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How to Be a More Gentle Parent (and What It Really Means)

Illustration for article titled How to Be a More 'Gentle' Parent (and What It Really Means)

Photo: Alexander_Safonov (Shutterstock)

When I wrote last week about considering whether it’s time to change our parenting styles as we emerge from the pandemic, one reader reached out to ask me if I’d ever heard of gentle parenting. I did not think I had, but it sure sounded nice, so I decided to dive into the topic. I discovered that this is the type of parenting I’ve been trying to achieve: It’s for parents who want to focus on building empathy in their kids, get respect and give respect, maintain age-appropriate expectations for behavior, and set and enforce important boundaries.

What is gentle parenting?

Well, first let’s start with what gentle parenting is not. Gentle parenting is sometimes equated with attachment parenting, but although there can certainly be plenty of overlap, they’re not one and the same. While connection is at the center of both attachment and gentle parenting, attachment parents aim to achieve that connection specifically through actions like breastfeeding, co-sleeping, and baby-wearing. Gentle parenting can be achieved by any parent, though, regardless of how they feed their baby or where everybody sleeps.

Gentle parenting can also be mistaken for permissive parenting, which we talk about here, but they’re not the same thing either. Permissive parents are hands-off, don’t do much by way of enforcing rules, and see themselves as more of a “friend” to their child. Gentle parents have rules and boundaries and enforce them—they simply do so with respect, empathy, and positivity.

Here’s an excerpt from The Gentle Parenting Book: How to Raise Calmer, Happier Children from Birth to Seven, written by Dr. Sarah Ockwell-Smith, that compares gentle parenting to other parenting styles:

For too long parenting has been viewed as a battle. A battle for control between parent and child. Some parenting methods give all control to the [parents], for fear of the little tyrants becoming unmanageable monsters as they grow. Other methods give children far too much control, with parents scared to discipline when necessary, for fear of upsetting their delicate offspring. Gentle parenting is all about finding a balance of control, giving children just enough, at a time when they can handle it, with parents enforcing appropriate boundaries and limits. Gentle parenting is about being ever mindful of the long term effects of a parent’s actions as well as the immediate needs of safety and expectations of society.

“Gentle” parenting is a type of “authoritative” parenting, in which rules are made and enforced but with an emphasis on building a positive relationship with the child and taking their feelings and opinions into consideration. With gentle parenting, the goal is for kids to respect parents, and parents to respect kids, and although discipline plays a big role in the relationship, it is always age-appropriate and implemented with a goal of teaching rather than punishing.

Gentle parents want to achieve compliance through a strong, positive bond with their kids, and they want to treat their children as fully formed individuals who require and deserve some degree of autonomy. However, they also want to be careful not to over praise, as Dr. Aliza Pressman, co-founding director and director of clinical programming for the Mount Sinai Parenting Center, tells Mind Body Green:

“Using praise as a motivator certainly works for kids sometimes,” says Pressman. “But you want to be careful that you’re not overpraising them in an attempt to build confidence, as it undermines their confidence. Kids learn to think that they need outside validation to feel good about themselves, or they feel the need to always get praise.”

The pitfalls of gentle parenting

If you’re going to give “gentle parenting” a shot, you have to also remember to be gentle with yourself. You can’t be so focused on the kids that you’re leaving your own needs at the door. This type of parenting requires a lot of emotional regulation and patience on your part, and that’s going to be a hell of a lot harder if you’re mentally and emotionally worn out yourself. You should also plan to have rough, decidedly un-gentle days—and that’s okay, too. You’re playing the long game here, and you will absolutely make mistakes in the short-term.

The other thing to be careful about with gentle parenting is to not drift into the Land of No Boundaries. Being “gentle” doesn’t mean letting kids do whatever they want in order to keep the peace. Kids can and will feel sadness, anger, and frustration—no amount of gentleness from you can prevent that, nor should it. You can be both gentle and firm about your boundaries. These two things are not mutually exclusive.

If you want to hear how some of this sounds in practice, I suggest checking out the Good Inside with Dr. Becky podcast, in which she takes listener questions about how to handle issues like kids who won’t listen, tantrums, and screen time.

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