What Is Gentle Parenting?

By Corrina Horne

Updated August 30, 2019

Reviewer Lauren Guilbeault

Parenting titles are not new. As each new parenting expert has come out, they have created names for their particular brand of parenting, and new types of parenting styles will continue to come out and make a name for themselves. Although there are countless options for parenting and countless types of parenting to choose from, there are a few that stand out above the rest, and provide greater peace of mind for parents and more effective learning for children. One of these types of parenting styles is Gentle Parenting, a form of parenting that relies on boundaries, empathy, and respect.

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What Is A Gentle Parent?

A gentle parent is a parent who adheres to a set of standards collectively grouped to form a Gentle Parenting strategy. Gentle parents may come to the parenting game equipped with the official guidelines of Gentle Parenting or may be gentle parents intuitively, and without outside guidance.

The term "Gentle Parenting" is typically attributed to Sarah Ockwell-Smith, though there are certainly instances of its use before its establishment as Ockwell-Smith's parenting philosophy. According to her, children and parents should exist in a relationship that is characterized by understanding, respect, and "gentle" parenting methods, which create a healthy, happy home for everyone.

Ockwell-Smith was trained in Psychology, initially, before moving to work in the pharmaceutical industry. After the birth of her first child, Ockwell-Smith redirected her career toward children and childhood development and began exploring the realm of Attachment Parenting, before creating her version of attachment parenting, called Gentle Parenting. Ockwell-Smith has composed several books on the subject of Gentle Parenting and believes there are four core tenets to the practice.

What Are the Tenets of Gentle Parenting?

The four tenets of Gentle Parenting include empathy, respect, understanding, and boundaries. Families can use each of these practices to create a gentle home and a loving, supportive dynamic among family members. Using each of these practices in isolation is useful, but it is the combination of all four that truly creates a gentle parent and a Gentle Parenting household.

Empathy is the first and most important part of Gentle Parenting. Children's feelings and experiences are all too often dismissed, minimized, or ignored altogether, leaving them feeling as though they do not matter, and their voices will not be heard. Gentle Parenting fights back at this unfortunate trend by making sure children are offered empathy through acknowledging their feelings, using mirrors to make sure they feel heard, and only engaging in a particular behavior if you would feel accepted and heard if someone were to engage in that behavior with you. Essentially, the golden rule reigns supreme in Gentle Parenting: do to others what you want to be done to you.

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The second tenet is respect. Respect should be mutual, between children and their parents; children should not be expected to respect parents in a vacuum, and parents should monitor themselves to make sure they are engaging their children in a manner that is respectful and uplifting, rather than condescending or dismissive. The simplest way to incorporate respect in a parent-child relationship is to listen to a child when they speak the truth and to ask questions first, then react. If a child hits another child, for instance, Gentle Parenting urges you to identify why the hit occurred in the first place, before deciding how to move forward.

The third tenet of Gentle Parenting is understanding. Offering to understand your child and yourself relive both of you of a lot of tension, resentment, and confusion. When children feel heard and understood, they are far more likely to come to their parents in times of crisis and are far more willing to listen and adhere to their parents' rules. Understanding focuses largely on how parents communicate with their children, how they encourage their children to communicate, and the expectations they put forth. One of the most vital aspects of offering to understand is educating yourself on the typical developmental expectations for children and not expecting children to behave in a way that is too advanced or emotionally mature for their development.

The fourth and final key to Gentle Parenting is setting boundaries. Unlike permissive parenting, which is lax about boundaries, or uninvolved parenting, which doesn't offer boundaries at all, Gentle Parenting urges parents to set boundaries that foster a healthy, loving, and stable environment. Boundaries will differ from family to family, but usually involve elements of communication, expectations, and behavior.

Gentle Versus Permissive Parenting

Permissive parenting is a parenting model that focuses on cultivating a relationship much closer to that of friendship within the parent-child bond, rather than a more authoritative one. This type of relationship focuses a lot of effort on creating understanding and empathy between parents and children but does not place as much emphasis on creating boundaries, enforcing rules, or creating careful rules and guidelines for children.

Conversely, Gentle Parenting does encourage parents to create definitive boundaries and guidelines for children to follow while simultaneously encouraging children's expression and voice. Children are given rules and regulations in this form of parenting but are allowed to speak, protest, and discuss those rules and regulations with their parents.

Gentle Versus Peaceful Parenting

Gentle and Peaceful Parenting are quite similar in their approaches, with one distinct difference: Peaceful Parenting focuses primarily on relationship dynamics, while Gentle Parenting focuses more on communication patterns and habits. The two can coexist, even though their frameworks come from different angles, as both prioritize kindness, empathy, and consideration in parent-child relationships.

Peaceful Parenting believes in first taking care of parental habits that are not conducive to helpful parenting, then moving on to implementing those strategies in interactions with their children. Peaceful Parenting urges parents to cultivate a sense of calm in everyday life, then take those same principles and apply to them to the difficult moments inherent in parenting. Gentle Parenting, on the other hand, encourages a whole-family approach, suggesting that all cogs in the family machine work together to create a different dynamic, rather than relying primarily on the parents.

Pros Of Gentle Parenting

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Gentle parenting can create a healthier, more empathic dynamic within a family, easing many of the tensions and resentments that tend to pile up between parents and children. Parents create strong boundaries to help children feel a sense of safety and comfort, but also give children space to express their feelings, wants, and needs, and may adapt to choose behaviors and rules that better serve everyone. This type of adaptability is an important skill to develop in childhood and into adulthood, as being able to adapt to change is an important part of successfully navigating the ups and downs of adulthood.

Gentle parenting can help parents gain a sense of control, as they can recognize that their children's emotional states are not theirs to manipulate, encourage, or discourage; instead, they are there as sounding boards and guides. Children, too, can feel as though they are free to navigate their own emotions and feel their feelings without being stifled but also get to enjoy the comforting presence of a strong parental figure, and the comfort of strictly adhered to guidelines and boundaries. Gentle Parenting is also useful for its ability to help parents and children both feel a sense of control over their lives while maintaining the comfort of a loving, secure parental presence.

Cons Of Gentle Parenting

Gentle Parenting has been criticized as being too lenient or being to close to Attachment Parenting, the parenting style from which it was originally derived. Although it does seek to distance itself somewhat from its parent philosophy, Gentle Parenting does encourage some of the suggestions of attachment parenting but does not consider these precepts a requirement to engage in Gentle Parenting.

Some people have also criticized Gentle Parenting as teaching parents to relay wooden, canned responses in reaction to children's accomplishments, such as "You look like you're having fun. Did you enjoy drawing your picture?" instead of offering a simple, "Whoa! What a beautiful picture!" Opponents suggest that using such awkward-sounding, unnatural phrasing could impede children's ability to effectively and naturally speak to others.

What Is Gentle Parenting?

Gentle Parenting has its roots in attachment parenting and is a philosophy guided by four main ideas: respect, boundaries, empathy, and understanding. Using these as a guideline, parents are encouraged to interact with their children in a way that promotes independence, expression, and feelings of comfort and safety, while keeping peace and allowing everyone space and freedom to feel what they are feeling without judgment, correction, or reprimand.

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Proponents of Gentle Parenting suggest that parenting in this way is ideal and that children will grow up more confident, capable creatures as a result of the principles of Gentle Parenting. Proponents also suggest that parents and children will more thoroughly enjoy familial relationships when they are cultivated within the framework of Gentle Parenting, as they allow everyone involved to have and express their unique perspectives, ideas, and experiences.

The transition to Gentle Parenting can initially be rocky for parents and children both, and families might require some help in beginning the transition. A therapist can help families develop new routines and habits while ironing out any familial issues that are keeping old habits in place, or a therapist can help a parent or child work on personal concerns that are impeding progress. Parenting in any situation is difficult, but implementing an entirely new family philosophy can feel like an insurmountable obstacle at times. Enlisting help can make all the difference in the world, and can help your family adopt new ideas and perspectives that support family health and harmony over old, ineffective practices.


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