Just this morning, as part of my daily routine with my 6-year-old, I said the following phrases, each one slightly more irate than the last: “I understand how you feel—waking up can be hard.” “Don’t you want to eat a breakfast that will give you energy?” “I know you can put your shoes on all by yourself.” “Don’t you want to go to school today?” “You need to be a better listener.” “Hurry up, you’re making us late!”
To an average observer, this was a typical, nothing-to-see-here encounter between a mother and her child. To me, however, it was yet another emotionally exhausting, possibly failed attempt at being a “gentle parent.” You know: the one who prioritizes the acknowledgement of a child’s feelings over the correction of their behavior. A parent who doesn’t bark orders, and doesn’t offer rewards or punishments—no bribes of ice cream, no two-minute time-outs. A parent who sets boundaries using primarily natural consequences (i.e. what would happen without parental interference), who doesn’t engage in power struggles, and who most certainly does not yell. This approach is the gold standard of gentle parenting.
How did I get here? And why had I set such a seemingly unattainable standard for myself?
“Many are realizing that their emotions as children were never validated, and their opinions were rarely considered. So they are swayed back to movements that really prioritize the parent-child relationship.” —Erin Avirett, PhD, child psychologist
For starters, my determination in ascribing to this “gentle” approach is in part thanks to my desire to raise children who will grow up to be respectful, resilient, capable members of society (as promised by evangelists of this parenting style). But according to Erin Avirett, PhD, and Jordana Mortimer, PhD, child psychologists and founders of parenting community Mind & Child, it’s also because of generational shifts in child-rearing and recent research that shows the importance of parental emotional regulation.
“Modern parents, raised in the ‘80s and ‘90s, feel the draw towards a more balanced parenting style,” says Dr. Avirett. “Many are realizing that their emotions as children were never validated, and their opinions were rarely considered. So they are swayed back to movements that really prioritize the parent-child relationship.”
Shannon Kroll, MEd, a child behavior specialist and mom of three, echoes this sentiment: “We are the generation of pattern breakers. Most of my clients are moms who are people-pleasers, they’re perfectionists, and they’ve spent their lives trying to unlearn those tendencies so they don’t pass them down to their children. Our own lived experience causes us to want to do it differently for our kids.”
The way we seem to be doing it, if the “momfluencers” across social media are any indication, is by proselytizing this gentle parenting movement.
Unlike well-established parenting styles, like the laissez-faire permissive parenting (where parents don’t impose limits or boundaries on their kids) on one end or strict authoritarian parenting (which emphasizes children’s obedience and rule following) on the other, gentle parenting falls somewhere in the middle.
“Much of the early research on parenting has called this approach ‘authoritative parenting,’” says Dr. Mortimer. In fact, decades of studies show that effective parents are emotionally available, actively teach and reinforce positive behaviors, and hold firm boundaries that employ consistent and logical consequences as needed.
This parenting style has also been linked to positive outcomes for kids, including improved academic achievement, improved self-regulation (in which they’re able to manage one’s negative emotions in a healthy way), and higher self-esteem and confidence.
What sets gentle parenting apart
Dr. Mortimer, Dr. Avirett, and Kroll all acknowledge subtle delineations between gentle and authoritative parenting—namely, the former’s overt omission of punishments.
Kroll notes that those specializing in gentle parenting “do not enforce positive punishments, like taking random things away, time-outs, or shame-based responses.” Instead, gentle parents strive to maintain boundaries and address behavior through connection and conversation, and they tend to teach through the use of natural consequences. For example, if a child refuses to wear a jacket on a rainy day, a gentle parent might let them go outside without it and learn for themselves just how unpleasant it is to get cold and wet. (Exceptions are made for times when a child is about to do something unsafe or life-threatening, like running out into the street or touching a hot stove.)
Authoritative parents, meanwhile, believe imposing certain consequences work as long as they aren’t arbitrary. Dr. Mortimer believes that if parents can “use time-outs calmly and consistently,” they can be effective, research-backed tools to address behavior, whereas it doesn’t make sense to limit screen time when your child hits their sibling or withhold dessert because they misbehaved at school.
Another point of difference? Because gentle parenting methods have not been formally studied, Dr. Mortimer adds that “there is not much research on their individual effectiveness yet.”
The harsh realities of gentle parenting
Gentle parenting is certainly a worthwhile endeavor when the goal is to raise well-adjusted children. But—when compared to previous generations, in which parents were more often either hands-off or ruled with an iron fist—this method is also just so much work. Spending 15 minutes helping your toddler come down from a tantrum (without losing your own cool), for example, requires far more emotional energy than just sending them for a time-out in their room to cry it out solo. Multiply that by the amount of times in a day that a toddler will inevitably melt down, and you can get a sense of how much effort this approach takes.
“Parenting this way takes more time because you are having to be responsive to individual situations,” says Kroll, who practices this style herself. “Not only does it require a deep pool of energy and patience, two things most parents don’t have an endless reserve of, but it’s also new territory for most of them. They’re trying to give something to their kids that they’re not necessarily used to giving to themselves.”
“We’re all going to lose our cool when our kid is screaming in our face. But it’s in those moments of perceived failure when [gentle] parenting actually works best.” —Shannon Kroll, MEd, child behavior specialist
And that contributes to why often, parents may feel like they’re failing at it. “It’s important to remember that there is nuance across families, cultures, and income levels,” says Dr. Mortimer, who notes that parents with access to therapy, support systems, and the extra time to devote to reading about parenting are certainly at an advantage when it comes to practicing this method. Even with that privilege, however, gentle parenting can feel impossible.
“It’s an inevitability that we’re going to fall off the wagon,” says Kroll. “We’re all going to lose our cool when our kid is screaming in our face. But it’s in those moments of perceived failure when empathic parenting actually works best.”
I wish I’d realized that sooner. Instead of reading up on how to be the perfect gentle parent, I wish I’d asked the harder questions about how to realistically implement this approach into my family’s life. So I tapped the experts to better understand what parents should know before beginning their own gentle parenting journey.
What to know before considering gentle parenting
1. Accept your lack of control
Fact: Parents can’t control their children. Dr. Avirett has found most parents have the hardest time accepting this. “No matter how hard you try, you cannot force a toddler to swallow a piece of broccoli,” she says. “But we can control ourselves. We can control how we relate to our children, how we model positive behaviors for them, and how we handle really hard moments.”
2. Stop thinking you aren’t supposed to mess up
Many people worry that gentle parenting puts all the focus on the child to the detriment of the parent’s mental health and well-being, but Kroll maintains it’s a practice meant to serve everyone. “Ask yourself, ‘how can I have compassion for my child and myself? How can I have boundaries that feel good for my child and for me?’”
Kroll adds: “For parents under a lot of stress, this approach frees everyone up. It’s recognizing that my kids are going to mess up—that’s part of being a kid. But I’m also going to mess up, because that’s part of being a human.”
3. Making mistakes is actually a good thing
If you lose your temper, it can feel like you’re backsliding in your gentle parenting efforts, but Kroll believes the opposite is true. “If anything, you’re gaining ground because when you come back together, apologize, and “repair,” you’re now teaching them what a compassionate, loving apology looks like and how to respond when they find themselves in a similar situation—rather than brushing it under the rug and pretending like it didn’t happen, which is invalidating for your child and yourself.”
4. Front-load your parenting time
One of the common concerns parents have with gentle parenting methods is the perception that the children lack discipline. Can you really raise a well-developed child without ever sending them to their room or taking away their iPad? It is possible, Dr. Mortimer says. In fact, methods like gentle parenting are based on the premise that you don’t need disciplinary measures if you front-load the bulk of your parenting time in non-difficult moments.
What does this “front-loading” mean, exactly? Basically, the difficult work you put in is not in doling out consequences for bad behavior. Instead, it’s pre-emptive. You put in the effort during peaceful times by offering choices and affirming boundaries up front. “You let your child choose their clothes the night before,” says Dr. Mortimer. “You offer them a choice of red shirt or green shirt. You let them choose if they want to get dressed before or after they brush their teeth. This initial investment builds your relationship with your child and proactively teaches them skills when there is not a problem, and it leads you to spend less time dealing with meltdowns and misbehaviors over your child not wanting to get dressed.”
5. Being gentle doesn’t mean being a pushover
“If we mistake gentle parenting for only being that zen side, then we allow our kids to act out—to scream and swear and call us names and hit us—and nothing happens,” says Kroll. “We need to teach them that all feelings are okay, but all behaviors are not.”
This is where repeated connecting, enforcing boundaries, and natural consequences come in. “Parents need to accept that behavior doesn’t change immediately,” says Kroll, who outlined a three-step process she recommends: “We have to connect first. We have to approach the situation with compassion: ‘Hey, I saw that you got mad that your sister took your toy. It’s okay to feel mad.’ Then we set or reaffirm the boundary. ‘It’s not okay to hit her.’ And then, we must teach. ‘What can we do instead of hitting?’ Remember that it’s going to take time for this behavior to change. We’ll have to keep having that conversation over and over and over. But of course, if they are going to do something that makes anyone unsafe, we stop it. We take away the toy before they throw it or restrain them if they are going to hit.”
This distinction has long-term effects, she says: “Kids in high school need to know that they don’t have to allow people to treat them any way, and they need to have had models of what it looks like to stand up for yourself and say, ‘It’s not okay to yell at me. It’s not okay to call me names. It’s okay to be angry, but it’s not okay to hurt me.’”
6. There is no single way to parent
There is no one formula or script to follow, even though it seems that way on social media. “If saying: ‘I see you are very sad. Let’s take a few minutes to collect our thoughts, take some deep breaths, and repeat this positive affirmation’ is not natural for you, don’t say it,” says Dr. Avirett. “Maybe you’re the parent who says: ‘I see you are sad, but we have got to go. Let’s talk about it on the way to the bus stop.’ Or, maybe you are the parent who quietly gives your child a hug, kiss on the forehead, and slips their favorite snack into their lunch box.”
None of this expert advice changes how hard gentle parenting can be. In truth, it shines a spotlight on its inherent difficulties. What it does offer, at least for me and all the other parents nervously committed to a gentler way of raising children, is the reminder that we are human.
We are not perfect. We will make mistakes. It’s the same lesson that we are committed to teaching our children. We just need to learn it ourselves, too.