A Beginner's Guide to Gentle Parenting
If the term ‘gentle parenting’ is new to you, you aren't alone. In this beginner's guide, we'll introduce you to the gentle parenting approach and explain how you can try it out in your everyday family life
Teacher and Copywriter
Choosing a parenting style isn't necessarily a conscious decision we make when we become parents. Often, a parenting style trickles down from our own experiences growing up. Some may want to imitate the unique strengths their own parents modelled. Others may use their childhood experience as a blueprint for what to avoid in a parenting style today.
One of the most meaningful qualities of gentle parenting is its emphasis on reflection. Reflecting on the compassion with which you treat your child is at the heart of this approach. There is no shortage of parenting styles to consider, which can sometimes feel overwhelming. If gentle parenting is new to you, this beginner's guide can help walk you through what it's all about to see if it is a fit for your family.
What is Gentle Parenting?
Gentle parenting is a parenting approach that encourages a partnership between you and your child to make choices based on an internal willingness instead of external pressures. This parenting style asks you to become aware of the behaviour you model for your child, encourages compassion, welcomes emotions and accepts the child as a whole, capable being.
The approach doesn't follow a strict set of rules. It wasn't created by a lifestyle or parenting guru, nor does it stem from a celebrity fad. The gentle parenting philosophy includes a wide variety of strategies that may already be familiar to you. Sarah Ockwell-Smith, parenting expert and author of The Gentle Parenting Book, sums up gentle parenting in three words: empathy, understanding, and respect.
Common Misunderstandings About Gentle Parenting
It’s easy to think of the gentle parenting philosophy as boundary-free. Parents can be apprehensive to embrace a gentler approach because they might be concerned with losing control. They worry it could lead to their child being unable to identify what is or isn’t out of bounds for their safety and their treatment of themselves and others. While it’s a valid concern, parents can rest assured that gentle parenting doesn’t avoid discipline or boundaries.
Remember that encouraging a partnership between the parent and the child is the goal of this approach. Arbitrary anger and commands are discouraged, such as repeatedly justifying demands with “because I told you so.” In their place, gentle parents send messages that not only set boundaries but leave a long-term impact. Children are told that they have a partner in their parent that will keep them safe and are encouraged to learn from the situation.
In this case, a parent establishing expectations for a day at the park might say “we are going to stay safe by playing in this area where we can both see one another. We can check if we are too far by waving at each other and making sure the other person waves back.”
How Gentle Parenting and Montessori Fit Together
Gentle parenting has several things in common with the Montessori method. To start, both encourage the child to take responsibility for themselves. Gentle parenting takes guiding your child towards independence to an emotional level. Children are invited to explore their emotions, and parents consistently model accepting their child's experience, which teaches children how to manage their feelings.
For example, a gentle parent will not impulsively try to stop a frustrated child from crying. Instead, they’ll remain calm to show the child they can safely experience their negative emotions. They might honor the child's experience by telling them, "I can see you have strong feelings right now. Let's sit here together and take some deep breaths.” When parents don't immediately try to eliminate their child’s negative feelings, children feel accepted and learn to recognize the full spectrum of emotions as natural. They also learn to manage them in a peaceful and nurturing environment, building resilience against a flood of what would otherwise be deemed “negative” emotions.
Both gentle parenting and Montessori also use adults as guides rather than authoritative figures who dole out arbitrary commands. Both approaches also place emphasis on keen observation. In Montessori, we notice what interests our students to create a nurturing environment. Similarly, gentle parents pay close attention to how their children react to problems and use empathy to identify their child's needs.
The 3 Facets of Gentle Parenting
A practical way of looking at gentle parenting is to see it as a practice of remembering certain intuitive truths. For example, we know that children learn by watching their parents. We know that our child is their own person, and we want them to feel loved for who they are. Seeing how empathy, understanding, and respect fit into gentle parenting can give you a better idea of how to try it yourself.
Making an effort to be mindful of how your child feels in their moment of need is the equivalent of turning off auto-pilot mode. It’s easy to get swept up in the routine of everyday family life. Making a habit of pausing to empathize with your child will give you better access to what the present situation requires. It also shows children how to treat others with care and compassion.
For example, when a child is upset or nervous, a parent can become curious about what is behind the child's behaviour. They can try to look for what their child needs at that moment and find out why. Empathy is a powerful reminder to slow down and engage with what your child is dealing with.
The understanding piece of gentle parenting comes down to making a practice of remembering that a child is a child. Their world is vastly different from that of adults. It is a reminder that all of the thought patterns that color the grown-up perspective have not yet developed in children.
For example, when children are upset by the toy they misplaced, or their stay at the park is ending before they're ready to go, ask yourself where this behaviour is coming from. Remember that your child’s emotional maturity is still developing. By acknowledging that a child's behaviour is appropriate for their developmental stage, parents allow children to explore their reactions, emotions, or thoughts in a safe and nurturing space.
Gentle parenting is based on mutual respect, something that has far-reaching effects. It wouldn't make sense to hope that a child grows up into an adult who respects others when being respected wasn't modelled for them at a young age. Parents who show their child respect are also showing them that it is a choice. Respect is connected to their values, which will develop by seeing positive role models around them. In day-to-day life, respecting your child in practice means swapping gentle requests for harsh commands, and extending invitations for partnership in lieu of fear-based warnings.
How to Incorporate Gentle Parenting in Your Everyday Life
The following tips can help you start incorporating gentle parenting into your everyday life:
- Comment on the action, not the person. Try to separate the action from the child when you speak. It's the difference between responding with "You're mean to your sister" and replacing it with "I don't think your sister likes it when you do that. Let's try something else and see how she responds." This helps to emphasize that mistakes happen to all of us, but they don't define who we are. They're a natural part of life and of learning and shouldn't trigger shame as we practice doing the right things.
- Model all kinds of kindness. Use kindness towards yourself to show your child how to be curious and compassionate about their own emotions. If you're tired, use the opportunity to share what self-care looks like to you. You can say, "Oh boy, I am tired today. A nice shower will make me feel more rested, and I will go to bed earlier tonight". You'll also be modelling how your child can treat themselves and others in times of need.
- Swap commands for an invitation to work together. This can be as simple as changing the format of your demand to a question that encourages your child to work collaboratively with you. While a demand might sound like "Tie your shoes", a gentle parenting alternative would ask, "Should we tie our shoes so we don't trip?"
- Encourage the positive action. There are plenty of alternatives to saying no. Gentle parenting means you choose to set clear boundaries and underline what you are asking of your child. Limit your request to focus on the action you do want to encourage. Demands not to touch something can be communicated by saying things like "Let's use gentle hands on this" or even "This one is just for looking".
We hope this overview has helped you to better understand the gentle parenting approach. The strategies above can help you get started, and if gentle parenting is something you'd like to learn more about, we'd suggest picking up a copy of Sarah Ockwell-Smith's The Gentle Parenting Book and visiting her website.
Oliver is a classroom educator turned copywriter and content writer. With a passion for teaching and writing, she happily splits her time between the classroom and the keyboard in the spectacular Pacific Northwest in Vancouver, Canada.
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