WHAT IS GENTLE PARENTING?
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For the past one hundred years, alternatives to authoritarian parenting have been introduced and studied throughout the world, yet there are still so many people who see a term on the internet and think "What is gentle parenting?"
In the 1920s Dr. Alfred Adler introduced the concept of teaching children through respect and empathy but emphasized the need not to spoil them. In the 1940s and 1950s, Dr. Magda Gerber advocated for the respectful treatment of infants and children. And later, in the 1980s, Dr. Jane Nelson introduced the now well-known and well-studied Positive Parenting in her book, Positive Discipline. Sarah Ockwell-Smith popularized the term Gentle Parenting. She has a wonderful collection of parenting books about Gentle Parenting, Gentle Discipline, Gentle Sleep, and Gentle Eating.
WHAT IS GENTLE PARENTING?
Gentle parenting is an alternative approach to traditional child-rearing, with a foundation in mutual respect, empathy, understanding, and healthy boundaries. Sarah Ockwell-Smith says:
WHAT GENTLE PARENTING ISN'T
When asking the question, "what is gentle parenting?" it might easier to talk about what it isn't.
Gentle parenting is not permissive parenting. Permissive parenting is characterized by low demands and rules, and high nurturing and responsiveness. Permissive parents rarely enforce consequences and resort to bribery or rewards to entice positive behavior.
Gentle parenting is not authoritarian parenting. Authoritarian parenting is characterized by high demands and low responsiveness and nurturing. They are often known as strict disciplinarians and use punishments to enforce good behavior. There is rarely room to negotiate, and rules are most likely to go unexplained.
Gentle parenting is not uninvolved parenting. Uninvolved parenting is characterized by an "I don't care, do what you want" approach to parenting. There is little to no discipline, as well as little to no nurturing. They are often known as neglectful and pushovers.
THE FOUR PILLARS OF GENTLE PARENTING
The four pillars of gentle parenting are mutual respect, empathy, understanding, and healthy boundaries.
Respect between children and parents should be mutual. Expecting children to respect adults without respecting them, is likely to frustrate them and teach unhealthy (and unbiblical) definitions of respect. children should not be expected to respect parents in a vacuum! Parents should be mindful and aware of how they interact with their children, engaging them in a manner that is respectful and uplifting, rather than condescending or dismissive.
In today's culture, children's feelings and experiences are often dismissed, minimized, or ignored altogether. This leaves children feeling as though they do not matter, their feelings are invalid, and their voices are not worth being heard. Gentle Parenting tackles this trend head-on by making sure children are offered empathy by acknowledging their feelings, teaching them to process those feelings in safe and productive ways, and modeling emotional regulation by engaging with them the way you want them to engage with you.
Piggy-backing on empathy, understanding lays a foundation of mutual trust. When children feel heard and understood, they are more likely to come to their parents in times of crisis and are far more willing to listen and adhere to their parents' boundaries. One of the most vital aspects of being able to understand your child and their needs is educating yourself on the typical developmental expectations for children and not expecting them to behave in a way that is too advanced or emotionally mature for their development. For a crash-course in child development, we recommend The Whole Brain Child by Dr. Daniel Siegel. And lastly, gentle parenting requires that parents understand how their behavior impacts their child. Our children are wired with mirror neurons that cause them to imitate their caregivers. When we see unwanted behavior in children, it's important to reflect and evaluate if they learned it from you.
When moving away from traditional or mainstream parenting, it's easy to slip into permissive parenting. Holding healthy boundaries with your children is an important pillar of gentle parenting. It models firmness and resolves by respecting yourself and your needs while modeling kindness by respecting the needs of your child.
In gentle parenting, discipline is embraced as a vital part of parenting. What sets this style of parenting apart is that gentle discipline is age-appropriate, respectful, and empathic.
GENTLE PARENTING MANTRAS TO HELP YOU GET STARTED
"Connect before you correct." Because mutual respect is one of the pillars of gentle parenting, connecting with your child before correcting them helps reinforce a strong attachment and build trust and respect.
"My child is having a hard time, not giving me a hard time." With empathy front and center in this parenting style, it helps to remember that your child's behavior usually isn't an intentional personal attack. If your child is struggling to follow directions, be in control of their emotions, or understand a boundary, it's a good sign that they're having a hard time and need your help, not your hurt.
"What is my child’s behavior communicating in this moment?" Viewing behavior as communication will help you see your child's behavior as needing a solution to a problem, not a punishment for a problem child.
"Discipline means to teach not to punish." This is a popular mantra among advocates of gentle parenting, but does it line up with Scripture? We've done a thorough study of Scripture on this topic, and have found no record anywhere in Scripture of familial punishment. Punishment is exclusively the responsibility of Yahweh or Israel’s leaders. Even in the context of Torah, when a rebellious son was to be stoned, the responsibility of the punishment was on the tribe, not the parents. Discipline (which in both the Old and New Testaments is described as teaching, training, correcting, rebuking, guiding and discipline) is the responsibility of parents.
"You can’t teach children to behave better by making them feel worse. When children feel better, they behave better." - This quote by Pam Leo is a wonderful reminder that how we treat our children matters. Children who have a secure attachment with their parents are more likely to have healthy relationships with their parents, be confident in their decision making and ask for help when they aren't, have healthier sibling relationships, and are less likely to suffer from depression and hopelessness.
WHERE TO START ON THE JOURNEY TO GENTLE PARENTING