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Is “Gentle Parenting” Really All that Gentle?

Within parenting, we must directly face the reality that our children are our responsibility, but at the same time, they are separate from us. As your children grow up, there will be more opportunities for better parenting and better obedience. Because of this, gentle parenting’s popularity is rising. How does this parenting style really play out in practical ways?

In the realm of parenting styles, child obedience is revered as the gold standard of proper and healthy behavior. Which parenting style achieves this outcome? If you ask the upcoming generation of parents, most will cite gentle parenting as the best bet.

It doesn’t take long to find parenting stories recounting a young mother’s struggle to convince their kids to obey. Most parents can empathize with the before-school pleas to put on a jacket, eat your breakfast, and get in the car with both shoes on.

However, the depths of childhood obedience go beyond simple everyday habits like these.

The emerging theory of gentle parenting promises obedience and more. As its popularity rises, gentle parenting’s philosophies of discipline, boundaries, and respect draw distinct lines in the sand for parents and children alike. Yet, aspiring gentle parents wrestle with two central questions: Who holds the authority? And when that authority is questioned, who will be the first to cross the not so imaginary lines in the sand?  

What is Gentle Parenting?

Gentle parenting is a parenting style focused on how best to approach boundaries, discipline, communication, and empathy with your kids. At its core, this parenting approach focuses on acknowledging a child’s feelings and emotions to discover the motivations behind their behaviors.

Where most parenting strategies handle poor behavior through correction and punishment, gentle parenting avoids these measures altogether. Holding strong boundaries, the gentle parent provides the child with choices in the place of commands.

The central aim of gentle parenting is for parents to select the qualities they want to see in their children. Then, the parents should model these character traits as they move through each age and stage.

Gentle parenting urges parents to accept the psychological and developmental limitations within the toddler stage or the teenage years. Instead of engaging in negative emotions, the gentle parent should remain calm, speak kindly, and allow their child’s actions to run their course.

Of course, there are some caveats to the gentle parenting approach. Emergency discipline is a necessity. As is immediately addressing harmful behavior and outbursts. Yet, gentle parenting’s preferred response involves follow-up conversations about how to better regulate powerful emotions in the future.

If you’re starting to feel like it’s more likely to achieve cultural utopia than effective gentle parenting, you’re not alone. Some of gentle parenting’s loudest critics describe the parenting style’s strategies as “lofty, indulging, and spoiled brats.”

But it’s undeniable. The recent overflow of parents searching for effective parenting strategies has led many families to gentle parenting in favor of traditional methods.

7 Traits of Effective Parenting Assessment

Good parents aren’t perfect. There’s no formula to follow, but there are ways you can grow every day. Focus on the Family’s 7 Traits of Effective Parenting Assessment gives parents an honest look at their unique strengths, plus some areas that could use a little help.

Gentle Parenting and Personalities

When considering various parenting styles, it’s necessary to think about your own personality as a parent. Licensed counselor, Ph.D., and Focus on the Family’s Vice President of Parenting, Danny Huerta offers the following advice.

“Gentle parenting has some merit with certain personalities, but not with others.” It’s also worth considering your child’s personality and how they respond to authority. Huerta goes on to say, “Sensitive and hypersensitive children can be responsive to [gentle parenting] while more dominant personalities will struggle with this parenting approach.”

As you read through, consider how your personality relates to or differs from your child’s character traits.

Gentle Parenting and Authoritative Parenting

Coined by parenting expert Sarah Ockwell-Smith in her book, The Gentle Parenting Book, gentle parenting initially applied to common milestones in early childhood development. Ockwell-Smith describes the application of gentle parenting to potty training and putting kids to bed. The parenting method eventually evolved into a comprehensive philosophy focused on a parent’s positive and healthy responses to their children’s behaviors.

Gentle parenting signals a distinct shift from “authoritative parenting,” (an approach routinely advocated for by Focus on the Family). Authoritative parenting supports time-outs and grounding, while gentle parenting tends to discourage those practices. Conversations involving punishment, consequences, and discipline provide the sharpest divide between the two parenting styles.

Common with most parenting strategies, there’s a lot to learn from gentle parenting. In a recent New Yorker article slyly titled: “The Harsh Realm of Gentle Parenting,” Jessica Winter describes the parenting style’s rise, as well as its viability in an increasingly individualized culture.

Winter points out a faulty assumption within these circles. She writes, “One of the major themes in gentle parenting discourse generally, is that the children don’t defy for the sake of defiance, but that their challenging behavior is a physiological response to stress.”

She goes on to describe a situation where a toddler throws objects at cars. Winter suggests that the child’s behavior is likely more nuanced and specific than simple stress. How much more is this true for the mood-swinging teenager or grumpy pre-teen?

We’re still left with our initial questions. Who holds the authority in a gentle parenting household? As Winter notes, the continued deference of parent to child’s emotions creates both realistic and hypothetical problems for the parent-child relationship. Most noticeable of all in the arena of discipline.

Gentle Parenting Discipline

Gentle parenting rests on the parent’s ability to communicate clear expectations. In contrast to tiger parents, parents must establish realistic expectations for their kids. They focus on what the child says and feels rather than what the parent hopes or wishes for their children.

This presents a conundrum with discipline. When a child misbehaves in a parent’s eyes, there’s likely a consequence if there are clearly outlined boundaries and rules. However, gentle parenting blurs the lines within discipline by elevating the child’s emotions above the parent’s rules.

Winter employs the following example. Imagine a family that’s working on teaching their toddlers to keep their hands to themselves. One day, mom tells her young boy that she’s taking a break from playing to do laundry. The boy erupts into tears and begins hitting his mom.

Gentle parenting would tell the mom that the housework can wait. Your child needs you right now. But where does this end?

In these moments, gentle parenting advocates for the parent to avoid using a harsh phrase such as “Don’t hit” because it contains negative emotions towards the child. Instead, gentle parenting argues that the parent must look at their role in the things that result in the negative behavior.

You’re probably noticing the trend. Gentle parenting imagines ideal situations with far greater frequency than its counterparts. Realistic parents might wonder who on earth can have enough energy for eternal attention on their child’s emotions and needs.

These are worthy questions and criticisms, which lead to a discussion of gentle parenting’s other core tenet: communication.

Gentle Parenting Communication

Returning to the New Yorker’s article, Winter eventually moves into analysis of common parenting phrases and their role in the gentle parenting approach. Phrases like “right now” and “because I said so” remain common throughout parenting culture.

Yet, gentle parenting vehemently opposes all uses of these phrases.

The business of parenting advice operates under the assumption that you have control in the relationship with your children. At times, this flips the balance on its head and provides the child with more control than the parent. This is especially true with communication.

Part of the confusion and danger appears in moments where experts advocate for listening to your child’s emotional outbursts rather than immediately correcting or offering advice.

Popular gentle parenting podcasts such as “Unruffled” and the “The Gentle Parenting Show” chronicle success stories of gentle parents engaging in healthy conversations with their kids. Frankly, listening to these podcasts presents more questions that answers. Namely, who’s really in charge in a gentle parenting environment?  

The Verdict

A perfect parenting style simply does not exist. Your children are unique in their personalities, temperaments, and character qualities. Most parenting styles and strategies fail to acknowledge the reality that our children are created in the image of God.

There’s no amount of psychology or theory that can adequately explain God’s intent and design for creation, especially of children. But that reality still doesn’t get your five-year old to put their shoes on.

I asked several Christian parents about their approach to parenting their children. Their responses and stories make up a kaleidoscope of experiences both shared and distinct. However, time after time, three ideas continued to surface. Certainly, there are elements of these ideas within gentle, authoritative, and other parenting styles. Yet, they are fundamental to a Christian worldview.

Love, forgiveness, and sacrifice. These are not made by human hands. Nor is your child. Along with your children, love, forgiveness, and sacrifices are God’s gifts designed to teach us about Him and His glory. You only find the purest form of these ideas within Christianity. There’s a reason for that. There’s also a reason gentle parenting fails to incorporate these ideas into its philosophies. Its focus lies elsewhere.

Final Thoughts

Within parenting, we must directly face the reality that our children are our responsibility, but at the same time, they are separate from us. As your children grow up, there will be more opportunities for better parenting and better obedience.

Without love, forgiveness, and sacrifice, there’s little hope for things to “go better next time.” Our approach to parenting isn’t perfect either. Yet, we believe it’s rooted in something lasting and hopeful.

For more information about Focus on the Family’s parenting strategies, styles and advice, please explore our resources here and parenting style specific content here.

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