Gentle Parenting Is Harder Than It Looks

Gentle parenting is trending all over social media. While this parenting style has its benefits, it's not always an easy one to follow. Here's what experts say and why you shouldn't feel bad if gentle parenting doesn't work for you.

gentle parenting
Photo: Getty Images/fizkes

Giggles fill the air as my preschooler runs through the splash park. I hesitate for a few seconds, knowing she's not going to want to leave but also knowing if we stay much longer, we'll be late. I call out a warning for one more run through the water before we head to the farmer's market. My toddler stops in her tracks, yells no, and bursts into tears. Taking a deep breath, I approach her slowly saying I understand why she doesn't want to leave but remind her we're going to meet Aunt Steph and her pup, Betty, get one of those hand pies her aunt showed her a picture of last week, and see what else is at the farmer's market. My daughter sniffles and asks for a hug.

Gentle parenting, also called respectful parenting, intentional parenting, and mindful parenting, is an approach that centers the child's emotions and is based on creating a supportive partnership between parent and child, according to Petal Modeste, J.D., MBA, a mom of two and parenting expert who runs the podcast Parenting in the Future: How to Raise Successful People. "It's a willingness to work with your child as they develop and see them for who they are."

The idea of gentle parenting sounds great in theory. Raising a happy, confident, well-adjusted kid who understands their own emotions is certainly a goal. Maybe in clinical practice, when a family psychologist works one-on-one with a parent and child, it can help to effectively create this outcome. But when the guidance comes in the form of a TikTok video or Instagram Reel, as it does for most modern caregivers, gentle parenting can feel unattainable. Staying calm and collected while simultaneously validating emotions, especially during high-stress situations, can make so many parents feel like they're failing. It's particularly troubling when the social buzz around gentle parenting makes it sound like that's the most important thing you can do for your children. In reality, experts say while we won't be able to gentle parent all the time, allowing our kids to see us mess up is also an essential part of the philosophy.

"It helps kids see themselves as having agency over their own little lives and it makes them more resilient—nothing is permanent; you made a mistake and we're going to recover from it," says Modeste.

The practice of gentle parenting was coined by Sarah Ockwell-Smith in her 2016 publication of The Gentle Parenting Book. It pulls methods from earlier teachings of RIE, or resources for infant educarers, which is now famously practiced by Janet Lansbury (if you haven't heard of her podcast Unruffled, likely your parent-friends have). Lansbury swears by RIE parenting saying its benefits include natural motor development, self-directed play, respectful limits, and more.

Gentle Parenting Has Its Limits

There's no denying the benefits that can come of gentle parenting. Yet the reality is it involves expectations that can be exhausting for many parents in execution.

In fact, "exhausted" is the word that popped up most in a respectful parenting group co-run by Jen Lumanlan, a Berkeley, California-based mom of a 7-year-old, who hosts a podcast called Your Parenting Mojo. Parents in the group were asked to describe how they felt before and after they discovered respectful parenting.

"Some of the words were confident, loving, empowered, calm, and relieved, but the most prominent word was exhausted," says Lumanlan. "I just thought, 'Does it have to be that way?'"

Compared to most other parenting styles, gentle parenting is often time-consuming. There's no one default cause and effect like with authoritative parenting, where a kid breaks the rule and there is a set punishment every time, explains Melissa Jones, a full-time teacher, parent, and founder of the girl's empowerment organization Girls Positivity Club. "Gentle parenting takes more time and dedication because it is an investment in validating your child's feelings, setting healthy boundaries, making consequences that are logical to the situation, and being responsive to the situation and your child without being permissive and letting the child set the rules."

But time and bountiful stress-free moments are a luxury many parents don't have. That's especially true during the pandemic when parental stress levels have skyrocketed in the midst of job loss, food insecurity, and increased parenting loads. Research shows higher levels of stress can lead to aggressive forms of discipline. On top of that, gentle parenting has historically been a white-centered practice. More recently, Black parenting experts are joining the conversation on social media and Black parents have shared how gentle parenting has offered them a healing alternative to the parenting methods of earlier generations.

And gentle parenting is not one-size-fits-all—experts believe it can hold some children back if there is always a focus on validation. While typically developing children may feel safe and secure when their emotions of fear and avoidance are validated, children who are neurodiverse or psychodiverse don't always see the same benefits. "These kids are sometimes overly attached to their comfort zones, almost to the point where their comfort zones become a prison," says Robyn Koslowitz, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Lakewood, New Jersey. "I do believe there's a bridge between the gentle parenting approach and neurodiversity—and I think that bridge is consent. Saying to a child, 'Do you want me to help you meet this challenge? That will mean helping you out of your comfort zone.' And that might mean using incentives or other approaches that aren't usually thought of when we think of gentle parenting."

Breaking With The Past Isn't Easy

For many parents raised with more traditional, authoritative styles, one of the big struggles of gentle parenting is also about unlearning these generational parenting approaches. If your child throws a piece of broccoli at their sibling during dinner, it might be a gut reaction to grab that child's hand and say, "No throwing food," if that's what your parents would have done to you.

"Our culture teaches us that our children must behave, obey us, and that the only other option is to be the dreaded permissive parent who gets walked all over by their children," says Lumanlan. Finding another path, like gentle parenting, can come as a relief.

Therapy to unwind from those gut reactions can be helpful for some parents who want to practice gentle parenting. Experts say talking openly about how stressed they feel when certain things happen and letting their kids know that they are working on their reactions can also help. If your child witnesses a reaction from you that you're not proud of, don't be afraid to own up to it and say, "I'm sorry I lost my temper."

It's Ok Not To Gentle Parent All The Time

The reality is parenting is hard no matter the style or approach you follow, and chances are you exercise a mix of several. Acknowledging that it's challenging while taking the time to recognize your own needs and feelings and understanding that each child is unique can make it a bit gentler. And remember, gentle parenting isn't something you have to do right all the time. After all, that would be impossible.

"You have demands on your time, you have struggles, you have worries," says Modeste. "You're never going to be this gentle parent every minute of the day, but you can be conscious of it, and you'll do it more and more."

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