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What is gentle parenting and how to do it

Mother and child outside
Credit: iStock.com/miodrag ignjatovic

In the past couple of years, the term ‘gentle parenting’ has become a hot topic on social media platforms.

Its main goal is to guide children to learn behaviours and life skills in their day-to-day lives that will benefit them beyond childhood and into their adult years.

“Gentle parenting is approaching the act of parenting from a perspective of trying to give your child as much agency as they can within the family,” explains Dr Rebecca English, Senior Lecturer in Education at Queensland University of Technology (QUT).

“Parents never seek to have power over their children, instead they seek to work with their children in a collaborative manner.

“It’s really about supporting children to develop behaviours that will help them in their daily interactions, but also in their future relationships.”

Parents who parent gently provide their children with as many choices as they possibly can and help guide children to see the correct pathway.

“Not correct as in that is the right thing to do, but rather, correct as in that is the best way forward for everyone involved,” clarifies Dr English.

It’s also about mutual respect and problem-solving together, as well as, recognising where the child is developmentally and adjusting the parent’s expectations on their behaviour – for example, understanding there is no point in reprimanding your toddler for not sharing as they are not yet developmentally able to understand the concept of sharing.

Gentle parenting is drawn from the same school of thought as authoritative parenting which has been well-documented to produce the best, positive developmental outcomes for children.

The benefits of parenting gently

“The main benefit of gentle parenting is that children learn to behave in ways that serve them well throughout their lives,” highlights Dr English.

“Instead of always looking to an authority figure or to someone they think is further up the chain than them, they’re empowered to make decisions that they believe to be right.

“And to do so from a place of trying to do what’s best in each situation.”

In 2013, a study found that children raised gently had better psychological health than their peers raised in authoritarian or permissive parenting styles. They also had better self-concept and better quality of life.

Another study found that “parents who prioritise their children’s well-being over their own are not only happier, but also derive more meaning in life from their child-rearing responsibilities”.

How to parent gently

It can be easy to mistake gentle parenting with permissive parenting – where there are no consequences for broken boundaries.

However, gentle parenting emphasises mutual respect and boundaries, but instead of using incentives or discipline, it calls for the use of empathy, understanding, identifying the incorrect behaviour and avoiding labelling the child as ‘naughty’.

Dr English uses two siblings becoming physically aggressive with each other as an example.

“If one child is hitting each other, I would explain to the child doing the hitting that ‘hitting hurts, I’m not going to let you hit your sibling’.

“But if they continued to do it, I would then explain to them, ‘I can see you are really struggling to not hit your sibling, I’m going to have to take you away from the situation if you don’t stop’.

“If it continues, I will then take that child away and sit with them while they calm down.”

She explains that the belief is that no child wants to, in this example, hit their sibling.

“That’s not how they are born, they want to be good people making the right choices but sometimes they get a bit carried away in their emotions and can’t really control themselves,” she says.

“It’s really no different to adults, how many times have you walked away from a situation realising that you said the wrong thing and you feel sorry that you did it?

“You are then faced with a choice in saying sorry for your behaviour or not.”

Dr English explains that parents can help guide children not to do the wrong behaviour, but also understand that it is very human to make a mistake or do the wrong thing.

Focusing on what happens after, such as an apology or a conversation about why that wasn’t the right decision, is where the emphasis should be placed.

Parents never seek to have power over their children, instead they seek to work with their children in a collaborative manner.
Dr Rebecca English

It’s not easy parenting gently

“Gentle parenting can be very hard, not only because it takes a lot of patience, but few of us were raised this way, so we may not have any past experience to draw on,” says Dr English.

She adds that another challenge parents may face is explaining how and why they parent gently to their support network, especially their own parents.

“It can come across as a rejection of your parents’ parenting style and can appear as criticism,” Dr English explains.

“You will need to understand that they will have their own feelings about your choice in parenting and then you will need to be gentle with them too.”

Another challenge to watch out for is parenting gently in public and the potential for public judgement from others on how you are, for example, handling a tantrum in the middle of the grocery aisle, as they may view it as you have no control over your child.

Finally, Dr English highlights that parenting gently isn’t perfect parenting.

“The main thing to remember with gentle parenting is to be gentle with yourself,” she notes.

“Even the best gentle parents can lose their temper, lash out, or say the completely wrong thing.

“What we are trying to teach our children, through this parenting style, is that we all make mistakes.

“We all sometimes do or say the wrong thing or make the wrong choices. It’s human.

“What is important is what we do after, when we realise that we’ve messed up and own our behaviour.

“So, it’s important to apologise and ask for forgiveness and use it as a role modelling opportunity for our children.”