Gentle parenting is a lot like Marmite – you either love it or you hate it.
Case in point: a parent has taken to Mumsnet’s ‘Am I Being Unreasonable?’ forum to reveal they think gentle parents are “setting their kids up for a lifetime of friendlessness and struggling to hold down a job”. Ooof.
“You get one chance to build the neural pathways that guide you for the rest of your life and if you don’t learn that you’re not the centre of anyone else’s universe as a young kid, you never will,” they wrote.
Well, you can imagine how that went down. “I think you’ve misunderstood gentle parenting. Wildly,” someone responded in the comments section.
“I think you mean passive or permissive parenting,” said another.
So, what is gentle parenting then? (And why do some people think it’s the devil?)
Gentle parenting is composed of four main elements, according to Verywell Family, these include: empathy, respect, understanding, and setting firm boundaries.
This parenting style focuses on being compassionate while also enforcing consistent boundaries. It’s about teaching, not punishing.
The parenting style is sometimes confused with permissive parenting. These parents are more lenient in their approach and take on more of a friend role than a parent role.
“My DF’s [dear friend’s] sons are being gentle parented, never told off, always calmly spoken too and explained everything and given the option to talk about their feelings,” said one parent on the Mumsnet thread.
“Both massive brats who are violent to other children, constantly demanding attention and breaking toys if they don’t get it. Constantly asking for treats, sweets, cake, etc., I guess never hearing a straight ‘no’ must encourage this. Can’t bear to organise playdates anymore.”
Another person said of the parenting approach: “Gentle parenting means when your child beats up another child or wrecks somebody’s house you say in a calm voice ‘no darling we don’t do that’.”
There were a lot of comments – we’re talking hundreds – on the forum, but the general consensus was that the above is absolutely not what gentle parenting is.
“I am so sick and tired of people slating what they think is gentle parenting (when they are actually just describing lazy, shit parenting),” a parent responded on the thread.
“I’ve never shouted at my six year old, never had to. He’s brilliantly behaved, yes he does things wrong and acts up but I don’t need to shout or make him cry and dish out punishments.”
An example of gentle parenting in action
Sarah Ockwell-Smith, who specialises in the psychology and science of parenting and is generally regarded as the founder of the gentle parenting movement, offers a handy example of gentle parenting in action.
A two-year-old has found some shampoo and, unbeknown to their parent, has started to pour it out onto the bathroom floor and in the bath. Then they’ve used someone’s toothbrush to swirl it around and make patterns.
“In this example, permissive parents would allow the toddler to carry on, reluctant to apprehend, knowing if they take the shampoo and toothpaste away the toddler will cry,” Ockwell-Smith explained on her website.
But she added this isn’t true gentle parenting.
“A truly gentle parent would take the shampoo and toothpaste from the toddler, explain why they cannot play with them, offer them an alternative for ‘messy play’ with limits, such as using pouring toys whilst the toddler is in the bath, and sit with them during the resulting tears and tantrum that will ensue,” she said.
Does gentle parenting work?
Studies suggest it has lots of benefits. According to Forbes, research suggests gentle parenting could decrease the risk of childhood depression and help kids self-regulate.
The parenting style also promotes a secure attachment, which could result in children being more curious, self-reliant and independent.
Of course, as with anything, there are drawbacks, too: it’s time-consuming, can be hard for parents to implement if they were parented differently, and requires a heck of a lot of patience.
But parents who have followed it agree that in the end, it can pay dividends.
“I followed some (not all) gentle parenting approaches and I think it paid off in spades. They are lovely, kind children who absolutely know the world doesn’t revolve around them,” said one parent on Mumsnet.
Another added: “Reading through examples of gentle parenting, we probably did lots of it although didn’t realise it had a term. It seems normal to me to listen and respect your children, not shout at them, teach them to think of others, explain reasoning instead of just being the ‘behave this way because I said so’ type.
“I think explaining things, listening to them, respecting their opinions, is much more time consuming but really pays off in the teen and adult years. Our kids know we are reasonable, and that they’re important, so they respect us because they like us.”