Parenting experts explain what gentle parenting means and how they practice it in their own lives. (Photo: Thanasis Zovoilis via Getty Images)
If you’re a parent who spends time on social media, there’s a good chance you’ve heard talk about “gentle parenting.” On Instagram, there are more than 650,000 posts with the hashtag #gentleparenting; on TikTok, videos with that hashtag have garnered more than 1.7 billion views.
So what does gentle parenting actually entail? The philosophy isn’t very clearly defined. As New York Times opinion writer Jessica Grose put it: Gentle parenting is a bit of an “open-source mélange, interpreted and remixed by moms across the country.”
But parenting experts generally seem to agree on a few basic tenets: It’s about being responsive to your child’s needs and curious about their feelings, setting and holding firm boundaries and improving behavior through discussion and modeling, instead of using punishment and reward.
“Rather than viewing children as being ‘less than’ the adult in any way, gentle parenting is about mutual respect and collaborative problem-solving,” parenting coach Sarah R. Moore — founder of Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting — told HuffPost. “It’s about shifting our mindset from ‘parent versus child’ to ‘parent and child, together, versus whatever problem we’re trying to solve.’”
Another part of the gentle parenting ethos is recognizing where your child is developmentally and adjusting your expectations of them accordingly. For example, it’s developmentally normal for preschoolers to struggle with sharing; they can’t even grasp the concept until the age of 3. So reprimanding your toddler for being possessive about their favorite toy isn’t going to do either of you any good.
“We parent the whole child, looking at needs, feelings, and individual development, rather than simply managing behaviors. It’s non-punitive,” Moore said. “We work under the assumption that kids are doing the best they can with the emotional tools and resources they have at any given moment. We give them grace to be human.”
The goal is to be able to go to bed most nights feeling good about our relationships with our kids, and knowing that our kids think we’re pretty great most of the time, too.Sarah R. Moore, founder of Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting
Gentle parenting overlaps with other approaches you may have heard of, such as positive parenting, authoritative parenting and conscious parenting. While there may be some nuances between them, try not to get too hung up on the subtle differences, Moore said.
“There’s no ‘quiz’ you need to pass,” to be a gentle parent, she said. “Instead, ask these questions: Do I feel peaceful most of the time, and does my child also perceive my parenting as peaceful? Am I guiding through love or fear?”
The goal is to act as your child’s emotional safe place, Moore said.
“We want to be benevolent guides. We’ll never go wrong by modeling respect, emotional regulation and compassion.”
What Gentle Parenting Looks Like In Real Life
Moore offered an example of a young child who just made a big mess in the living room with their toys scattered everywhere — an all-too-familiar scene for many caregivers. Some parents might get angry and tell the kid to clean up everything themselves — and if the child refuses, they’ll face some type of punishment.
Someone who practices gentle parenting, however, would understand that making a mess with toys is developmentally normal for a child this age and would approach the situation differently.
“Kids aren’t ‘wired’ to care about messes,” Moore said. “Their brains are supposed to be all about play. It’s how they learn.”
“Meeting them where they are developmentally, we might opt to get playful, too — inviting them to have the stuffed animals ‘drive’ the cars and trucks back to their ‘garages’ — [aka] the toy bins — alongside us,” she added. “It gets the job done and models what we want the end result to be. However, we teach the child in ways that make sense to their growing minds.”
Parenting coach Destini Davis, who has amassed a large following under the handle @Destini.Ann on Instagram and TikTok, shared an example of what to do when a child is chatting with friends instead of doing their homework.
“As a gentle parent who prioritizes connection, curiosity, communication, and collaboration, I might proceed in the following way: First I’ll connect with my child through empathy and understanding: ‘I see this is really difficult for you right now.’ Then I’ll get curious: ‘What’s up?’” Davis said.
She’d then use that information to communicate her concerns in a compassionate way. Something like, “Ahh, I see. You really want to finish talking with your friends. Understandable! My concern is that if you don’t do your homework before practice, it won’t get done at all because you’re always so tired after,” Davis said.
Lastly, she’d move into the collaboration phase and try to figure out a way to problem-solve together by saying something like:“I wonder if there’s a way you can talk to your friends and still get your homework done before practice? You have two hours? Can we think of a realistic way to designate time to both?” Davis suggested.
What People Get Wrong About Gentle Parenting
People often criticize gentle parenting for being too permissive. But setting and maintaining healthy limits is actually a core part of the philosophy, Moore said.
“The difference between this way of parenting and many others, however, is that we rarely create rules unilaterally. We value our children’s perspectives and, when possible, work to find win/win solutions.”
Parents should strive to be firm and consistent about holding these boundaries. Say, for instance, that the kid in the homework example above promises to get off their phone in 30 minutes and then doesn’t hold up their end of the bargain.
“A parent could use a boundary to gently hold the mutually agreed-upon expectation,” Davis said. “Hey, I see you’re still on the phone after our agreed upon time. I’d love for you to wrap that call up. I believe you can handle that. If it becomes a challenge, I’m going to hold on to the phone until you complete your homework.”
I can say with certainty that breaking generational patterns and unhealthy cycles is some of the hardest, yet most important, work that parents can do.Moore
Others might assume that gentle parenting is lazy or the easy way out. Moore said it’s quite the opposite.
“In my experience coaching parents all over the world, I can say with certainty that breaking generational patterns and unhealthy cycles is some of the hardest, yet most important, work that parents can do.”
On the flip side, other parents may say gentle parenting is too difficult — they’d rather their kids just obey them without any questioning. Although gentle parenting can be difficult to practice, especially at first, Moore’s found that it tends to makes the parent-child relationship smoother and stronger over time.
“That [obey without questioning] mindset is fraught with potential problems, but putting those aside for now, I’d argue that with some practice, gentle parenting actually becomes much easier than many of the alternatives,” Moore said. “If our children feel emotionally connected to us, they naturally want to do well for us. We’ll have fewer power struggles and meltdowns, and more genuine joy together.”
Don’t Get Hung Up On Trying To Be The Perfect Gentle Parent
Like all parents, gentle parents make mistakes. It’s all part of the process, and no one can parent this way 100% of the time.
“We have to apologize to our kids. We sometimes struggle with our responses. Some of us yell sometimes. Some of us enforce punishments sometimes. Some of us unintentionally lean into ego or fear-based discipline strategies,” Davis said.
The difference is what you do in the aftermath of your less-than-gentle parenting moments.
“We take accountability for our actions and apologize to our children when we fall short so that we can keep the relationship an emotionally safe space,” Davis explained. “We find the support we need to grow and become better for ourselves and our children. And we are committed to trying our best every single day to model the kindness, generosity, resilience and respect we are trying to teach our children.”
Moore echoed a similar point: You won’t always practice gentle parenting perfectly (no one can). It’s the striving to do better that counts.
“The goal is to be able to go to bed most nights feeling good about our relationships with our kids, and knowing that our kids think we’re pretty great most of the time, too,” she said. “Start very small if you need to; every peaceful interaction counts.”
And keep in mind that you don’t have to adopt any one parenting style — gentle or otherwise. Maybe you’d like to incorporate aspects of gentle parenting while also continuing to use rewards like sticker charts or punishments like timeouts. You don’t need to abandon things that work well for your family just because they don’t fit into the gentle parenting rubric.
Economist Emily Oster, author of books like “Expecting Better” and “Cribsheet,” recently addressed this in her Parentdata newsletter.
“As with almost everything in parenting, there is a tendency to try to adhere to a type. I want to be an attachment parent. I want to be a free-range parent. I want to be a tiger parent,” Oster wrote. “The reality, of course, is that you don’t have to adhere to type, since your parenting journey is your own. You can take parts of these approaches and make them work for you.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.