What Is Gentle Parenting?
From authoritative and permissive to free-range and conscious, there are dozens of parenting methods out there—and more variations than one can count. But if you're looking to add a new approach to your arsenal, you may want to consider gentle parenting. The peaceful, positive style is very different from that of our parents, i.e. it is a far cry from the "old school."
But what is gentle parenting—and how can you implement gentle parenting in your daily life? From the foundations of this approach to the pros and cons, here's everything you need to know about gentle parenting.
What Is Gentle Parenting?
Gentle parenting is a means of parenting without shame, blame, or punishment. It is a partnership between parties and both parents and children have a say in this collaborative style. Gentle parenting is as it sounds; it is a softer approach to parenting, and parents and caregivers that practice gentle parenting do so by guiding their children with consistent, compassionate boundaries—not a firm hand.
"Gentle parenting, also known as collaborative parenting, is a style of parenting where parents do not compel children to behave by means of punishment or control, but rather use connection, communication, and other democratic methods to make decisions together as a family," says Danielle Sullivan, a parenting coach and host of the Neurodiverging Podcast based in Lafayette, Colorado.
This parenting style is composed of four main elements: empathy, respect, understanding, and boundaries.
What Are the Benefits of Gentle Parenting?
There are numerous benefits to gentle parenting. "Gentle parenting teaches children that they can be active in the world, set their own boundaries, trust their own needs, and make their voices heard. It offers a framework for children to learn to assert themselves clearly but respectfully," says Sullivan. "And this parenting approach reduces their chances of being taken advantage of by bullying behavior."
Other benefits of gentle parenting include:
- Reduced anxiety. Research suggests that gentle parenting may reduce the risk for anxiety. In fact, one study found that this approach "may promote regulated responses in social contexts in shy toddlers.
- Improved parent-child bond. Another study found that gentle parenting may improve the relationship between parents and children. "The most valuable gift that a child can receive is free," the study reads. "It's simply a parent's love, time and support."
- Positive social skills. Children, especially babies and toddlers, copy what they see. Since gentle parenting is rooted in empathy and respect, children learn to model these positive traits—making them more likely to become empathetic, respectful human beings themselves.
Are There Any Problems With Gentle Parenting?
While there are numerous benefits to gentle parenting, the approach is not failproof. Even gentle parenting has its cons.
In some cases, gentle parenting can be permissive and enabling, which can lead to poor behavior. Gentle parenting can be a challenge. Both parents and children may struggle with the lack of discipline and structure. And this approach is not for everyone. Gentle parenting requires a lot of patience, persistence, and practice. It may be difficult to implement this strategy if you did not grow up this way and/or if your child is new to this approach.
Gentle Parenting Techniques To Try
Gentle parenting for beginners
If you're looking for a way to incorporate gentle parenting into your life, your best bet is to start small. Comment on bad behavior by itself, separating the action from the person doing it. Model what you want to see on a regular basis. Practice kindness, compassion, and empathy at all times. And try to be less demanding and commanding. Instead of saying "tie your shoes," make it a suggestion. Something like "Do you think you should tie your shoes so you don't trip?"
The key to gentle parenting is patience and your approach. "Magic happens when your children feel seen, heard, and understood," says Katherine Sellery, founder and CEO of the Conscious Parenting Revolution and co-author of the Guidance Approach to Parenting.
Tips for when you're frustrated
The first and most important thing to do is to slow down. "Communicate with your child in a way that prioritizes connection and empathy, and then solve the problem in the way that works best for everyone, not just the adults," says Sullivan.
Say you need to go to the grocery store, for example, and your 4 year-old won't put on their coat. You've asked calmly several times and have been ignored. You're starting to feel angry and frustrated and are worried that being late will throw off your whole day. What should you do? Pause and slow down.
"First, get yourself calm and recommit to the collaborative process," says Sullivan. "Ask your child what's going on in a neutral, calm voice. You might say something like, 'Hey, I noticed you're not putting on your coat today for the grocery store. Can you tell me what you're thinking?' Give them some time to process the question. If your question is too complex for them, you can ask yes or no questions too. Listen, with patience and understanding, and then come up with a solution that works for all parties involved."
"The answer is not one-size-fits-all," Sullivan adds. "The solution needs to be one which works for you and your family."
Gentle parenting tips for dangerous situations
While gentle parenting is fairly straightforward, children can and do test our patience. Younger children tend to throw tantrums, for example—biting or hitting as they go. Older children will push boundaries, despite the way they were raised, and sometimes our kids will find themselves in dangerous situations. Each calls for its own unique reaction and response.
"Tantrums will happen. Every parent deals with them at some point or another," says Sally, a toddler mom, special education preschool teacher with a master's degree in curriculum and instruction, and the Tenderhearted Teacher. "If you find yourself dealing with an inconsolable child, it's important to consider a few things. Know that this behavior is a form of communication. It's completely normal and age-appropriate. Know that tantrums will happen, regardless of your parenting. And while inconvenient, tantrums cannot and should not be stopped—so long as your child is safe."
"You need to let your child release their big emotions while also remaining a calm presence nearby," Sally adds. "Tantrums can seem unbearable in the moment, but letting them run their course is critical for a young child's development. As the adult, it's your job to keep their environment safe while letting them know that you are there if they need you. Additionally, you should validate their feelings, naming them as you go. After the tantrum subsides, you can use the experience as a teachable moment to discuss what caused it and to discuss possible solutions for the future."
That said, if your child is in imminent danger—say, for example, they are running down the street or playing in traffic—your response can (and will) be different. They cannot just "get it out" of their system. In these instances, it is best to remove the child from the situation and explain to them the consequences of their actions. Having a straightforward discussion is key.