Gentle parenting is a term that originated in The Gentle Parenting Book by Sarah Ockwell-Smith, which details how to raise calmer and happier children from birth to age seven. Gentle parenting provides a different approach to traditional parenting. It is a more relaxed and observant style of parenting that is led by empathy. Gentle parenting enables parents to set more realistic expectations for their child and their behavior.
What Is Gentle Parenting?
Gentle parenting is a newer approach to parenting that is centered on the core ideas of understanding, empathy, respect, and boundaries, according to Ockwell-Smith.
Gentle parenting differs from traditional parenting in several ways, one of which is by allowing the child to lead in decision making, instead of the adult. It's meant to give the child more control, and help parents practice being more flexible with schedules, behavior, and more.
Not Labeling Behaviors
Another component of gentle parenting is that no behavior is labeled as being 'good' or 'bad,' and all behaviors are perceived as being responses to needs that go either 'met' or 'unmet.'
Noting Parental Needs
Self-care for parents is another staple of gentle parenting. Ockwell-Smith notes that it's important for parents to take care of themselves and their needs first, before they can offer the best comfort, care, and connection possible to their child.
Leading With Care
Ockwell-Smith also advises that a large aspect of gentle parenting is responding to your child with care and understanding. For example, many aspects of child development, such as self-soothing, are learned behaviors that children can only accomplish once they have been emotionally supported and grown to that level of development. According to gentle parenting, parents should respect their children for their individual uniqueness, and set realistic expectations about children's behavior as they grow and develop.
How to Practice Gentle Parenting
Ockwell-Smith advises, "Gentle parenting is a way of being, it is a mindset," and suggests that there are no hard and fast rules that determine how a parent can practice gentle parenting if they are leading with the core values. Gentle parenting is largely about the parent's intentions and thoughts behind their actions, which may look different for everyone. Some ways to practice gentle parenting are:
- Allowing your child to make their own schedule for the day
- Following your child's interests and trying the activity they choose
- Allowing yourself to rest in order to be a better caregiver
- Responding with empathy when your child cries, especially at night
- Not expecting your child to behave like a mature adult when they are upset
- Playing games differently based on how your child wants to play them
- Allowing your child to express themselves in whatever way feels right for them
- Observing your child's behavior without judgment or labels
Gentle Parenting Discipline
Ockwell-Smith makes a clear distinction between gentle parenting and permissive parenting, and notes that children don't always get what they want from parents who practice gentle parenting. Parents aren't obligated to say yes to all of their children's demands.
Discipline as a Teaching Opportunity
Gentle parenting approaches discipline as a teaching opportunity for children, where parents are able to demonstrate how to use empathy, respect, and other qualities they want their child to develop in the real world. This means that parents can act as role models for their children, and demonstrate not yelling or using other unhelpful behaviors when dealing with conflict.
Fewer and More Consistent Boundaries
The approach notes that discipline should be age-appropriate, and encourages parents to set fewer boundaries/rules centered around the things they believe to be the most important, yet constantly reinforce them. This is meant to give your child a better understanding of the most important things to keep in mind as they grow. Some examples of boundaries are:
- Don't harm anyone else.
- Respect others' privacy.
- No running or throwing things inside because it can be unsafe.
- Let others share their ideas/opinions.
- Don't place judgment on others.
Gentle parenting centers around empathy and understanding, which means that these aspects must be carried over into discipline. This parenting style encourages parents to allow their children to explain why they expressed whatever behavior they did. Then, by understanding the cause from the child's perspective, move forward together to help a child understand why the behavior was harmful or unhelpful. This is meant to allow the child to learn from their actions, instead of undergoing traditional punishment, such as sitting in time out, which leaves them feeling misunderstood.
Moving Away From Punishment
Gentle parenting encourages parents to move away from the traditional style of punishment that has been used for ages. These older forms of punishment include putting a child in time out, spanking, or restricting access to preferred items, such as taking away toys. The parenting style believes that these types of punishment teach children not to express their emotions, leave them feeling misunderstood, and don't actually teach children appropriate behavior, just how to be compliant with punishment.
Benefits of Gentle Parenting
There are several benefits to adopting a gentle parenting style that may help foster growth and stronger connections between parents and their children.
Gentle parenting is a form of authoritative parenting, which, according to the American Psychological Association (APA), involves parents who "are nurturing, responsive, and supportive, yet set firm limits for their children." According to the National Library of Medicine, this parenting style has several benefits, such as:
- Decreasing depression and anxiety in children
- Reducing the likelihood of substance abuse
- Preventing externalized problem behavior
- Positively impacting a child's self-esteem
- Increasing social competence
- Achieving higher rates of academic achievement
- Increased rates of resilience
- Positively impacting maturation
Potential Issues With Gentle Parenting
Trying to learn and adopt a new parenting style is no easy task, and it's likely that you may run into some issues along the way as you and your family settle into a rhythm and learn more about each other.
It Takes Time
It's important for parents to remember that seeing the effects of a gentle parenting approach may take time, and that not seeing immediate results shouldn't be discouraging. You and your child are both learning and practicing something new at the same time, which means that there is going to be a learning curve and potential hiccups along the way. Try not to judge yourself, and keep in mind that raising a child is a marathon, not a sprint.
Slipping Into Old Patterns
Traditional parenting styles and forms of punishment have been around for ages. While practicing gentle parenting, it's normal to slip back into old patterns and send your child to time out when a problem behavior occurs. Learning opportunities are an important part of gentle parenting, which means that if you find yourself reverting back to old ways, you should give yourself the same grace that you would give your child. Express what you were feeling to your child and explain how your reaction didn't help them understand or grow from it. Everybody makes mistakes.
Differences Between Gentle Parenting and Traditional Parenting
Gentle parenting differs from traditional parenting in a number of ways. In this practice, parents make a deliberate effort to respond to their child and their behaviors first with respect and understanding, instead of focusing on punishment. Traditional parenting provides a different approach to parent-child relationships and places more emphasis on the power imbalance between parents and their children. Some examples of differences between gentle and traditional parenting are:
- Gentle: Allowing your child to pick out their own outfit.
- Traditional: Changing your child's outfit to better align with society's expectations.
- Gentle: Playing a board game with the new rules your child made.
- Traditional: Making your child play the board game with the set rules.
- Gentle: Asking your child what they were feeling when they experienced a behavior.
- Traditional: Sending a child to time out for a problem behavior.
- Gentle: Utilizing a babysitter to give you the night off to relax and recharge.
- Traditional: Forcing yourself to spend time with your child even when you are neglecting your own needs.
- Gentle: Following your child's natural interests and encouraging them.
- Traditional: Encouraging your child to have interests that fit society's expectations.
Becoming a 'Gentle' Parent
There are many benefits associated with the practice of gentle parenting that may help strengthen the bond between you and your child as you both grow and learn alongside one another. You may find it challenging at first to move away from traditional parenting practices that are used so commonly, especially if you were raised with certain traditional practices. It's important to remember this is okay, and that no one is a 'perfect' parent. Leading with the core values of empathy, respect, and understanding is a great way to start teaching your child more about themselves, their emotions, and how to become well-rounded human beings.