Searching “gentle parenting” on any social media platform yields over 1 million results, with 872,000 posts on Instagram and 129,000 more on TikTok. These hashtags are dominated by self-titled experts who tout the virtues of a gentler, more empathetic approach to child-rearing.
However, gentle parenting's detractors are almost as enthusiastic as its advocates. This is illustrated by headlines like “The Harsh Realm of ‘Gentle Parenting'” and “Gentle Parenting Is Too Gentle.” Clearly, there’s an ongoing debate about the effectiveness of gentle parenting.
What Is Gentle Parenting?
The “gentle parenting” movement is often attributed to British psychologist and childcare expert Sarah Ockwell-Smith, who first released The Gentle Parenting Book in 2016.
“I see ‘gentle parenting' as just a way of being that has no bearing on making specific choices to be in-line with a certain style,” she writes. In Ockwell-Smith's view, gentle parenting has four main tenets: empathy, respect, understanding, and boundaries.
“Gentle parenting is a nurturing style of raising children that allows parents to partner with their little ones to promote growth and development,” says Amanda Vierheller, an early learning specialist and co-founder at Playgarden Prep. “This parenting style encourages open communication and reflection to lead children in making positive choices independently.”
Much of what Ockwell-Smith describes as “gentle parenting” borrows techniques from an approach called authoritative parenting. Despite the apparent misnomer, this parenting style avoids strict punishments and negative reinforcement. Instead, these parents aim to be “nurturing, responsive, and supportive, yet set firm limits for their children. They attempt to control children's behavior by explaining rules, discussing, and reasoning.”
Does Gentle Parenting Work?
“Numerous studies and research have shown that gentle parenting can be a highly effective approach for raising healthy, well-adjusted children,” asserts Dr Ryan Sultan, an adult and pediatric psychiatrist and assistant professor at Columbia University.
“When children are raised in an environment based on empathy, respect, and open communication, they tend to develop better emotional regulation, social skills, and self-esteem.”
Teaching children to self-regulate their emotions is a crucial benefit of gentle parenting. Research shows that children who regulate their negative emotions more effectively can socialize better than their peers. But how does it work?
“Unlike traditional parenting philosophies, gentle parenting helps to strengthen the parent-child relationship through a teamwork mentality,” explains Brooke Rawls from Light Minds Therapy, a licensed therapist with ten years of experience working with kids and teens. “This is evident as parents using this approach attempt to teach their children to express their feelings in an age-appropriate manner.”
Some Gentle Parenting Misconceptions
Experts agree that gentle parenting's popularity has led to the spread of numerous misconceptions online. A clinical social worker and licensed therapist, Natalie Bunner from Thrive Therapy has worked with children and youth for over 25 years. She lists the most common mistaken beliefs about gentle parenting.
“Gentle Parenting Is the Same as Permissive Parenting”
Age-appropriate boundaries are a crucial part of gentle parenting, where consequences help teach children how to learn from their errors.
“Gentle Parenting Is Too Soft or Weak”
Parents don't submit to their children's every whim. Instead, they empower their children with the confidence to make good choices.
“Gentle Parenting Is Unrealistic or Impractical”
No parent is perfect. Gentle parenting is an approach that encourages parents to be adaptable and adjust to the needs of their children.
A parent who confuses a gentle approach with a permissive style of parenting risks encouraging harmful behaviors in their child. However, in the best-case scenario, gentle parenting can result in confident, self-sufficient children who perform better in school as they grow older.
How to Apply Gentle Parenting Techniques
Gentle parenting relies on positive discipline to teach children to understand boundaries and the consequences of bad behavior. First developed by Dr Jane Nelsen in 1981, positive discipline focuses on setting reasonable expectations and encouraging good behavior in children.
“Parents who wish to practice gentle parenting should focus on building empathy, maintaining open communication, setting boundaries, and modeling the desired behavior for their children,” recommends Dr. Sultan.
“This approach encourages children to make responsible choices based on their understanding of right and wrong rather than fear of punishment.” In gentle parenting, mistakes are turned into learning opportunities geared towards helping kids develop skills like problem-solving.
Parents can begin practicing gentle parenting regardless of their kids' age. The main goal is forging a strong parent-child bond, which is key to raising an emotionally healthy child. Here are some strategies for parents who want to practice gentle parenting and positive discipline.
Highlight the Positives
“Meaningful praise is focused on character, kindness, and any action parents want children to repeat. Parents may praise children for helping, using manners, showing kindness, and sharing feelings,” advises Vierheller.
Deflect Bad Behavior
Positive discipline has its advocates in UNICEF, which suggests using “creative distractions” to redirect a child's energy and focus when a situation is about to go wrong.
Set Clear Expectations
“Boundaries provide children with a sense of security. It involves establishing clear, age-appropriate boundaries and consistently reinforcing them with love and patience,” Dr. Sultan writes.
Younger children might benefit from a designated spot to talk together. “Create a communication corner, rather than a space for punishment, to provide a safe place to discuss issues and feelings,” recommends Vierheller.
Model Good Behavior
“Remember that children learn by observing,” emphasizes Dr. Sultan. “Your actions serve as a powerful example for them to follow. Staying calm is essential in the practice of gentle parenting.”
An Effective Parenting Style
Gentle parenting proponents are adamant that the approach is a significantly effective method for raising emotionally healthy, well-adjusted children.
“The reason is that it is less about blind compliance and control and more about collaboration and healthy emotional awareness of the parent,” argues Bunner.
“Conscious parenting is about strengthening our ability to assess and adjust our emotional and mental selves so that we can optimize healthy engagement and connection with our children,” she adds.
Bunner highlights a rarely considered benefit: gentle parenting might focus on raising children, but it can also help adults heal and grow as people and parents.
Caitriona is a private language tutor and founder of TPR Teaching. Caitriona has been teaching the English language since 2016. She has taught in schools in Spain and the U.K., and she currently teaches online. You will find tons of language articles, worksheets, resources, tips, and advice for learners and teachers on her blog.