Have you ever found yourself comforting a toddler through a tantrum? Labeling your child’s emotions? Using a “time-in” rather than a “timeout”? If yes, “gentle parenting” may have its (not so gentle?) grips on you. Coined by Sarah Ockwell-Smith and popularized by influencers such as Becky Kennedy, Ph.D.,the term has gone viral among millennial moms who have turned to social media for pandemic-era parenting survival tips.
Gentle parenting is founded on the idea that misbehaviors in children are a stress response best addressed by understanding, joint problem-solving and setting consistent limits. Rewards, punishments and praise are seen as flimsy external motivators that undermine the development of intrinsic motivation. When children are raised with gentle parenting, the theory holds, they become adults who are prepared to face life’s challenges from a place of healthy calm, instead of one characterized by destructive fear and anxiety.
Who wouldn’t want to be a gentle parent? “I aspire to bribe and penalize my children,” said no parent ever. But recently, gentle parenting has been called into question. If an exposé could ever be written on a parenting technique, well, The New Yorker, The Guardian and The New York Times did exactly that in 2022, plopping “gentle parenting” in the hot seat.
Critics contend that gentle parenting methods overemphasize the emotions of the child, rendering the emotions of everyone else — especially the parent — either invisible or irrelevant. The fear? A generation of narcissists will one day blame their parents for overindulging their feelings. Parents, meanwhile, are set up for failure when asked not only to provide for their children and keep them safe and engaged in the world, but also to be their personal psychotherapists. At present, little conclusive research exists on the long-term effects of gentle parenting and its associated techniques. Data may be lacking, but debate is not. So, where do local thinkers stand on the matter? Here, we will share insights from Beth Goss and Jen Giomi, both highly respected leaders within the Seattle area’s professional parent educator community.
Jen, do you see gentle parenting as a problem and something else for parents to worry about?
This is still a counterculture way to parent. When something is new and different, it can feel fake and hard, and we can easily get discouraged when it doesn’t work as quickly as we’d hoped.
We are fortunate in this generation to have a much better understanding of how the brain grows and works than generations before us had. Human brains develop most successfully when they perceive they are safe, they are in relationships with other caring brains, and they feel like they matter in some way. Children, with their young growing brains, learn how to do everything through imitation first. Brains do what they see. To the extent that we, as adults, can regulate our own emotions and responses to the environment in a healthy, helpful way, we help the young, growing brains within our influence to do the same.
The point of teaching children to understand and express feelings is not so that they grow up with the expectation that their feelings are the most important thing, or that anyone else even really cares. The point of teaching this is so that as they grow, they can understand their own emotions and then make good decisions about their own actions and lives based on the information. I think this is the piece that frequently gets lost in parenting “sound bites.”
As a culture, we collectively have a belief that punishments and rewards are an effective way to teach. When we employ any strategy other than those, it feels weird, perhaps less effective. Yet, we’ve been employing these other strategies for centuries with very limited success. There are many ways to hold firmness that don’t land in the reward or punishment categories, but collectively, we are not practiced in them, and so we don’t give them a chance or believe they can work.
Ultimately, we are always in the process of learning. It’s not about doing it “right.” The value is in being aware, trying, making mistakes and role-modeling the learning process for our children. There is immense value in that alone.
Beth, do you think that people are committed to this trend of “gentle parenting” and believe that it is a parenting style that is here to stay?
I see gentle parenting as an offshoot of the positive discipline method combined with Dr. John Gottman’s emotion coaching. These methods have been around for a long time and emphasize validation within clearly defined behavioral boundaries. So, my answer would be that it’s not a new trend at all.
Some of us grew up in homes where it wasn’t safe or acceptable to express “negative” emotions. When we become parents ourselves, we don’t have the tools to deal with our kids having big feelings. Tantrums can make us uncomfortable, and our goal is often to make them stop. Gentle parenting holds space for the child’s feelings. When parents realize they don’t have to stop the meltdown, it takes the pressure off.
Children’s feelings aren’t more important than the adult’s, but they are important. When adults deal with the child’s feelings first, and the “problem” second, they are strengthening their relationship. So many parents get caught up in current unwanted behaviors that they forget they’re planting the seeds of ongoing connection that will benefit them when those kids grow into teens.
Jen, how about you? Is gentle parenting here to stay?
I hope that some strategies of gentle parenting are here to stay, as I believe they are rooted in science. The strategies will lead to a more emotionally literate community, which could lead to better communicators, collaborators and problem-solvers.