial to stop them immediately. How you respond afterwards is what makes the difference but in the immediate term, a simple, matter-of-fact “Stop! I won’t let you do that” is clear and concise enough for them to understand.
examine your expectations
The next step in looking at how to respond to your child’s behaviour is to ask yourself whether your expectations are appropriate in the context of your child’s developmental capacity. Is the behaviour you are expecting from your child reasonable for their age, and is it possible that the behaviour they are exhibiting is simply all they are capable of?
One thing that is absolutely vital to understand about small children is that their underdeveloped brains lack the capacity to think logically – just as you don’t expect a baby or toddler to be able to drive a car due to their lack of physical development, you also can’t expect them to think logically and critically like an adult due to their lack of neurological development.
Small children are literally ALL instinct and emotion, no logic, until at least 4 years old when the prefrontal cortex begins to develop. Even then, it develops slowly, stops and stalls during the teenage years due to an influx of hormones, then kicks off again before finally finishing its development in the early or even mid-twenties. So any parent expecting their toddler to sit down and do some serious logical, critical thinking is off by literally about 20 years! This understanding is crucial to being able to effectively communicate with (and therefore discipline) your child.
empathise with your child
This comes straight off the back of point two, as once you have considered where they are in their development it becomes possible to see that their behaviour may have a valid cause. That’s not to say the behaviour is acceptable, safe or appropriate, but if you can empathise with them and speak your empathy, this goes a long way.
To provide an example, when my 2 year old daughter becomes angry and upset that she can’t play with my makeup brushes (a clear boundary I have set in place), I will get down to her level so that I’m not towering over her and using my height to assert my power, and I say: “I can see you are very angry and upset right now. I do hear you when you say that you want to play with my makeup brushes, but I am saying no. I understand how upset you are about that and I would love to give you a cuddle when you are ready”. I hold out my arms and, after an extra wail or two of protest, 9/10 times she comes running in for a cuddle and the whole situation is diffused.
That 1/10 time when she remains upset and angry always, and I mean always, has some other element behind it such as her needing a nap, being hungry, or having been indoors and not active enough that day. We go and sort out whatever it is instead and move on. No permissive relaxing of my boundary that she can’t play with my makeup brushes, and no harsh punishments that ultimately don’t work in the long run.
An authoritarian parent might use a tactic such as “time-out” to deal with this situation, but the problem is that time out is a completely illogical consequence from the perspective of a two year old wanting to play with Mummy’s (very sparkly and desirable) makeup brushes. A two year old does not have the developmental capacity to sit and “think about what they’ve done”, for the reasons I outlined in point two. Neither do they even make the connection between their emotional outburst and the fact that they are now being forced to sit in their room or on the step by themselves, so the whole concept of time-out is completely flawed. That’s why the gentle parent takes a different, more effective and far kinder approach.
search for an underlying cause
Once you have dealt with a situation in the moment, it’s really important to look at what may be causing consistently difficult behaviour and seek to resolve any issues you uncover. For example, young children often become unsettled by big changes such as moving house, parental separation, a new sibling, potty training and so on. Changes such as these will invariably spark off a new set of behaviours and very often the parents don’t make the connection. The amount of times I’ve seen a mother despairing at her child’s sudden violent behaviour or toileting regression, saying she’s at a loss as to what’s caused it, and then you find out she’s just had a baby. Children can’t articulate their feelings in the way (most!) adults can so they express themselves through their behaviour. One of my favourite gentle parenting quotes, which gets me through even the worst of my daughter’s emotional outbursts, is “She’s not giving me a hard time – she’s HAVING a hard time”. Again it all comes back to empathy, which is the bedrock of gentle parenting.
There are lots more detailed resources to help you learn more about specific gentle parenting discipline tools, but hopefully you can see the difference in approach to more mainstream, authoritarian parenting.
when can you start gentle parenting?
Gentle parenting is an ethos, a process and a way of life that we embed into our daily practices and use with a view to fulfilling our long-term parenting goals. It’s not a strategy that you just pick up and put on one day until you feel like stopping because it hasn’t “worked”.
You can start to embed its principles from the moment your baby enters into the world in the way you seek to promote secure attachment and emotional bonding with them.
As they grow up and start testing your boundaries in the toddler years and beyond, you can go deeper into the practices of gentle parenting and you will most likely discover just as much (if not more) about your own childhood and your own triggers as you do about theirs.
If you have previously been using a different parenting style and wondering if you can switch to gentle parenting then yes! You absolutely can. It may be harder work for you if you have naturally fallen into a more authoritarian style (especially if that’s how you yourself were raised) but, with time, patience, dedication and practice, you can start gentle parenting no matter the age of your child and no matter what stage you are at with them. Sarah Ockwell-Smith’s definitive Gentle Parenting Book has a whole section on switching from a different style of parenting and I very much recommend this title as a good starting point for your gentle parenting journey.
how do you start gentle parenting?
The best way to get started with gentle parenting is to get some of the resources listed at the end of this blog and start to fill your social media news feeds with writers, groups and educators who are dedicated to the gentle parenting philosophy. That way you can begin to embed these practices in your daily life.
The other way to start gentle parenting right now is to start noticing how you respond to your children in certain situations, and begin to question why you are responding in that way. Are you taking their developmental capacity into account or just responding the way you think parents are supposed to, or how your own parents responded to you? Becoming mindful about the way we speak to and behave towards our children is the very first step, and one you can start doing right now.
Finally, I’ve created a dedicated Ethical Parenting Pinterest board, which I hope will help you begin your journey towards gentle parenting. Please do give me a follow too, as I post lots of resources on ethical parenting and would love to share more with you!
Additional note 16/7/20 The lists below previously included recommendations for Janet Lansbury, whose approach to toddler discipline I had found incredibly helpful. Subsequently I have been disappointed to learn that she advocates sleep training in the form of controlled crying, even going so far as to claim it is “respectful”. I was incredibly upset to learn this and feel I can no longer trust or recommend her work in other areas of child development so I have removed her from the lists below.
I have also removed references within this blog to Lansbury’s chosen method of parenting, RIE®, as being gentle due to the problematic views of founder Magda Gerber, which I learned about as a result of my discoveries about Lansbury.
The reason I’m telling you all this is because this story demonstrates that not all child educators using words like “gentle” and “respectful” are actually truly gentle or respectful of babies and children. Keep your critical brain listening while you explore different voices (including mine!) and please contact me if you find anything problematic about any of the resources I have recommended.
(Contains affiliate links)
The Gentle Discipline Book: How To Raise Cooperative, Polite & Helpful Children by Sarah Ockwell-Smith
The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind by Daniel J. Siegel & Tina Payne Bryson PhD
How To Talk So Little Kids Will Listen by Joanna Faber & Julie King
Raising A Secure Child: How Circle of Security Parenting Can Help You Nurture Your Child’s Attachment, Emotional Resilience, and Freedom to Explore by Kent Hoffman, Glen Cooper, Bert Powell & Christine M. Benton
Beyond The Sling by Mayim Bialik PhD
The Baby Book: Everything You Need To Know About Your Baby From Birth To Age Two by Dr William Sears, Martha Sears R.N, Dr Robert Sears & Dr James Sears
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