What is Gentle Parenting?

Parenting, by definition, is simply the act of raising a child. But the reality is there is so much more to it than providing basic needs. It is equipping your child with the best skills, knowledge, and character to help them through life. Through the decades, parenting mecothods have evolved to try and find the best approach that nurtures children for their best chance of success in life. Gentle Parenting is one such approach. 

The term Gentle Parenting was coined by author Sarah Ockwell-Smith in her book ‘Gentle Discipline’, first published in the eighties. It is used to describe a parenting style that focuses more on carefully correcting a child, rather than scolding, and rejects the idea that disciplining a child means punishing them. Its aim is to ensure the child understands and learns, rather than act to avoid reprimand. Its focus is on the child’s learning, rather than the parent’s disappointment. 

Schools of thought on parenting run the spectrum from strict discipline to relaxed, and approaches range from overprotective to neglectful. Where does Gentle Parenting sit on this scale? Is it similar to any other type of parenting? Let us look in more detail.

What is Gentle Parenting

What is the Gentle Parenting Approach?

The Gentle Parenting approach is one that is focused on helping the child learn through natural consequences and using reasoning. It departs from the tradition of punishment imposed by parents to correct ‘bad behavior’. It is called ‘gentle’ because it aims to make learning a fun and pleasurable experience for the child, not a stressful one. 

As such some practitioners of old-school parenting believe that it is a weak and permissive kind of parenting. On the contrary, it is a parenting method that relies on strength, both from the parent and the child. Strength is required from the parent to resist the urge to scold, and instead, take time to understand the child. Strength is required for the child to think through their actions and live up to the standards set by their parents. Strength is required in thinking of ways to help the child learn and grow in a manner that allows the child to enjoy the learning process and inspires them to do better by themselves.

Traditional Parenting Styles

To understand where Gentle Parenting sits in the spectrum of parenting styles, let us look at the most used approaches in child-rearing. Clinical and developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind categorized various approaches over time into three distinct categories: Authoritative, Authoritarian, and Permissive/Indulgent. A fourth style was added to this later called the Uninvolved/Neglectful style – identified by researchers Maccoby and Martin. 

The styles are differentiated based on the degrees of responsiveness or warmth, and demandingness or control, that a parent has towards their child. Here is a quick look at the degrees of both measures in each style:

  • Authoritative – high response (warmth) and high demands (control)
  • Authoritarian – low response (warmth) and high demands (control)
  • Permissive – high response (warmth) and low demands (control)
  • Neglectful – low response (warmth) and low demands (control)

The styles are relatively self-explanatory but we will discuss the two types most associated with gentle parenting – Authoritative and Permissive parenting. 

Authoritative parenting is the gold standard by which parenting is measured.  It balances both a loving and caring relationship with the child, with adequate reasonable expectations for their behavior and progress. Parents who use the authoritative method are present in their children’s life, listen to them, and have a healthy relationship with them. They set expectations but explain these to their children in a manner that they understand. Children whose parents use this style grow up self-confident and competent. 

On the other hand, Permissive parenting, with its high response and low demands, is one-sided towards the child’s comfort with little regard for developing accountability as parents tend to avoid confrontations and hurt the child’s feelings. On the surface, this looks like loving parenting, but giving in too much to your child enforces in them a sense of entitlement. This approach results in children whom we more commonly know as spoiled brats, who have problems with authority and self-discipline.

Is Gentle Parenting Authoritative or Permissive?

For Ockwell-Smith, gentle parenting is mainly about having empathy and respect for the child, taking the time to understand them, and setting reasonable age-appropriate boundaries. This is the same as authoritative parenting, as the author mentioned in her video on gentle parenting. Having empathy for the child by trying to see things their way, respecting them as individuals and not as an extension of parents, and trying to understand them are all high response traits found in authoritative parenting. At the same time, boundary-setting and consistently enforcing boundaries are high-demand traits used by authoritative parents. 

That is why she directly negates the misconception of Gentle Parenting being a permissive parenting style.  “Gentle Parenting is NOT permissive parenting. Children do not always ‘get their own way’, parents do not say ‘yes’ all of the time, scared of the upset if they say ‘no’. In fact, often they can be ‘more strict’, with more boundaries in place than others. I am an incredibly ‘strict’ parent – in the sense that we have *many* family rules and lots of boundaries and limits that are consistently enforced.”

This setting of reasonable boundaries and expectations is what Ockwell-Smith sees as disciplining. Gentle parenting advocates discipline as teaching, not as a punishment. She believes parents can use tough situations as opportunities for teaching their children so they have the qualities that would aid in their success in life. 

This is done by teaching them age-appropriate natural and logical consequences. Punishments such as time-out are only effective if the child is at an age where they can think about what they have done. For much younger children, being put in a corner does not teach them to reflect on their mistakes but rather just to wait until they are allowed to move from that space again. Analyze the errant behavior and explain or model consequences that match and teach the child.

How to do Gentle Parenting

If you would like to try out gentle parenting, start with the four guidelines as stated by Ockwell-Smith:

  1. Have Empathy – put yourself in your child’s shoes. Why are they acting the way they are?  How would you feel if you were the child in the situation they are in? Gaining insight into their viewpoint will help you become a more responsive parent.
  1. Show Respect – treat your child as you would any other adult person. Gone are the days of children being seen but not heard. Children know more than we give them credit for, especially about themselves. Listen to what they have to say. This builds confidence and self-worth and teaches them how to respect others as well. 
  1. Aim for Understanding – a natural consequence of respecting your child and empathizing with them is that you gain an understanding of their world and why they act the way they do. It is really about knowing how to communicate with your child and learning all about their personality, temperament, and uniqueness so you can teach them more effectively. 
  1. Set Realistic Boundaries – this is about setting expectations and rules that are reasonable for the child’s age. It is also about being consistent in enforcing boundaries so the child does not get confused and has clear goals to work towards. 

Natural and Logical Consequences 

Apart from these guidelines, another way to practice gentle parenting is to adapt its approach to discipline by allowing natural and logical consequences to help the child learn about appropriate behavior. 

Natural consequences – are what organically result from an action or behavior. An example of this is when a child does not eat enough during a meal, they will feel hungry earlier than the next scheduled meal and are not allowed to snack in between. Or if a child chooses not to wear a jumper and goes out at night, and feels cold as a result. 

Of course, this type of consequence is age-dependent – babies or toddlers cannot make choices for themselves yet. An important factor to consider is the well-being of the child before anything else.

Logical consequences – are common sense results from an action or behavior. An example is when a child is rude to another child, they do not get to play with that child until they apologize for their behavior. It is important that the consequences are again age-appropriate so children can learn from the experience.

No to Punishment

Punitive punishment goes against the guidelines of Gentle Parenting. Gentle parenting believes that acts such as scolding, time-outs, grounding, and spanking/smacking do not teach children about what is wrong with a particular act, but only instinctively avoid it for fear of punishment. In this scenario, when there is no longer threat of punishment, the chances of the child repeating the behavior are more likely. 

Parenting as a Lifestyle

Often parenting is thought of as a to-do checklist – something to be done for a new role one has acquired, much like a job. But parenting is so much more than this. Parenting is starting a new relationship with a brand-new person, and committing to it, not just during 9 to 5, or weekdays, or a season, but for a lifetime. 

This is why the mindset espoused by Gentle Parenting is important. Parenting is not a project, it is a partnership between you and your child to help prepare them for successful adulthood. 

When viewed from this lens, parenting becomes a delight as you respond to your child and teach them from the onset that relationships are about:

  • Being there for each other – is not about leaving a child alone to self-soothe and deal with it. 
  • Communicating with each other – by listening to what the other is trying to say, rather than making snap judgments about their actions or reactions.
  • Understanding each other – knowing the person and where they are coming from when they act a certain way or do a certain thing
  • Boundaries – having expectations about how each person relates to the other and what is acceptable and what is not, and why these are so. 

As you can see from the foregoing, this can be applied to any relationship – and this is the point gentle parenting is trying to make. That the child is their own person and that they deserve to be treated as such, and not as an extension of the parent, or a project to be corrected. Use these as guidelines in your daily decision-making as a parent. 

Parenting is a process. It teaches you as much about yourself, as it does about your child, if not more. There are lazy ways to parent – they are called permissive and neglectful parenting. It is easier to just let them do what they want and avoid all the explaining and confrontation. But to do your best for your child takes effort – there are no quick fixes in parenting. 

Catch teachable moments daily, or several times a day. Listen and respond to your child’s call for attention and set boundaries as needed. Be available to them as a reliable presence in their life. Really listen and understand what they are trying to say. Results do not happen overnight, but parents will see the fruits of these efforts in the confident, competent child that eventually emerges. 

Why Should You Try Gentle Parenting?

As we have established that Gentle Parenting is practically the same as Authoritative Parenting, it follows that the results of such a method will eventuate in the application of Gentle Parenting methods as well. In Baumrind’s research on parenting styles, she found that parents who used the Authoritative method exhibited the following patterns of behavior:

  • Assertive – being self-assured and confident without being aggressive or forceful. This shows that they have an innate respect for themselves and for others. 
  • Self-reliance – having confidence in their judgment and ability to do things. This shows that they believe in their capabilities.
  • Self-control – restraint exercised over one’s own impulses, emotions, or desires. This means that they are able to keep their emotions and impulses in check and act appropriately.
  • Buoyant – cheerful and in good spirits
  • Affiliative – are able to form social and emotional bonds with others

Gentle Parenting and Montessori

The more we learn about Gentle Parenting, the more we see the parallels it has with the Montessori method. Here are the most salient points of intersection:

  1. Respect for the child – both parenting approaches recognise the child as their own person and treat them accordingly. Practically, this could mean paying attention to the child, listening to what the child has to say, and understanding things that are important to the child. In Montessori, this goes further by allowing the child to determine what is right for them, within a prepared environment.
  1. No to punishment – both Montessori and Gentle Parenting do not see punishment as an effective discipline tool. They prefer reasoning with the child, by asking guiding questions and helping the child reflect on errors so that they fully understand why something is wrong. 
  1. Learning by doing – Montessori’s main approach is to allow the child to learn about life by doing things themselves. This method allows the child to think through what they are doing and analyze if something works or doesn’t work. To a certain extent, gentle parenting also adapts this approach – by allowing the child to learn from natural and logical consequences. 
  1. Sensitive periods – while Montessori identifies these as times when a child has the most propensity to learn about certain skills, it can also be interpreted as being attuned to the child and teachable moments. Gentle parenting and Montessori both advocate that parents be fully present in the child’s life so that they may take advantage of such moments and periods when the child can learn particular concepts.

As mentioned in a previous article, Montessori is a gentle form of parenting, but it is not the Gentle Parenting approach. The points mentioned above show where these two methods intersect, but both methods agree that the main focus is on the well-being of the child. Another important point to note is that both approaches require more than following a checklist – they are entire lifestyles built around raising confident and happy children.

Preparing the child for a fast-paced ever-changing world means raising a child who is self-assured and believes in their capabilities to think and navigate challenges well. This starts with little challenges in childhood where they learn about problem-solving and about themselves. 

Removing the concept of punishment pivots the concept of teaching and learning on its axis. It effectively frees the child to explore without fear of retribution for making mistakes. It supports curious children to follow their why’s and what if’s so that they become critical thinkers. It allows them to speak their mind and know that their voice matters – because they have been listened to and understood in childhood. It breeds happy children who know how to create and maintain healthy social bonds because these have been modeled to them by their first relationships with their parents or carers. This is what Gentle Parenting is about. 



Baumrind’s Parenting Styles

Recommendations for Montessori
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