What is gentle parenting?
Gentle, positive, or peaceful parenting is a conscious shift away from the traditional authoritarian, from-the-top-down style of parenting, to one based on connection and mutual respect. L.R. Knost describes it beautifully as “guiding instead of controlling, connecting instead of punishing, encouraging instead of demanding. It’s about listening, understanding, responding, and communicating.”
Is it the same thing as attachment parenting?
While I find that I’ve practiced many (most) of the tenets of attachment parenting, it isn’t my favorite label for a couple of reasons. For one thing, much of what’s considered to be attachment parenting (co-sleeping, baby-wearing, regular-length breastfeeding, etc) pertains to babies and young children specifically, while gentle parenting encompasses all ages. So while they may certainly overlap, I don’t think it’s entirely accurate to say they’re the same thing. Also, attachment parenting is often narrowly defined, leaving me feeling a bit unfairly pigeon-holed when referred to as an “Attachment Parenting Blogger.” I never ask myself if what I’m about to say, do, or write is in line with attachment parenting. I do however, ask myself if it’s respectful, and if it’s kind.
Is it the same thing as permissive parenting?
NO! It’s very much the opposite. I think this is one of the biggest misconceptions about gentle parenting. Permissive parenting is a very hands-off style of parenting, while gentle parenting is about the relationship and the respectful connection between parent and child. For example, consider the following scenario and possible parental responses:
You just witnessed your child hitting another child in the head with a building block.
Authoritarian parent’s response: “We don’t hit!”, followed by some type of punishment, such as a time-out, or – ironically enough – a spanking.
Gentle parent’s response: Intervenes to stop the behavior, and protects the child being harmed. “Oh that hurts the baby. Let’s build with the blocks instead (or touch gently, or give high fives, or bang something safe together…)”
Permissive parent’s response: Nothing
Don’t some kids need to be punished/Don’t different kids need different types of parenting?
I have four children, each one more different than the last. They all have different personalities, different temperaments, and different ways of interacting with others. But while I may relate and respond to each one in a unique way, my parenting STYLE of guiding, connecting, encouraging, and listening does not change; nor would it need to. Children respond to kindness, and they behave as well as they’re treated. None of my children have ever “needed” to be punished, and they’re all kind, responsible, and self confident individuals.
Shouldn’t every family just parent the way that feels right to them?
Here’s the problem with that line of thinking: A lot of people parent the way their own parents did, simply because that’s all they know. A lot of people parent the way their church tells them to parent, simply because that’s all they know. A lot of people parent with control, with rigidity, and with knee-jerk responses, simply because that’s all they all know. Their heads are filled with old patterns, or with old, constantly replaying tapes from they were growing up…. tapes repeatedly telling them, “You need to show your kids who’s in charge.” “That’s the problem with kids today.” “You were spanked and you turned out fine.” Just because someone else – even your own parents – does it a certain way, it doesn’t make it right. Standing behind a philosophy of, “This is my family, and I’ll parent how ever I please,” runs a very real risk of complacency, of not asking yourself WHY you make the decisions that you make, and of not seeking out other alternatives. Once we know better, we can do better.
And yes, while parents technically have the “right” to parent with coercion, control, and physical punishment… that right should not, and does not, supersede a child’s basic human right to 1) feel safe in his own home, and 2) be treated with dignity and respect.
There’s so much talk about what gentle parents *don’t* do… but what DO you do when an issue comes up? If there’s no time-outs or threatening or spanking, what is left?
I tend to problem-solve with my children the same way I would with my spouse or friend or any other adult whom I loved, and it usually starts with a whole bunch of questions. Behavior doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Why did it happen? What’s going on? What’s my responsibility? How can I help? I communicate with my kids, I listen to my kids, I empathize with my kids. Say your 8 year old is suddenly lashing out, speaking rudely to the rest of the family, and picking fights with his siblings. Sure, you could punish for that behavior. But wouldn’t your child, and your relationship, and your entire family be better served if you find out why it’s happening so that it can be respectfully addressed? Maybe he’s feeling disconnected from you and needs attention. Maybe something’s going on with a friend. Maybe he’s simply not getting enough sleep. It’s amazing what you learn (not just about your kids, but about yourself!) when you look at challenges as simply problems to be solved together, rather than as behaviors that must simply be nipped in the bud immediately through harsh punishment. Check here for some more specific steps you can take, and here for a list of ways to have a “time-in” when you need to get re-centered with your child.
How will they learn to respect you/authority/rules?
We teach people how to treat us. Children, like most people, behave as well as they’re treated. If we treat them with respect, that respect is returned.
We have no rules in our house, other than – if you’d like to call it a rule – the “golden” rule: Do unto others. Our kids treat us in a respectful manner because that’s how they’re treated. As for rules outside the home? None of them has ever had any problem following rules at church, at museums, at parks, at gymnastics, in Cub Scouts. Because they’ve never had any arbitrary rules from which to rebel, they understand and respect the fact that sometimes rules are necessary, and that their participation at certain places is contingent upon those rules.
Do I think that they’d blindly follow someone simply because they’re an authority figure? No, and I wouldn’t want them to. What I want for them is the ability to measure everything against their own internal sense of what’s good and what’s right and what’s necessary and what’s fair…. and that’s exactly what they’ve developed.
How will they develop self-discipline?
There are two kinds of motivation: intrinsic (internal), and extrinsic (external). When parents employ traditional practices such as sticker charts, rewards and punishments, the type of motivation that they’re fostering is extrinsic. Their children are learning to tie certain behavior to something external… either through the fear of punishment, or the promise of reward – both of which are essentially two sides of the same coin. They’re not learning to do, or not do, something because it does or does not feel right… but because they’ve been trained to respond to something outside themselves. Their sense of worth is in fact tied to that sticker chart, or that grade, or punishment. When they grow up, one of two things is going to happen (and I’ve seen them both) They’re either going to 1) completely rebel against their own upbringing in possibly unhealthy ways, or 2) continue to seek that outside approval, whether it’s through their job, their relationships, their church… struggling to find their own sense of self-worth, and instead looking to others to provide it.
If you’re doing what you do for someone or something else, that is not self-discipline.
Self-discipline comes from intrinsic motivation… that is, you act because of your own sense of right and wrong, or because of your own feelings of accomplishment, or because of your own personal goals and aspirations. When you parent without punishments and rewards, you’re allowing your children to develop their own intrinsic motivation. Despite never having had required chores, my kids all help around the house. Despite never having had required assignments, my kids all work hard to meet their own goals. Despite never having had sticker charts to remind them, my kids all brush their teeth, say please and thank you, and get ready for appointments on time…
All because they have self-discipline.
Won’t they grow up narcissistic and spoiled?
It’s something I hear a lot: “If they don’t hear the word, “no” often enough, they’re going to think the world revolves them.” “Kids today are so entitled.” Etc. I have to say first of all, that the world will give us plenty of “no”s. I feel zero need to arbitrarily supply them to my children just because I can. Instead, I try to say “yes” as much as I possibly can… yes, sometimes with my money, but mostly with myself. With my time, with my attention, and with experiences. I give to my kids because I want to give, because I want to provide a life that is as full and as rich as interesting as I possibly can. Because I know that kids who are happy and confident and fulfilled are in turn kind and giving towards others. Because I know that love is an action, and that just sitting here and telling you that I love my kids is not enough.
I know people who would classify as narcissistic and/or spoiled, none of whom was parented gently. I’m sure that like anything else, there are multiple causes for that sort of behavior. I’m also sure that it is not caused by loving your kids too much, respecting your kids too much, or by saying “yes” to your kids too much.
Won’t the kids end up ruling the household?
One of the misconceptions about gentle parenting households is that they are “child centric.” While of course a house with a newborn/very young child is going to be more “child centric” (a newborn’s need to eat for example can, and should, trump his parent’s desire for uninterrupted sleep) as the kids get older, the house becomes more family centric, where everyone’s voices are heard, and everyone’s needs are met. If a child truly IS running the house, there is an unbalance, and it is more likely to be a case of permissive parenting… NOT gentle parenting.
How will they learn to stay out of the street, or – insert other safety related concern here – if they’re not punished?
I heard someone tell a story once of a friend of his, and the ONE and only time he spanked his child. The boy was about to reach for a highly venomous snake, and his father – seeing the need for immediate action – spanked him, presumably saving his life. You could say that the spanking did what it was intended to do: It got the boy’s attention, stopped him from reaching for the snake, and prevented him from getting bitten. I don’t necessarily disagree, but I’d argue that ANY rapid response from the parent (an alarmed yell, quickly picking the child up and moving him out of harm’s way, etc) would have had the same effect.
All of us as parents have been given an internal instinct (and a strong one at that) to protect our kids. No parent who is of sound mind is going to sit back and watch as their children step into oncoming traffic, touch a hot flame, or stick a fork in a live toaster. We protect our kids, we help them learn about safety, we show them how to navigate potentially dangerous situations. It’s just what parents naturally and instinctively do. But it doesn’t have to involve punishments! We watch, we re-direct, we explain, we give alternatives, we get them out of harm’s way. We hold their hands when they’re little, we look both ways when we cross the street, and we model appropriate behavior.
As a result, kids learn.
I have four children who can attest to that fact. Four children who don’t run with scissors, don’t cross in front of traffic, and don’t stick metal into electrical outlets…. all without ever having been punished.
How do you handle it when a child absolutely won’t listen, and the requested action is non-negotiable?
I have three separate but related answers to this question (which was probably the number one question I received when I recently asked for submissions on my Facebook page)
1. First, having a good connected relationship with your child both helps decrease the incidence of such cases and keeps you better prepared to deal with them, to effectively listen to your child, and to put yourself in your child’s shoes. The closer you are, the better equipped you’ll both be for when it happens in the future. Finally, the more your child hears you say the word, “yes”, the more likely she’ll be to respect it when circumstances dictate that you have to give a genuine “no.”
2. This never makes me popular, but I always have to ask, “Is it really non-negotiable?” I think a lot of times people are afraid to think outside of the box, and come up with creative solutions that satisfy both parent and child. Your child doesn’t want to stay in his room, but you don’t want to co-sleep. Could he sleep on a mattress on your floor? Your child doesn’t want to stay with a sitter, but you want to work out at the gym. Could you work out at home while he naps? There was a period of time with two of my kids when they hated (hated, hated) riding in the car as infants. While a certain amount of car travel is unavoidable, a great deal is not. We had a season where we really limited our time in the car. We had more playdates at home, we split things like grocery shopping so we could go without kids, we didn’t go places when it wasn’t necessary. It was a short season, and it kept everyone happy. If it really IS non-negotiable (for example, you have to leave the park because you need to go to work or you’ll lose your job):
3) What I’ve done with my kids in the past is this: Give them plenty of warning – 15 minutes, 10 minutes, 5 minutes, etc. Stay calm and light… can’t stress that enough. Breathe… can’t stress that enough either. Tell them what needs to happen. Give them a choice that leads to the same outcome. (Example: “We have to go to the car now. Do you want me to give you a piggy-back ride, or do you want to race me?”) And finally, if they still absolutely refuse to come, I empathize (“I know you’re having so much fun, and I’m sorry we have to go”) and then calmly pick them up and go. That obviously wouldn’t work for bigger kids, but my own experience is that it wasn’t an issue once my kids were older.
What about the Bible verses that tell us not to spare the “rod”?
I saved this one for last, because it literally hurts my heart to see so many well-meaning Christians (and I do believe that they’re well-meaning) who think that the Bible instructs them to parent harshly. Indeed, I’ve endured some scathing criticisms from people telling me I need to read my Bible. And here’s the thing: I’ve read my Bible. It’s a book about love, and about grace… more love and more grace than any of us can ever possibly understand. It is NOT a book that instructs us to hit our children. The “rod” scriptures are, in my opinion, the second most taken-out-of-context scriptures in the Bible. But even if you were to take them at their word: the rod referred to in those scriptures is the shepherd’s staff, used to guide and protect sheep, not hit them. And I would say to anyone thinking I need to further study my Bible:
Where is the scripture that says that Jesus would hit (or spank, or swat, or pop) a child? I posed that question on one of my posts over two years ago, and I’m still waiting for someone to take me up on it. Show me the scripture. Because from where I’m sitting, Jesus loved children, and was never anything but gentle, kind, and welcoming to any child he came in contact with.
Being a Christian means lots of things to lots of people, but to me it means to love and follow Christ which translates to love, kindness and respect for ALL people. And what better place to start than with our own children?