Gentle parenting is an approach to raising happy, confident, independent children, built on the four cornerstones of empathy, respect, understanding, and boundaries. This parenting style focuses on fostering desirable qualities in your child by establishing clear but broad expectations and prioritising compassion over discipline. Despite its name, gentle parenting does include discipline, but it’s practiced in an age-appropriate manner, and centres around the teaching of valuable life lessons rather than being oriented toward punishment.
The benefits of gentle parenting
Gentle parenting emphasises the importance of a child’s cognitive state when setting helpful and pragmatic boundaries. Because this approach is specifically designed to cultivate prosocial behaviour in children, gentle parents can act as role models their children aspire to emulate. What’s more, gentle parenting may reduce children’s predisposition to anxiety. It may well even be effective at ‘promoting regulated responses in social contexts in shy toddlers.’
While gentle parents do in fact discipline their children, the goal of doing so is to teach about the implications of misbehaviour, not to scold the child in the aftermath. This helps children better understand how to behave in a socially acceptable manner, without exposing them to angry or age-inappropriate speech or behaviour on the parent’s part. When we parent gently—especially during tense times—we model how to keep calm and negotiate while setting a firm and positive tone for growth and development.
What makes gentle parenting different?
Gentle parenting hits the sweet spot between other parenting styles which are either too rigid or too lax. Take tiger parenting, one of several rigid approaches which aims to raise children who excel academically by enforcing strict rules in an authoritative household. Advocates of tiger parenting generally view gentle parenting as too lenient. Tiger parents often require their kids to practise skills or study for exceedingly long hours—and generally at the expense of leisure activities like sleepovers and playdates. But these children have been shown to suffer negative consequences as a result of chronically high expectations at home, including depression, anxiety, and—most notably—poor academic performance.
Gentle parenting also contrasts with permissive parenting, which can be classified simply as having low expectations of one’s child. Permissive parents often opt out of discipline entirely, whereas gentle parents use discipline sparingly but tactically. Even though permissive parents may at first appear to have a more positive bond with their children, they frequently end up struggling in contexts outside the home that require rule following, such as eating in a restaurant or taking a plane trip.
Gentle parenting sits right in the middle of the spectrum, offering kids guidance and motivating them to explore while defining boundaries and discouraging their transgression.
Gentle parenting can be hard—but with practice you’ll get there
Gentle parenting can be challenging no matter how long you’ve been practicing it. It demands patience and empathy. But when you and your child meet in conflict, take a step back and ask yourself: Can I practice self-control here? Can I mitigate the hostility by being calm rather than getting defensive or angry?
As with any parenting style, consistency is key—and what’s more, even if you’re new to gentle parenting, it’s easy to apply its ethos to everyday life at home with your kids. And it all begins with validating and respecting their feelings and development. For starters, we all know babies and toddlers can be trying, primarily because they can’t articulate their emotions and the reasons for their behaviour. But that doesn’t mean you can’t create structure for them—on the contrary, by recognising when they misbehave, you’re then better able to tailor your responses accordingly, while keeping in mind their limited ability to understand why you’ve acted as you have. For a basic but illustrative example, imagine if rather than comforting your baby when they cried you simply cried along with them. They would learn nothing, and the behaviour would be reinforced. But by cooing and cuddling them when the waterworks start, you don’t just show them empathy, but demonstrate its application in a real-life scenario, too.
Above all, gentle parents have a profoundly nuanced understanding of their children’s motivations, aspirations, and limitations, too. They’re adept at adjusting their expectations, know when rules can be bent, and have the nous to show their kids the path to meeting society’s expectations for good behaviour—without dampening their individuality or snuffing out their spirit. By establishing strong guidelines about what is and isn’t appropriate, gentle parenting raises kids who are assured enough to explore new environments but family-oriented enough to know they’re safe and protected.And for my money, it is the optimal parenting method.