What is gentle parenting and is it good for children?

Gentle parenting is a parenting philosophy first made popular by Sarah Ockwell-Smith in The Gentle Parenting Book. The term is sometimes used synonymously with mindful parenting, respective parenting, and other positive parenting approaches. Although not identical, these approaches share common features—they emphasize parents’ sensitivity and understanding instead of strict discipline or harsh punishment, with the goal of helping children develop independence, confidence, self-regulation, and happiness. Gentle parenting is essentially equivalent to what developmental scientists refer to as the authoritative parenting style, an approach shown to be most ideal for healthy child development.

Gentle parenting involves a two-way partnership between parent and child, where the parent is neither too hands-off nor too controlling. Parents respond to their child’s needs and set boundaries and demands that align with the child’s developmental level. The parents encourage positive behavior – such as kindness, respect, and emotional self-regulation – by modelling it themselves.

The three primary components of the gentle parenting approach

  • Empathy – Putting yourself in your child’s shoes to understand what needs or emotions are causing their behavior. For example, a tantrum might be caused by hunger, fatigue, schedule changes, transitions, or a need to spend more time with you.
  • Understanding – Considering your child’s needs and behavior in the context of their developmental level, such as behavioral and emotional maturity. For example, while throwing oneself on the floor and sobbing may not be how an adult responds to frustration, it is more acceptable for young children because their abilities to regulate their emotions are limited.
  • Respect – Treating your child how you would want to be treated. Parents focus on teaching and guiding, rather than dictating. They avoid commanding, criticizing, punishing, or forbidding. Instead of yelling or saying “no,” a parent might calmly suggest an alternative or explain why behavior is problematic (e.g., “When you throw sand at someone, it can hurt them and they might get upset. Can you practice throwing sand in this bucket instead?”).

By implementing these components, gentle parents aim to help their children feel validated in their thoughts and feelings, learn how to self-regulate, and develop independence and confidence in their ability to navigate daily tasks and problems.

gentle parenting

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Gentle parents and discipline

Gentle parenting is not a discipline-free or boundaryless approach. Like authoritative parenting, gentle parenting is a middle ground between permissive parenting, where discipline is lax and the child has more control, and authoritarian parenting, where discipline is strict and the parent is in control. Control and consistency are critical components of gentle parenting, but they are coupled with empathy, understanding, and respect. This strikes a disciplinary balance that incorporates the child and fosters parent-child communication and connection.

Gentle parenting discipline (or authoritative discipline) involves setting age-appropriate boundaries with the goal of teaching children acceptable and regulated behavior. Gentle parents provide behavioral and emotional guidance while also fostering autonomy and independence. For example, they communicate the rationale for boundaries or rules at a level the child can understand, and they allow room for a reasonable amount of discussion, negotiation, and compromise. Gentle parenting does not include negative discipline, such as scolding, yelling, coercion, expressing disappointment, or any form of corporal punishment.

Does gentle parenting work?

The term gentle parenting has become a catch-all term for positive parenting approaches but its effectiveness for child development has not been directly studied. However, child development research has provided decades of evidence in favor of the authoritative parenting style as well as parenting behaviors that relate to the components of gentle parenting.

Research on parental empathy

  • Parental empathy is critical for building secure attachment, which is a healthy emotional bond between parent and infant. Infants with secure attachment sense that their caregiver is available and responsive to their needs. This promotes feelings of safety and security, emotional self-regulation, and confidence and autonomy in exploring the world. Infants with insecure attachment typically face challenges in these developmental areas and demonstrate anxiety or avoidance in social interactions. Sensitive and responsive parenting helps build secure attachment, such as consistently and warmly responding to a baby’s cries and gestures. In contrast, insecure attachment is associated with inconsistent and insensitive parenting.
  • One especially important component of caregiver sensitivity is mind-mindedness – behaviors that acknowledge and interpret an infant’s internal mental states. For example, during play, a mind-minded caregiver uses the child’s actions to infer their interest or boredom with a toy and might comment on their mental states (e.g., as the child reaches for a ball, the parent might say, “Oh, do you like playing with this ball?”). Thus, secure attachment depends on parental empathy for the child’s needs, thoughts, and emotions.
  • Parental empathy also supports the development of social competence and prosocial behaviors. Maternal attention to toddlers’ mental states is linked to lower aggression and greater empathy. Positive impacts of parental empathy are also evident in school-aged children, helping reduce negative emotions like anger.
  • Importantly, the benefits of parental empathy involve validating both positive and negative emotions. Minimizing or punishing a child’s feelings, even negative emotions likes anger, sadness, or fear, can lead to issues with social competence, difficulties coping with distress, and aggression.

Research on parents’ understanding

  • Parents may find it daunting to understand child development because there is certainly a lot to know! A critical factor in the developmental timetable is brain development. As the brain develops from birth through adolescence (and even into young adulthood), children and youth become increasingly better at emotional regulation and impulse control. Especially important is the development of effortful control during the toddler and preschool years, a child’s capacity to voluntarily direct and regulate their attention and behavior, inhibiting and activating responses as needed and appropriate. For example, effortful control is evident when a child stops themselves from hitting a peer when they feel angry or pays attention to the teacher despite distracting conversation from nearby peers.
  • As with most aspects of development, both “nature” and “nurture” influence brain developments leading to improvements in control and self-regulation. Biological factors, such as genetics and maturation, play a key role. Therefore, parents need to match expectations regarding behavioral and emotional regulation to their child’s developmental level. Much as one would not expect a young infant to walk or talk due to developmental immaturity, a young child (and even a teenager) should not be expected to readily manage their emotions and behaviors.
  • Environmental factors also play a critical role in shaping childhood brain development. Sensitive (i.e., gentle or authoritative) parenting, and opportunities for play and educational activities that support autonomy and control (e.g., games that involve taking turns), are associated with greater advances in self-control.
  • Thus, parental understanding involves both knowing what should be expected at their child’s age and what they can do to support and encourage their child’s development.

Research on parental respect

  • Parental respect is at the core of authoritative parenting because it involves balancing warmth and responsiveness with discipline and demands. Children learn in a safe and supportive context where their individuality and voice are respected. Authoritative parenting has long been viewed as the gold standard of parenting styles and is associated with many positive developmental outcomes. Parenting that is either too lenient (permissive/indulgent) or too harsh (authoritarian) places children at risk for emotional and behavioral issues, such as substance use and internalizing symptoms (e.g., anxiety, withdrawal).
  • One effective authoritative parenting strategy is inductive discipline, which involves explanation and discussion rather than punishment. For example, a parent might use age-appropriate language to explain to a young child why they should not hit their sibling: “Ow, that hurts your sister. Use gentle hands, please.” Inductive discipline can involve helping the child identify alternative behaviors (e.g., “When you’re mad you can squeeze your hands into a ball or stomp your feet instead of hitting your sister”) or asking them to explain the causes of their behavior (e.g., “Are you angry because she took your toy?”). Negotiation can also be included to acknowledge the child’s feelings and promote autonomous decision making (e.g., “Would it be okay if you gave your sister a turn when you’re done playing with the toy?”).
  • Inductive discipline provides consistent structure and expectations, coupled with warmth and guidance, to help build self-awareness and self-control. As such, inductive discipline is associated with behavioral, social, and academic adjustment and promotes prosocial behavior, such as empathy.
gentle parenting

Photo: Family Equality. Creative Commons.

How to practice gentle parenting

The gentle parenting components of empathy, respect, and understanding and the authoritative balance of responsiveness and demandingness (i.e., parental warmth and sensitivity coupled with a reasonable degree of control and discipline) create a foundation that can be applied to a variety of specific parenting situations. Gentle parenting focuses on acknowledging and supporting a child’s thoughts and emotions and offering them behavioral and coping tools. Gentle parents establish consistent rules and routines but are flexible and willing to compromise within reason.

For example, imagine a child frequently asks to watch or engage with different screen media, getting upset when not allowed to do so, and the parent is questioning how much screen time to allow. A gentle parent might empathize with their child’s interest in screen media, gain a better understanding of media recommendations from experts (e.g., quantity and quality guidelines, parent monitoring and controls), and work with the child to develop a media schedule and plan that meets the child’s needs and the parent’s guidelines. This might include a plan for turning off screens when designated media time is over to promote regulated responses during this schedule transition (e.g., using a visible timer or 5-minute warning to avoid tantrums or demands for more viewing time). The parent might also consider how to maximize screen-free time by building in family activities, encouraging outdoor time, and offering other enriching activities that help promote parent-child connection and child development. The gentle parent might periodically review and adapt the media plan as the child develops or other situations arise.

Just as gentle parenting avoids using punishment, it also does not rely heavily on rewards. External material rewards, such as a small prize, are generally ineffective and actually reduce the likelihood of the behavior the parent means to encourage. Rewards undermine intrinsic motivation, or the child’s desire to engage in a behavior because it is inherently enjoyable or beneficial. For example, rewarding prosocial behavior like sharing makes the child less likely to perform that behavior in the future.

In lieu of rewards, gentle parenting naturally provides positive reinforcement through affection, warmth, connection, and gentle encouragement. Parents can also reinforce and praise in ways that help build self-confidence, self-regulation, and prosocial attitudes. In particular, process praise (e.g., “You were really working hard on that puzzle!”) is more effective than person praise (“You are so good at puzzles!”). Process praise provides specific feedback that helps children understand how to approach and persist in a task. Person praise, like material rewards, can reduce intrinsic motivation and teaches children that their self-worth depends on whether they do a “good job.”

Importantly, any effective parenting approach requires patience, persistence, and flexibility. Gentle parenting is not a magic wand that will instantaneously alter child behavior. Parenting is a long game, and child development and learning require lots of repetition. Parents also evolve and adapt their parenting over time. Understanding your child as they go through different developmental stages requires continuous education. Gentle parents do not need to know everything about their child’s development at the start, but they are committed to learning and adapting with their child.

gentle parenting

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Challenges and limitations of the gentle parenting style

One limitation of the popular literature on gentle parenting is that it focuses mostly on parenting young children (from birth to seven years) in areas of social and emotional development, with some discussion of physical development (e.g., feeding practices). However, research on authoritative parenting is extensive and demonstrates its application and benefits for school-aged children and adolescents. For example, gentle parents might have rules about household chores, curfews, peer and dating relationships, and so on, but adapt them to their child’s developmental level, discuss their rationale with the child, and consider the child’s input in establishing and modifying them.

Authoritative parenting has also been shown to benefit other areas of development, particularly cognition, learning, and academic achievement. Authoritative parents guide and scaffold learning as appropriate for their child’s age and avoid taking over or providing too much direction. In so doing, they promote independent exploration and problem solving.

An important question to ask of any parenting method is whether it applies to all children in all contexts. Literature on the gentle parenting approach includes minimal discussion of its effectiveness across individual or situational factors, but again, research on authoritative parenting provides insight. One child-specific factor to consider is a child’s temperament, which varies on several dimensions, such as fearfulness, emotional reactivity, and effortful control. Authoritative parenting is effective regardless of temperament, especially benefitting children with more “difficult” temperaments.

Nevertheless, the relationship between parenting and temperament is complex. It can vary depending on other factors, such as children’s gender or genetic predispositions, and can include bidirectional effects, with children’s behavior influencing parenting. For example, a child with high levels of negative emotionality (e.g., one who is easily frustrated or fearful) is more likely to elicit controlling parenting as parents try to contain or direct the child’s emotions. Consequently, adopting and maintaining a particular parenting style may unfold differently depending on child and family dynamics.

Similarly, parenting can vary across socioeconomic and cultural contexts. Some research shows that the authoritative style is beneficial for child development across sociocultural contexts. However, authoritative parenting is somewhat of an anomaly that is found mostly in Western cultures. Authoritarian parenting is the norm in many Eastern cultures and among U.S. families of ethnic or racial minority or lower socioeconomic status. Questions about what is the “best” style must therefore consider the relevance of cultural values (e.g., respect for authority) and environmental factors (e.g., neighborhood safety).

The goals and values of the authoritative parenting style may also lead to different parenting behaviors in different sociocultural contexts. For example, imposing a strict curfew may be overly controlling (authoritarian) in one context but appropriately protective (authoritative) in another. Thus, when assessing parenting effectiveness or educating parents about gentle or authoritative parenting, it is important to consider how social contexts and culture may influence parenting style and practices.

Finally, a challenge for any parent is allowing mistakes and avoiding pressure to be the “perfect” parent. Some situations might naturally call for temporarily strict parenting, such as quickly pulling your toddler out of harm’s way when they are about to touch a hot flame or step onto a busy street. Explanation and discussion can be used after the event to incorporate gentle parenting. Parents may also find themselves wavering from gentle parenting in non-emergency situations, such as after a stressful day. Instead of seeing this as faulty parenting, it can be viewed as an opportunity to reassess and adapt as needed. The parent may need to practice self-care to reduce stress, identify opportunities for co-parenting, or locate educational resources to learn more about their child’s behaviors and needs at their current age and adapt parenting as appropriate. Just as your child is developing, allow yourself the room to develop as a parent and acknowledge that parenting is a skill that can be honed over time.

gentle parenting

Photo: Phinehas Adams. Unsplash.

Conclusion

Ample research supports the benefits of authoritative parenting and gentle parenting methods. However, parenting is complex, and a parent’s style and how they apply that style may differ depending on factors specific to the individual child or situation. Work in this area is still ongoing as researchers continue to ask new questions and acquire additional knowledge about parenting. Like the researcher who continues to uncover new information, gentle and authoritative parents are guided by a core style but continue to learn and adapt as their child develops and different situations arise along their parenting journey.

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