With summer fast approaching, many parents are wondering how they’ll keep their kids (and themselves) happy and healthy this season, and beyond. After two years of burnout pandemic parenting, many of us are at our wit’s end with worry about blowups and blow outs with our kids, wondering if there’s a better way.
When I had three children under four, with a partner working the graveyard shift, I was consistently burnt out and always on edge. It was anything but gentle parenting. In fact, I often scoffed at the idea, assuming that “gentle parenting” involved never saying no — or letting my kids run amok. But it turns out that that’s not what gentle parenting is about at all.
What is ‘gentle parenting’?
“Children need boundaries, because boundaries keep them safe so they can explore,” says Kristene Geering, Director of Content at Parent Lab, a leading science-backed app and online resource founded by parents. “If you don’t hold clear boundaries with your children, that’s disturbing to them, and isn’t actually promoting gentleness. Maintaining those boundaries in a respectful, gentle, but firm way shows kids that you will keep them safe.”
Gentle parenting is a parenting approach that focuses on four pillars: empathy, respect, understanding and boundaries.
But what exactly do we mean by gentle parenting, beyond the hyperbole? Put simply, gentle parenting is a parenting approach that focuses on four pillars: empathy, respect, understanding and boundaries. The approach is rooted in scientific, evidence-based research that shows that when we’re utilizing the four pillars, our kids (and parents) will grow up feeling safe, secure and loved.
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What is the difference between gentle and permissive parenting?
My initial thought that permissive parenting and gentle parenting are synonymous was quickly dashed when I learned the difference between the two. Permissive parents generally do not demand anything of their kids — not giving them many responsibilities, and allowing them to regulate both their behaviour and how they make choices. It can almost be like family anarchy, where the relationship between parenting and children is blurred, or removed all together.
Unlike permissive parenting, gentle parenting means discipline, focus and patience — but at your child’s level.
“If you have a drawer in your kitchen that has all the sharp knives, you make sure the baby/toddler doesn’t get into that drawer,” Geering, herself a twin mom and child development expert, explains. “It might be a child lock, a baby gate or an adult constantly moving them away while saying, ‘That drawer isn’t safe for you yet, honey. Here’s the save-and-serve drawer — you can play in there!’”
“The other side of this is understanding when and how to move those boundaries as your child grows — ‘Now that you’re __ years old, you can start helping with dinner prep! Here is how you use a sharp knife….’ In this way, you are letting your child know that you’re flexible and that boundaries move as their skills increase — skills you may be teaching directly.”
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Is there an age limit for gentle parenting?
Gentle parenting isn’t reserved for parents of infants and toddlers. Even if your kids are beyond the toddler stage, you can absolutely start gentle parenting at any time, and with any age group. It just takes some patience and practice on the part of the parent (for both the children, and ourselves).
For me, personally, one of the biggest hurdles to learning how to parent gently was shifting my focus away from what I thought was appropriate for my child, and focused instead on watching how my children showed me exactly where they were — like when we tried to potty train my eldest well before he was ready, which ended up causing severe frustration and anger in us as parents, and led to several years of toileting trauma for my poor kid. He wasn’t ready, but I didn’t want to see it. That’s where that empathy pillar comes in handy.
How respect factors into gentle parenting
A piece of the gentle parenting struggle that I found really hard to click into, however, was the respect pillar. Growing up in a family where we were taught to respect our elders — and not the other way around — I frankly found it challenging to respect my children’s wants and needs, as I felt that it would drag me into permissive parenting.
However, one way we can tap into that respect for our children is by taking the time for ourselves throughout the day to be more mindful.
“Once you feel more comfortable with being mindful in general, it’s much easier to recognize what’s happening at that moment with your child. And if you notice then (or even later) that you’re not parenting in the way you want to, own it,” Geering suggests.
“Own it, name it and repair the relationship,” Geering says. This could look like, Geering suggests, saying, “I kind of lost it, there, and yelled. That’s not very kind of me. I’m sorry, and I’ll try to do better next time.”
The key, according to Geering, is to then allow yourself to show forgiveness for yourself. “Carrying around guilt isn’t going to help you or your child — modeling how to handle it when you flip out will.”
Gentle parenting is a journey
Once you’re respecting and empathizing with your kids, it becomes much easier to be understanding and set those healthy boundaries for our kids. But, like with everything in life, we can’t look at our gentle parenting journey as an all-or-nothing game. Something both parents and children can learn from each other for our mental health.
Geering says that even with young children, simply naming emotions of characters in picture books can help set the stage for your children to grow into young adults who are able to speak openly about their emotions and boundaries. A lesson that many adults (myself included!) could do well to remember.
“Being gentle with yourself is a very important part of this process,” Geering reminds us. “If you’re trying to be gentle with your child, but you’re lambasting yourself in front of them all the time, they’re getting a pretty mixed message.”
You can’t expect to flip a gentle-parenting switch in an instant, either. “[Remember] that change doesn’t happen overnight. After years of practicing this with my own kids, even when my internal criticism was pretty negative, I noticed that my internal voice gradually started to shift,” Geering explains, noting that practicing gentle parenting on our kids often leads us to gently parent ourselves, too.
How to start gentle parenting
Once you understand the principles of gentle parenting, getting started can be as easy as changing the way you respond to your kids if they are arguing with each other.- Instead of yelling, “Break it up!” when your kids scuffle, you can step into the middle of their argument and say something like, “I don’t feel like going to the hospital or dentist today, so let’s figure out a simpler way to solve this problem.” This subtle shift can help put the ball in your kids’ court. Gentle parenting doesn’t mean you can’t be cheeky, after all.
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