Gentle Parenting: Raising Our Children with Love & Respect
by maria weidich | photos by arianna skoog
Have you ever found yourself consoling a crying child by saying I understand you’re upset right now; let’s talk about it? Or, instead of ordering a child to clean up their toys, have you ever said, let’s work together to clean up this mess?
If you answered yes, you’re practicing what experts call gentle parenting.
While authoritarian parenting is considered strict, controlling, and demanding and permissive parenting lacks boundaries, guidelines, and rules, gentle parenting is considered the happy medium between these extremes.
The techniques are nothing new, but the term, first used in Sarah Ockwell-Smith’s The Gentle Parenting Book, is taking social media by storm. But is the #gentleparenting movement a passing TikTok trend or a substantial and sustainable parenting style that’s here to stay?
Not unlike authoritative parenting, gentle parenting aims to teach children to do what is right by using positivity and patience rather than fear or punishment. Its key pillars, as described in Ockwell-Smith’s book, include practicing empathy, understanding, and respect, all while setting firm boundaries.
Eric Karls, a Counselor at Saint Francis Catholic School and private practice therapist in Billings, adds that such boundaries must be specific to the child’s developmental age. “These expectations may still be challenging for the child, but the parent will come alongside them, listen to their feelings, and help guide them to reach the expectation.”
“Responding in age-appropriate ways, trying to understand and validate feelings, and guiding them to meet challenging expectations seems like common sense,” Eric said of the gentle parenting approach. Regardless of its practicality, gentle parenting can be challenging for both the parent and child to use correctly.
As a father of three, Eric admits there are many moments where his approach failed, and he surrendered by lowering the expectations of his children. “Results certainly don’t come quickly compared to using an authoritarian parenting style, and it’s easy to feel like a failure when trying to gentle parent.” Parents need to be gentle with themselves in moments like these, too.
“As a parent, sometimes my biggest tool is showing my kids I am growing, too. I don’t always get everything right, especially in parenting. When I get it wrong, I try to problem-solve out loud with them, so they understand it is normal to struggle at times.”
Despite the potential for defeat and disappointment, Eric believes there is hope that results will come in time. “Results will come down the road, you will have a better relationship with your child, and they will be more prepared to tackle the problems they will face on their own.”
Is gentle parenting suitable for everyone? Most experts, including Eric, would firmly disagree. “While there are methods and habits that lead to successful parenting, I don’t think there is one right way,” Eric said. In fact, he admits there are significant differences in the way he parents each of his own three children. “I have learned over the years to find a method and style that works for you as a parent and for your kids. You need to be firm enough as a parent that your expectations are fair and clear. But, on the flip side, you need to be flexible to find the best methods to help your individual child meet those expectations.”
photo by Arianna Skoog
“The most important thing I have seen work professionally and with my kids is building a relationship. When you know your child and their personality, and they feel connected to you, it is easier to find meaningful ways to discuss and change their problem behavior.”
As any parent can attest, this takes time, energy, and plenty of creativity. “Think like an engineer,” Eric suggested. “Come up with your best plan to solve a problem, then put it into action and see how it works. Reuse what you found useful, throw out the things that weren’t, and redesign a new game plan for next time. Each child will respond differently, so it’s important to be persistent.”
The key tenets of gentle parenting, as described in Sarah Ockwell-Smith’s The Gentle Parenting Book, are empathy, understanding, respect, and boundaries.
Take the time to be mindful of how your child feels in their moment of need. Pausing to acknowledge their feelings and allowing them to be seen and heard will provide a better understanding of what the present situation requires.
Make a habit of remembering that a child is still a child. A child’s emotional maturity is still developing, and their behavior may very well be appropriate for their developmental age. By understanding the child’s brain biology and allowing them to explore these reactions and emotions in a safe and nurturing space, it will become far easier to parent.
Children are real people too, and their feelings are deserving of respect, kindness, and love. Gentle parenting believes that when parents respect their children and their feelings, the child is more likely to respect the parent.
Gentle Parenting is not permissive parenting, where children always get what they want. Nor does it call for steadfast rules that result in punishment if not followed. Instead, gentle parenting calls for setting firm boundaries that are consistently enforced. Communicate why the boundary is there (for their safety, for example) and what you are asking of the child.
Parenting the Heart
One of the greatest challenges I've experienced in parenting my children's hearts and not just their external behavior is getting my own heart in check. Do I have unrealistic expectations? Am I prioritizing outward politeness over deeply rooted kindness to others? Am I viewing the mistakes as a chance to talk through what’s going on in their hearts with them?