Discipline Is Crucial for Black Communities—There's Still Room for It in Gentle Parenting

For Black families who've embraced gentle parenting as a way to heal generational patterns of fear and punishment, it might seem impossible to teach their children discipline. In fact, the opposite is true.

Side view of father and daughter talking in kitchen during morning
Photo: Getty Images

As Black parents discover and embrace gentle parenting—a method of childrearing that encourages open communication, healthy boundaries, and free will—some aspects feel less intuitive. The benefit of gentle parenting for Black families is obvious. Many Black parents have experienced centuries of trauma and abuse that have infiltrated their parenting and it's a welcome shift from more traditional methods involving fear and punishment. Many gentle parents feel like the parenting style allows Black children to show up as their full selves.

Still, it's less clear how to find the balance between children's free will and self-advocacy and discipline that promises to keep them safe in the larger world. It's no secret Black youth are more likely to be misperceived than their non-Black counterparts. For parents who want to be sure that their children are both emotionally healthy adults and prepared for a society that won't give them the benefit of the doubt, bridging parenting methods can feel challenging.

Chazz Lewis, a parenting coach and educational specialist, who goes by "Mr. Chazz," encourages parents to lead with empathy and grace, embrace small daily improvements, and says, "the more we grow, the more space [children] have to grow and they will take up that space."

Read on for suggestions on how to teach discipline while gentle parenting.

Abandon the Narrative—and the Pressures—Around Black Parenting

Mr. Chazz notes that before Black parents can discuss the steps to healing and use better discipline strategies, it's essential to acknowledge the diversity of the Black parenting experience. "We need to acknowledge that Black parents are not a monolith," he says. "There is a lot of diversity amongst Black parents, and that diversity continues to expand.

This matters because abandoning the perspective that Black families must act or respond in a particular way makes room to lean into a parenting style that best aligns with a personal parenting journey. It is also an opportunity for children to develop into who they are, without bringing the pressures of the external world into the home, and makes it easier to model realistic age-appropriate expectations around discipline.

It might also make it easier to respond to loved ones who challenge how parents raise their children. Mr. Chazz says, "We can't talk about Black parenting without talking about Black childhood."

He says parents of all backgrounds are often unaware of how they need to heal and grow until their children challenge them to do so. By abandoning the expectations, parents spend less time conforming to a uniform Black experience and more time giving kids a solid childhood experience and healing.

Teach Them How to Apologize By Modeling It

One of the most underrated aspects of discipline is knowing when to say, "I'm sorry."

Parents might recognize saying "I'm sorry," to their children is a crucial element of gentle parenting. But they might be less aware that apologizing is a display of discipline, and when we model authentic apologies we teach our children to pause and consider others' feelings and how we impact them.

Unfortunately, many of us grew up without having received a proper apology from our parents. And Mr. Chazz says without reflection, parents are at risk of passing this behavior to their children. As parents work to heal from their parents' choices, they must model apologies and how to better respond to uncomfortable situations.

"To learn skills like how to manage our emotions, respond as opposed to react, and make a genuine apology when we make mistakes, is beneficial in more relationships than just the parent/child relationship," he says, noting the importance of this skill in all of our relationships. "As you grow your ability to use your skills, you will grow your child's ability to use these skills. They learn from our example."

Mr. Chazz

"A parent who is operating from the fear of what they don't want might say, or think, 'If you don't stop hitting, you're going to end up in jail or worse.' This might trigger us to do anything we can to stop the hitting."

— Mr. Chazz

Connect Your Boundaries to Your Values

There's a lot of talk about the importance of boundaries, but much less attention is given to the importance of tethering our boundaries to something more important. Mr. Chazz suggests that Black families practicing gentle parenting connect their boundaries to values as a way to teach children how to interact with the larger world.

"Too often, we set boundaries based on what we don't want as opposed to what we do want," he says. "Whatever we focus on, we will get more of."

He says many parents focus on the problem instead of the behavior we want to encourage from a place of fear. "A parent who is operating from the fear of what they don't want might say, or think, 'If you don't stop hitting, you're going to end up in jail or worse,'" he says. "This might trigger us to do anything we can think of to stop the hitting. We might yell, tell them to sit by themselves, or even hit them to get them to stop hitting."

Value-based boundaries—like a family value to "treat others with kindness"—can orient our children towards solutions instead of just noticing problems. This also provides an opportunity for parents to see how they respond and notice when their own behaviors—like hitting or yelling—fall short of family values.

Know That Managing Emotions Is a Type of Discipline

Mr. Chazz says teaching children, especially Black children who are often misperceived by the outside world, how to manage their emotions is crucial. "In a world where skin color can be perceived as a threat, it is in our best interest to be able to manage our emotions," he says, noting parents who are over-reactive will condition their children to be more reactive.

These unconscious actions are motivated by emotion and make self-control difficult. "It is in our best interest to teach children to respond thoughtfully instead of reacting unconsciously," he says. "When we are able to respond instead of react, we will be able to stay more in control of ourselves in whatever challenge comes our way."

Mr. Chazz says his favorite mantra is, "Children are not trying to give you a hard time; they are having a hard time." It's a good reminder that it's really easy to misinterpret their lack of emotional control as a lack of discipline. But it's actually a chance to teach them to develop the life-saving skill of emotional control and reinterpret how we see them.

Establish That Some Rules Can Be Challenged—but Others Can't

Black parents who were raised in authoritarian households, where "my way or the highway" was common, might be curious about how to provide their children freedom while teaching them that some rules cannot be challenged or questioned.

Mr. Chazz says we can do this by teaching them how to advocate for themselves in productive and healthy ways. "When we habitually use 'because I said so's and a 'Don't talk back to me,' approach, children realize that their voices don't matter and they won't be heard," he says. "As a result, we shut down the open communication that is necessary to navigate conversations around rules."

This presents opportunities to remember that children, like adults, accept rules and adapt to them easier when they're developed collaboratively. This can reduce feelings that things are "unfair" when our children don't get their way. It also teaches children to advocate for themselves even when rules seem rigid.

"It is easier to accept a rule when we were a part of the discussion to create that rule," he says. "It is easier to accept a rule that we don't agree with when we know that our perspective has at least been genuinely heard and considered."

Often rules around safety are non-negotiable, while other rules, like "don't color on the wall" can be adapted along with children who might be allowed to color on a designated chalk paint wall, for example.

MR. Chazz

"In a world where skin color can be perceived as a threat, it is in our best interest to be able to manage our emotions. It is in our best interest to teach children to respond thoughtfully instead of reacting unconsciously."

— MR. Chazz

Prepare Them in Advance for Rigid Rules

Still, there will be rules they can't change, as children and as adults, and those are probably the ones most Black families are most concerned about. Mr. Chazz says it's helpful to let our children know that there will be situations and emergencies where we can't discuss the "why" of a certain decision in the moment. But because we've created an environment where they know their perspectives matter, they will accept this as a nontypical response.

"If you don't have time for discussion in the moment, revisit the conversation during a calm moment. Everything can not be a discussion in every moment, but the more opportunities we give children to practice advocating for themselves and articulating their perspective, the better they will be at it when they need those skills in the real world, " he says.

Embrace Grace and Abandon Perfection

The pressure to "get it right" is real for gentle parents trying to heal intergenerational trauma and raise well-adjusted children in an anti-Black world. But aiming for perfection isn't the answer. Instead, Mr. Chazz says parents should abandon perfectionism for an "improvenist mindset." "The goal isn't to be perfect every day. The goal is to improve a little every day, " he says.

It's normal for parents to feel guilty when they don't live up to the parenting goals they set. But when parents focus on improving instead of being perfect, there's more room for grace. Mr. Chazz's advice is to resist guilt and judgment and instead to share those moments with trusted loved ones who can help with accountability. He also suggests continuing to learn from the resources—whether podcasts, books, or parenting educators—that propel them towards parenting goals.

When paired with open communication and a thoughtful, collaborative environment, children also learn to have grace for their parents, themselves, and the larger world. But Mr. Chazz reminds us it's a challenging process for children to make sense of the world. They need grace too.

"Remember, mistakes are essential for learning and to remember that your child is just starting to discover the world and the tips they need to thrive," he says.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles