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Is gentle parenting right for my family? 5 things to consider first

What exactly is gentle parenting? Do kids run free-range without any discipline at all? Do you talk in a soothing voice at all times and let them make all the choices no matter what? Not exactly.

Gentle parenting can be interpreted differently by different families but the general philosophy is to use respect and empathy to raise your child (treat your child as you’d like to be treated) and yes — use boundaries instead of punishment. No taking away dessert, no time-outs, and definitely no spanking.

Are you up for that lifestyle? How do kids learn what not to do if you don’t have consequences? Read more about gentle parenting below.

Mother laughing with her young daughter
Yuganov Konstantin/ Shutterstock

Does gentle parenting mean no discipline?

According to Sarah Ockwell-Smith, author of The Gentle Parenting Book and a dozen other parenting books, there are four pillars of gentle parenting:

  1. empathy
  2. respect
  3. understanding
  4. boundaries

She says, “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.” She continues, “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 last part is important. There is no point in having boundaries if you do not consistently enforce them. These limits give children a sense of security and they are vital.”

Gentle parenting takes a different approach to discipline. If you’re wondering if gentle discipline means no traditional punishments like time-outs, then the answer is yes. However, that doesn’t mean there are no boundaries and no teaching right and wrong. It’s a different way of trying to reach the same goal of getting children to understand things like hitting isn’t okay and they can’t throw their food, but it doesn’t involve punishment.

Janet Lansbury, author of Elevating Child Care: A Guide To Respectful Parenting and No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame, explains that the gentle discipline response if a child hit a dog would be “getting down on the floor next to the child, making eye contact, and saying calmly, ‘I won’t let you hit the dog, that hurts’ while holding the child’s hand or otherwise blocking the hit.” Then you move on.

Is gentle parenting more effective?

Finding a parenting style that works for you is about the right fit for your family. What is more effective for one child or parent may not be more effective for another. Here are five things to consider before choosing gentle parenting for yourself:

  1. You have to have a lot of self-control to remain calm and patient in challenging situations.
  2. Modeling empathy, respect, and understanding can build a positive foundation for your child.
  3. Some argue there is a lack of needed consequences with gentle parenting.
  4. It may be difficult to introduce punishment later on (like with preteens) if you change your mind.
  5. Gentle parenting can build emotional intelligence and relationship skills.

It’s very difficult to say if one parenting style is “better” than another because research about styles differs based on different cultural, socioeconomic, and other factors and are hard to compare.


What’s wrong with gentle parenting?

Some parents struggle with how to implement parenting without punishments. Janet Lansbury explains that “setting limits without punishments works” but that she hears from many parents that they run into lots of trouble, too. “There seems to be a common misconception that gentle, non-punitive discipline means avoiding a direct confrontation with the child rather than providing the simple, connected response children need,” she says. “My sense is that many parents over-complicate this issue.”

Figuring out what to do in the moment can be one of the hardest parts of gentle parenting, as well as showing restraint when you really want to send them to their room not only because it was how you were raised but because you also need a minute to calm down because you’re made about what your child just did. The idea is that forming a strong, bonded relationship based on respect and empathy instead of a punitive one will benefit your child in the long run.

Gentle parenting will not be a fit for many parents and finding the right fit for you is just a question of searching around. You also don’t need to find a strict philosophy or set of rules set out by someone else to live by. As long as you are consistent with whatever you do, just do what feels right to you.

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