Dr Rebecca English, Lecturer at Queensland University of Technology School of Teacher Education and Leadership, says parents she speaks to have researched their choices and actively chosen not to use punishments and rewards. This means not using bribes as a positive attempt at discipline, or time out or smacking as a negative attempt at discipline.
“Now, for many parents, a smack is going to be their behaviour modification of choice. Or, perhaps they think smacking is bad so they opt for the time-out. Many don't realise that there are other options including gentle parenting,” Dr English says.
Gentle discipline is based on principles of non-violent communication and its advocates hold that the child is unique and important and deserves respect.
As such, they would argue that if you can't hit your husband or wife, your mother or father or your brother or sister, why should you be able to hit children?
Instead of smacking, they redirect, ignore some behaviours and do time-ins as opposed to time-outs. Time-ins involve the parent staying in the room while the child calms down rather than isolating them.
Parents who choose alternative options also want to separate the behaviour from the child by avoiding the use of words like 'naughty' or 'bad'.
“Instead, they might say ‘hitting hurts, I'm not going to let you hit’ when they are acting out. They will also help the child to redirect, ‘wow, it looks like you're having some trouble leaving your brother's block tower alone, come with me and I'll help you to calm down’,” Dr English says.
“They can also acknowledge the feelings or the want without giving in, ‘Hmm, I see you really want that chocolate bar. I bet when you grow up, you'll always get a chocolate bar from the counter but, today, I'm not going to get you a chocolate bar’. This approach acknowledges the child's feelings but doesn't give in.
“Gentle parenting advocates would argue you can say no as nicely as you can say yes. As you can guess, it doesn't stop the meltdown but that's just the moment and, as gentle parenting advocates say, the long game is what they're playing.
“This moment, when your child has a tantrum in the shops because you won't get them the chocolate will pass. And, they'll learn that the chocolate will not be had because of the suitably noisy meltdown that preceded it.”
Positive parenting or gentle discipline argues that rewards and punishments aren't particularly effective in getting adults to do what they're supposed to do, so questions why it would work on children.
The approach also advocates for examining behaviour to understand a child’s feelings. It also looks at parental behaviour and encourages adults to apologise for their mistakes and emphasises the importance of adults saying ‘please’ to children.
“If a child needs a break, because they're hitting or hurting or doing something we would consider 'bad', although they wouldn't use the term bad as it places a value judgement on the child's behaviour, rather than looking behind the behaviour at what the behaviour is communicating about the child's feelings, they advocate for taking the child to a quiet space, sitting with them and helping them to calm down,” Dr English says.
“Children lack the regulation to do that calming themselves and need an adult to do it.
“They also argue that, when we make mistakes, we apologise. This apology has three effects, first, it makes mistakes an okay thing to make. Second, it communicates to the child that we make mistakes too so we are only human. Third, it shows we are respectful of the child and ask for forgiveness just as we ask of them.
“Another important point is to consider how we expect children to be better than adults. It's never okay to not say please, but gentle parenting advocates argue that adults don't always say please and rarely say it to children.”
The teenage years
Dr English says parents take the gentle parenting approach in the expectation of a stronger and more positive relationship with their children.
The advocates argue that the types of teenage problems and rebellion aren't as pervasive in gentle parenting families as children have no need to rebel.
“If a child has never learned to see you as an opposition, they never need to oppose you in their teenage years,” she says.
“If you've been largely reasonable, they will be too. It's trite, but they argue you teach your child how to treat you. And, listening to them when they're little means they'll tell you the big stuff when they're big.”