There is a lot of misunderstanding surrounding what is called “gentle parenting” or “child-led parenting” so I thought I’d clear it up a bit.
What it is:
- child led in the sense that they are not TOLD when to do basic natural things, but asked whether they are ready to.
- picking battles
What it isn’t:
- isn’t permissive
- isn’t easy
- isn’t spoiling
- isn’t about things but about feelings
- a child running your life (after the early years where attachment is first being developed)
What it results in:
- mutual trust and respect
- loving relationship
- emotionally well-adjusted child
- secure attachment
Gentle parenting, or parenting in general, isn’t a science. It’s like a more defined style of attachment parenting. Things are not set in stone. There are no rules or checklists. There is a concept, there are studies, there are suggestions, there is intuition, there is nature. Every parent takes what works for them and applies it to their situation. But in a nutshell, gentle parenting is accepting your child as a person and an individual and respecting their wishes, needs, desires, moods and limitations. It’s understanding that kids are kids. That a 2 year old isn’t a 4 year old and shouldn’t be treated as such or expected to behave in a way you’d expect a 4 year old to behave. And a 16 year old isn’t an adult, yet should be treated no worse than an adult. It’s giving your children the freedom to be themselves even when that inconveniences you, while supporting, gently guiding and accepting them .
The child led part also means that is is adjusted to an individual child, as well as an individual family. Which means MY gentle parenting will be completely different than someone else’s, but with the same premise: children aren’t treated as adversaries, or engaged in power struggles, or ordered around or expected to OBEY every word or disciplined (in the traditional sense of the word).
A person would never treat a friend or their spouse with stern tones, or rigid rules or time outs, they would not belittle them or discipline for doing what they disagree on, they are not yelled at being emotional or having a bad day. So the belief is that a child should be treated the same way. Except for they have even further limitations, psychological, physiological and cognitive, which warrants even more understanding and patience.
Child led parenting isn’t the same as permissive parenting.
To an onlooker it will pretty much look like normal parenting with less scolding, more soft talking, A LOT MORE patience and understanding. It’s more about trusting your child and believing in their inner goodness. Children aren’t evil. In fact, they are the sweetest things ever, innocent and eager to please. Most bad habits and behaviors they pick up stem from or are caused by their environment whether it’s their parents, day care, friends or TV.
I am often impatient, especially with my husband because he is on the slow side, so when my daughter displayed some of my behaviors, it made me once again realize what a profound effect we were having on her and her behavior. She would loudly and impatiently say “I want to go! I want to go!” when getting ready to leave, completely mimicking the way I say “I JUST want to go, honey! Can we please just get going?” trying to hurry my husband along.
Gentle parenting is about out-thinking what’s really important and what we are simply hung up on and picking battles (especially with toddlers).
Things like washing hands before eating, or brushing teeth after eating are non-negotiable. They are done no matter what, because the consequences of not doing those things can be serious. However there are battles that are either not important:
- picking out what to wear,
- choosing not to go into the car seat to go to a birthday party (18-24 months battle for us) after numerous attempts,
- making a mess on the floor ( as long as it’s not permanent),
- pulling out all the clothes from the drawer,
- unrolling toilet paper.
Most of these things are necessary or fun experiences for toddlers, and no one will suffer from them ( except for missed bday parties, or major clean up on mommy’s part). They don’t need to result in power battles or negative interractions.
There are also things that should be regulated by the child himself, because only they can known their own internal state:
- to eat or not eat (given that nutritious and varied food options are frequently offered),
- when or whether to nap ( given that nap is offered and conditions are conducive to sleep),
- to breastfeed or not.
- to cry or not to cry, etc
You cannot tell an adult that he has to eat, sleep or stop being emotional at any given time when YOU decide it’s time. So you cannot tell a child either. A child will eat when they are hungry if the food is offered, sleep when they are tired if the conditions are right, cry when they are sad, breastfeed when they need to (as a source of food or emotional support). You can only create the right conditions for the action to happen, but should not FORCE them if they aren’t hungry, tired.
One of the other aspects of this type of parenting for me is teaching by example, rather than by constant correction. It’s something that came naturally to me, possibly out of laziness and growing up in Russia, but quickly the concept got developed and I saw it working. I remember a discussion on this blog back when Lexi was 18 months or so with some commenters saying “You have to teach her to be polite and say thank you, she will grow up a brat, if you don’t!!” I always smile at the “grow up a brat” comments. There is this “awesome” erroneous belief that if you treat your child with respect, they will walk all over you.
Well, anyways, we never directly taught Lexi to say thank you or sorry. We rarely said things like “SAY YOU’RE SORRY, LEXI!” or “You have to say thank you!”. That just seemed forced. So they will say they are sorry but not really mean it.
Quickly enough though, as her language developed she started saying “thank you” and “I am sorry”, all on her own in the right situations because she HEARD US DO IT. She was simply mimicking and learning from our behavior rather than from disciplining instructions. “Sorry, mama!” is often heard in our house when she corrects me on something or if I hurt myself. “Thank you” is something she says naturally in situations that warrant it. I personally don’t believe in fake politeness, so I don’t encourage excessive “thank you”s for every little thing. I believe in saying it where it’s deserved. So this has been another important example for me in how what we do matters much more than what we say, on levels that aren’t even obvious at the time.
When you start thinking with this frame of mind, things improve drastically. This especially applies to toddlers, because toddlers tend to be such emotional, as well as unreasonable, human beings that analyzing, whether what you’re insisting on is a true necessity or can be let go of, improves interactions with your kid greatly.
If the toddler doesn’t feel like they are constantly directed and told no, they will feel some control and some say in their life which they crave at this age, and at the same time they learn to respect the things that are really important and not up for negotiations, rather than desensitized to a word NO or stern tone of voice or harsh discipline.
We cannot forbid half of what the toddler wants to do and then expect them not to harbor hurt and angry feelings.
Once you let go of the “IT HAS TO BE MY WAY” mantra, life becomes so much easier and the relationship between you and your child improves dramatically. Less whining, more hugs, more laughter, fun times and more love.
So gentle parenting is simply understanding toddlers limitations and always treating every situation with love and respect, regardless of what happens.
It’s not easy and it requires a lot of restraint. Because most of our first reactions to certain actions that toddlers do is anger (usually due to poor self-control, lack of patience, or simple tiredness), especially if a certain aspect of danger or disobedience is involved. We are programmed that way by our parents who in turn learned it from their parents, as well as the reactions that nature gave us to survive in the wild world that we no longer live in. It was important for survival then, but just like an appendix, it’s only a hindrance now.
So instead of doing what most of us want to do when we see our 2 year old spill a whole bag of flour on the floor, which is yell out “WHAT DID YOU DO???“, because we realize the clean up about to be involved is not something we needed at that moment, gentle parenting calls for understanding and respect: “Sweetie, did you accidentally spill a bag of flour? It’s OK! It happens! Come be my little helper and let’s clean it up together. But next time remember to be carefully with bags full of food”. Or here is another option: don’t give what you don’t want spilled. 🙂
Contrary to what some people believe, this respectful treatment won’t make them spill it again because they didn’t get punished for it ( EVEN if you told them to be careful handling that bag before). Most children want to please parents, they are programmed by nature to soak everything in, to love their parents unconditionally, even in those situations where their trust has been broken. And most misbehavior is either a cry for attention, or isn’t a misbehavior at all but a limitation of their age (breaking down when hungry, not being able to sit still, spilling flour because they aren’t dexterous).
The question I’ve been asked most is:
WHAT DO YOU DO when you need to get your toddler to do something and she’s refusing.
I ask nicely.
Then I explain why we need to do it
Then I try to give her options, deflect, distract, sweeten the pot (within reason)
If that doesn’t work, I use “First we do this…, then we can..“. (works most of the time at 2)
And then finally I analyze to see if it’s something that has to be done or can be skipped. If it absolutely has to be done, I gently take her by the hand and we do what we have to, all while telling her why and what we are going to do after. At two, she will go with me even if it’s something she doesn’t want to do. During the 16-24 months stage, things were more dicey, so I would continue talking to her until she was ready to come with me. I would RARELY (I remember only two occasions), pick her up and drag her against her will.
At 18-24 months, we had that whole “getting in the car seat issue”. Some trips were negotiable. I want to take her to the playground or class and she won’t get into the car seat. After using all of the above techniques, I tell her “Ok, sweetie, if you really don’t want to go right now, we can stay home, but we will be missing your favorite music class“. If she mentions the class later and asks to go, I explain “Sweetheart, remember when we tried to get in the car and go and I said we’d miss the class? Well, we did. The class is over and we can’t go to the music class till next week. When we go to a class, we have to be there at a certain time, so remember to get in the car next time. Mommy is here to help”. If she starts crying because that’s upsetting I say “It’s ok honey. How about we do this instead and tomorrow we can also go to the gym!”
She very quickly learned what it all means. She knows now that when mommy says something, it’s usually the truth and listens to me 90% of the time. I know it won’t be that way forever and we will continue going through rough patches and learning anew, but right now it’s blissful.
With things that are non-negotiable, like going to a doctor, or taking medicine or brushing teeth, I go through the same process, except it ends up in “I am sorry sweetie but we have to do this” and just get through it.
Again she quickly learned that when things matter, there is no choice and since she is given a choice in most other day to day experiences, she doesn’t mind giving up at times when mommy says it has to be so.
I am obviously not a psychologist, or a behaviorist or an official child development expert. I don’t have a zillion kids to test out all the parenting techniques on. What I do have is my intuition, my desire for what’s best for my daughter, my constant and incessant reading about child development, brain development, emotional intelligence and psychology. And the most important thing I have is my daughter and seeing her react to my behavior and parenting. There is really so much to say about this way of parenting, lots of studies backing it up, as well as common sense. I couldn’t possibly go over everything, explain everything, refute everything in one post. That’s why there are books and resources out there.
Obviously, there is NO sure way to know just HOW MUCH children’s personalities influence children’s behaviors vs our parenting, but it’s clear to me there IS a big influence.
Seeing her behave in the last two years is the only proof (aside from the numerous studies preformed showing an immense need for a child to have a responsive and loving caregiver) I need to know that this is the type of parent I want to be.
Seeing her respect me, trust me, listen to me and my explanations and follow them, repeat the things I’ve said before and act on them, soak everything in, try to do her best, be incredibly sweet with people and animals around her, generous, eager to share, social and open to new experiences, compassionate and easy going is pay off for all the hard work and even more reinforcement that gentle parenting is amazing!
The most powerful aha moments of parenting for me have been mostly seen in negative experiences.
In the time when I would raise my voice at my daughter because something upset me. It happens rarely enough that when I do, the look on her face is the best lesson in parenting I ever need: it’s confusion ( why is mommy upset at me? She never raises her voice at me?), it’s sadness ( did I do something wrong that mommy is mad at me?), it’s a tiny sliver of fear (Mommies strong emotions scare me), and it’s pleading (Mommy, tell me it’s all ok).
All those emotions can be seen in one expression. It’s not something she expects from mommy and it absolutely and undeniably upsets her to the core. She didn’t deserve it because she didn’t mean to do anything t upset mommy. They NEVER mean it, if you establish a respectful relationship. In low moments like that, I catch myself and explain that mommy lost control and got upset because Lexi did “so-and-so” and that mommy is sorry she raised her voice but would like to ask to have Lexi to (insert behavior modification that caused whatever happened), is that ok? “So please don’t do that anymore, it upsets me!” , And instantly she needs to nurse, to restore our balance, to calm her emotions to reconnect with mommy. (and of course I am ridden with guilt the whole day because I raised my voice at her lol )
However if I don’t take the time to gently explain/ask her, but simply cut her off from doing what I don’t want her to do, the result is completely different- total defiance. It’s another proof for me that children r’s behaviors are simply reactions to our own behaviors. Every child reacts differently, but they are nonetheless reactions.
At those times usually a bigger lesson is learned by me, than by her. It’s enough to gently explain to her what she is doing that is wrong and she goes on to repeat what I said every time she is tempted to do it. Yelling is never necessary. It simply happens for lack of self-control, habit (parents who yelled), being tired, hungry or upset at something else (Wow, these sound like exactly the reasons for a toddler tantrum. haha. I guess that would be mommy tantrum, then.)
This is simply my experience in raising a daughter who is only two. It’s my experience as a mother who is dedicated, who is educated on child development issues and who spends the majority of time watching, noticing and parenting, as well as reflecting and reading.
I am not a perfect mother.
I have a good understanding of what it would take to be a perfect mother to my daughter, but I can’t be one. No one can. I believe you can only be a perfect mother after generations of near perfect mothering. Otherwise our upbringing gets the best of us.
I can try to do my best to parent my daughter the way I believe she should be parented. But I don’t always succeed. I get close. I try hard. But I also make mistakes. I am aware of those mistakes and I try to change them. Often it’s not as easy, so I continue making mistakes. Fewer and fewer and fewer as I get better control of myself and learn more.
It’s very clear to me that you can’t be a perfect parent. You can be darn close but not 100%. Because children change so much with each stage they enter, it takes you just a little bit of time to adjust to the new challenges and issues. You adjust, there is a time of equilibrium ( like the time we are in now at 28 months), and then they change again and you scramble to adjust again. Then you have another kid and you think you got it. But that kid needs a customized approach because every child is different.
The only constant is in the fact that respect, trust, understanding should always be at the core of parenting.
So I started this post as an explanation of what gentle parenting is, but it ended up as a look into myself, my parenting and my daughter, a mini self-study, an example of gentle parenting they way I see it and do it..
This isn’t me saying it’s the only right way to parent. If you take it that way, you were just going to make that assumption regardless of what I write.
Parenting is SUCH a touchy subject that most bloggers avoid it like the plague. It shouldn’t be, though. We should be able to share our styles openly. I will turn off comments on this post, because I am not looking for a discussion or an argument. What I am looking for is for someone to read this and say “This sounds along the lines of what feels right for me, too. How can I learn more about it?”
And the answer to that is “READ and EDUCATE YOURSELF!”
Read as much as you can, read the right books that cite studies. Not the ones that tell you what to do, but ones that present you with facts and ideas.
Read child development books, not just parenting books, because those will help you understand what goes on in your little one’s head.
Start early and continue reading throughout your journey, because every little book you read with add one or two ideas to your toolkit that will help form YOUR OWN UNIQUE parenting style, because no one is the same.
You are not meant to follow books word for word.
You are meant to educate yourself with recent studies on brain development, parenting and psychology and, combined with your own instincts, create a perfect parenting technique that works for you and your child. Each books, while may seem redundant, give a little bit here and there that you had not read in another book. Again I am talking ideas and concepts, not actual parenting advice.
If you’re wondering where to get started, these are the books that I recommend and ADORE in order of importance.
The Science of Parenting was probably the first book that I read that pretty much laid it all out there for me. Facts, science behind gentle parenting, and lots of illustrations. They didn’t call it gentle parenting, they just called it parenting. This book reinforced everything I’ve read in bits and pieces here and there. It was simply about the science behind how parenting influences children’s brains and development. Period. Really a life changing book.
Unconditional Parenting was read by me during the difficult 16-24 months period and it was a perfect book to reinforce all I’ve already read but haven’t outright put together as a “style of parenting” and it was at the right time to remind me of the importance of being patient with kids. This is probably the best book I could recommend to ANYONE. It goes over rewards and punishments, and in the beginning it doesn’t make a lot of sense until you apply what you’ve learned and continue reading- that’s where the light bulb went off for me big time. Before this book I was practicing gentle parenting instinctively, after this book I was doing it consciously which is very important if you are to survive the toddler years.
If you’re just starting out on your parenting journey, or your journey to gentle parenting, you can start easy with these books. Each one of them touches on the importance of responsive parenting from the emotional or brain development standpoint.
This book is an excellent start if you’re pregnant or just had a baby. Also an excellent introduction to what’s really important in parenting.
I wrote about How Children Succeed in this post, so take the time to read it, but I am in love with this book. It’s full of studies and while it doesn’t really take it from the parenting stand point, every parent should read it.
Finally, Good Nights, while not a gentle parenting book, is a great companion to those practicing responsive parenting when it comes to nighttime needs especially.
Other books on my list that I have not read but was either recommended or are excited to read from description alone.
Hope this post either sheds some light on being an understanding parenting or gets your started on it. Either way, I had immense pleasure writing it and as with all blog posts, it has helped me further analyse and determine my goals as a mother. Tomorrow I will wake up trying a little bit harder to be a little bit better.