Is Gentle Parenting About Letting Your Kids Do Whatever They Want? Not Quite, Experts Say
It's based on the belief that children are inherently good.
Parenthood isn’t easy. Being responsible for the well-being — physical, emotional, and otherwise — of another human can be overwhelming. Some parents may wonder whether or not they’re doing it “right.” Of course, there’s no single, textbook-approved, right way to be a parent. One could argue that so long as you’re loving your child, keeping them safe, and attending to their needs, you’re doing it right.
That said, different parenting styles — a.k.a. researched methods and frameworks for guiding your child through life — do exist, and they can help you determine how to be the best possible caretaker to your unique child. Of these styles, “gentle parenting” is one of the most popular. It’s also one of the most hotly debated, with many asking “Does it mean letting your kids do whatever they want?”
Learn more about gentle parenting, and find out if it’s right for your family below.
What is gentle parenting?
Gentle parenting is a style of parenting that de-emphasizes imposed consequences while emphasizing communication. Instead of the black-and-white parameters of other parenting styles, i.e., “you act in an acceptable way, or you get punished,” gentle parenting is built on a foundation of empathizing with and understanding your child, showing them respect, and setting boundaries.
This isn’t to say that gentle parenting doesn’t have consequences. Parenting coach Christina Fletcher notes that gentle parents allow their children to experience and learn from natural consequences. For example, a gentle parent might tell their child, “If you’re mean to your friend, they might not want to be your friend anymore” or “If you lie to someone, they won’t believe you, even when you tell the truth.”
Who invented gentle parenting?
This parenting style originated with Sarah Ockwell-Smith, childcare expert and author of The Gentle Parenting Book (Buy from Amazon, $17.39). Her idea was that gentle parenting would make the parent-child relationship more about choices and free will than rules and expectations. In other words, punishments and rewards aren’t the primary focus; the goal in gentle parenting is for children to be intrinsically motivated to behave well, instead of doing it for external validation or to avoid punishment.
Punishment doesn’t always motivate children to change their behavior, says child psychologist Irina Gorelick. “The belief of [gentle parenting] is that children are inherently ‘good’ and that difficult behaviors are often a result of emotional dysregulation, or not having access to a better coping skill in the moment.” This approach allows parents to acknowledge their child’s developmental stage, validate their feelings, and use empathy and reason to set rules and boundaries, she says.
Gorelick continues, “the idea is that in this approach, the goal is not to ‘give in’ to difficult behaviors, but instead, to have clear limits and boundaries while acknowledging that children are allowed to have their age-appropriate responses.”
Where does gentle parenting fall between permissive and authoritarian parenting styles?
“Gentle parenting” is a somewhat vague term. How strict or laid back is it? Here’s how it differs compared to other established styles on either end of the spectrum, from more to less permissive.
Permissive parenting: Though many may find gentle parenting to be quite permissive, it’s not the same thing. Parents who use “permissive parenting” may not intervene with inappropriate behaviors at all, because they want their child to see them as a friend instead of an authority. It’s primarily child-led. Gentle parenting doesn’t emphasize punishment, but it does encourage communication around certain behaviors, and allows children to learn from natural consequences.
Authoritarian parenting: Authoritarian parenting is a stricter style with emphasis on discipline, control, and obedience. Whereas gentle parenting focuses on the child’s needs and allows space for their feelings without punishment, authoritarian parenting values punishment as a means to demonstrate the consequences of failing to meet expectations. This style is primarily parent-led, with less space for input from the child.
What are the criticisms of gentle parenting?
Though this style may be great for some families, it doesn’t work for everyone, and it has garnered some criticism. Some parents believe gentle parenting places too much emphasis on the child’s feelings and not enough on their education, or learning between right and wrong. “There’s the potential for parents to be too permissive and not set appropriate boundaries and expectations for behavior,” says psychologist and parenting expert Dan Peters. “Additional potential problems include indulging a child’s emotions and behavior without guiding and teaching.”
Another difficult aspect of gentle parenting is the amount of self-control and patience it requires of the parent. All good parents must demonstrate these traits, but because this style places such a heavy emphasis on modeling empathy and communication, there’s no room for “do as I say and not as I do,” or “do it because I said so” kinds of approaches. Gentle parenting falls apart without complete commitment and consistency.
What are the advantages of gentle parenting?
Proponents of gentle parenting claim that this approach encourages children to grow into empathetic, communicative adults, and that it helps foster a strong, positive, and respectful relationship between the parent and the child. Because the term “gentle parenting” is relatively new, there’s limited research on the topic, but there is research that suggests this style’s outcomes are beneficial.
This parenting style prioritizes a loving, trusting, and supportive relationship, rather than a friendship or an authoritarian dynamic. Fostering a loving bond between a parent and a child at an early age may help the child become a happier, more resilient, and more independent adult, suggests a 2016 study. Experts also say that a parent’s ability to empathize and see things from their child’s point of view leads to more appropriate addressing of the child’s needs, which further leads to a better relationship and strong development. “A parent’s ability to be attuned to the baby’s mind thus proves to be a strong predictor for a positive start to a child’s development,” says a study from 2018.
What does gentle parenting look like?
You now know what gentle parenting is, and what it’s not. But what does it look like in everyday application? Dan Peters gives some examples below.
Scenario 1: A teenager comes home past curfew. Instead of grounding them, a gentle parent would have a discussion regarding the reasons behind a curfew and discuss the natural consequence, whether that’s agreeing on an earlier curfew, or setting reminders to come home on time. Consequences are based on assessing and addressing the behavior.
Scenario 2: A child spills juice all over the floor. Instead of getting visibly frustrated with the child, a gentle parent has them help clean it up, in order to demonstrate responsibility for their actions and help them understand natural consequences.
Scenario 3: A child screams and cries in the morning because they don’t want to go to school. Instead of fighting through their struggling and forcing them to get ready, a gentle parent would recognize their emotions and validate them, seeking to understand the source of their upset. This approach helps calm the child and regulate their emotions, so they can relax and get ready for school.
How do I decide if gentle parenting is right for my family?
You and your child are not static. You’re complex humans with thoughts, needs, and conditions that change from day to day, moment to moment. Whether or not gentle parenting is something you decide to pursue, you’ll likely use multiple parenting styles throughout your life, and that’s okay. Assess your own personality, needs, and beliefs. Think of your own childhood experience, and how you may want to either emulate or deviate from that. Whatever you do, remain patient, act with love, and don’t forget to take care of yourself, too!