If you’ve spent any amount of time reading or watching family-related content, then surely you’ve witnessed the unfolding of a newly-popular technique called gentle parenting.
Gentle parenting is a parenting style that encourages self-awareness, confidence, and autonomy in children by interacting with them in a way that is empathetic, understanding, and respectful—especially when they make mistakes.
While a great deal of our parents displayed love in the best way they knew how, it wasn’t always the most patient or reassuring expression. Sometimes the tough love was too abrasive; The discipline was unwarranted; The conversations were way too one-sided.
And while all of it may have been effective in teaching us what needed to be taught, it also created mental and emotional complications that many of us didn’t realize were problematic until it resulted in unwanted complexities in our adult lives.
That’s why a parenting technique that doubles down on paying closer attention to the child’s emotional and mental development from such an early age is so important.
First things first, let’s talk about the misconceptions of gentle parenting. It’s not what it sounds like.
Gentle parenting is not a way of parenting that looks down on structure and discipline. It’s not a method that allows your children to run wild while you sit back and allow it. It’s not “time out parenting” where you simply sit your children in a corner and ask them to meditate on their actions. It’s not being a stagnant wallflower.
A lot of parents, especially black parents, have been avoiding this incredibly effective, science-backed parenting technique because they are under the impression that it requires them to be a permissive parent—bringing up children without any disciplinary guidance, whatsoever.
Instead, gentle parenting is opting for age-appropriate discipline and guidance instead of harsh punishment. For this method, the goal is to parent within these four elements: empathy, respect, understanding, and boundaries.
Let’s deep dive into what that really means, from the perspective of both parents and child(ren).
Empathy & Understanding
The biggest mistake that we make when dealing with kids is thinking that their emotions are small or insignificant because they’re young, and that’s so not true! Our little babies have some real big emotions, and they only get bigger and more complicated as they get older.
That’s why we need to be careful not to develop dismissive attitudes towards whatever they’re experiencing because they’re going to need all the comfort and understanding we can give.
And believe or not, the journey of practicing empathy with your kids starts when they are just babies and toddlers! Because remember, you’re not just extending empathy and understanding to them, you’re helping them develop it for themselves!
So how does one do that, exactly? Well, there are a few different ways you can do it in everyday life that doesn’t require these huge emotional, out-of-the-box expressions on your behalf. Here are some realistic, everyday examples of building empathy with your child:
- Validate their feelings. Validating how they feel doesn’t mean co-signing any bad behavior that comes from said feelings, but it does mean offering up some understanding as to why they threw that tantrum, or slammed that door. It’s going to be tough at times, but it’s important to sit down with your children and let them know that you understand their anger, sadness, discomfort—and then correct their behavior.
- Be open about others’ feelings. No matter if they are a toddler or teenager, your kids need to see that people have emotions and feelings that sometimes have nothing to do with them, and sometimes, everything to do with them. It’s just a natural part of life that you must be gentle with.Let them know when they should hold themselves accountable (“You took Jaden’s toy car and it made him cry. That’s not a kind thing to do, please give it back.”) or when they shouldn’t take any responsibility for someone else’s emotions (“Your father is sad, but it’s not your fault in any way. It’s not your responsibility to fix it, but it would be so nice to simply show him you care.”)
- Suggest and demonstrate. Empathy and understanding can be really practical. Bringing someone soup when they’re sick, offering them a tissue when they’re crying, being a listening ear when your friend vents their frustration— you can teach your children how to develop basic emotional intelligence through simple demonstrations of it! And if they don’t pick it up right away, implant the idea of it by making subtle suggestions.
Respect — It goes both ways!
Parents respecting their children is a touchy subject because most of us are conditioned to believe that children are made to respect adults and not the other way around. However, we must remember that children are people, too. They have their own thoughts, feelings, ideas, and beliefs, and our behavior toward them will shape them more than a “do as I say, not as I do” philosophy ever will.
In order to really show respect to your children and get it back, you must broaden your perspective and definition of what respect actually is. It’s more than just “yes ma’am” or teaching them a simple please and thank you. It’s about working respectful attitudes into all areas of life, including discipline. Some examples of how to practice a respectful relationship with your child(ren):
- Be considerate and tactful. Children have feelings! We get angry, annoyed, and even disappointed with younger people but that doesn’t give us the right to speak to or treat them however we’d like simply because they are kids. Be mindful of what you say when you’re in a more negative or pessimistic mood. Remember that most children, much like adults, do not possess the necessary emotional intelligence to filter out what is being said from a place of anger or other tense emotion, and what you genuinely feel toward or think about them.
- Apologize sincerely. Saying that you’re sorry, explaining your actions, and asking children about their feelings when you’re the one in the wrong is something that requires a lot of humility and may take time to get used to. However, it’s an incredibly necessary step in creating a relationship where your child knows that you care for them in a real way. Plus, it helps them develop a strong sense of accountability and ownership as they get older.
- Be open and honest. Kids are not dumb. They might not be able to understand things or communicate in the same ways adults can, but that doesn’t mean they have absolutely no idea about what’s going on. Be transparent with them! This is something that you can do in a responsible, age-appropriate way for all children.If you’re in a bad mood, being honest with your kid(s) may be as simple as, “Mommy isn’t feeling good today. It’s normal for everyone to have a tough day sometimes, so this isn’t something you should worry about. I will be okay!” Or perhaps you can’t afford something right now, it’s not the end of the world to let your teenager know that you need to save money. Just be real, be age appropriate, and stay open for conversation.
- Stay discreet. If you think embarrassment and humiliation is the way to go for discipline, think again! Airing your child’s not-so-great moments for family, friends, and even the internet (yikes!) to see is a recipe for unhealthily internalized criticism and a weakened self esteem. Children deserve privacy when they’re going through hardship, too. A huge part of your responsibility in gentle parenting is shielding your child(ren) from unnecessary heartache, not inflicting it upon them.
Boundaries — How a healthy connection is made.
According to R. Skip Johnson of BPDFamily, personal boundaries are “the practice of openly communicating and asserting personal values as way to preserve and protect against having them compromised or violated.”
Gentle parenting is big on boundaries because, after all, it is a technique that seeks to humanize children in a way that we often resist. It’s important to remember that children are people. We might be responsible for them, but they are not objects that we can control and manipulate into what we want. For this very reason, teaching your kids how to erect and respect boundaries is an invaluable skill.
Because boundaries are personal and different for everyone, it would be super hard to illustrate exactly what that would look like for your family. However, here are a few examples of healthy boundaries, in practice:
- Sticking to your word. This teaches children to stand firm on what they think, feel, say, and do.
- Asking for permission before you touch. This teaches children the power of consent.
- Limiting sharing. Not oversharing or gossiping teaches children to value privacy.
- Bodily autonomy. Showing them how to properly honor and nourish their bodies teaches them bodily integrity.
- Reasonable opinion. Not making your opinions law in their lives teaches them to think for themselves.
There are million ways you can shape healthy boundaries with your child, just like there are a million and one ways to engage in gentle parenting without forfeiting much-needed structure, discipline, direction, and guidance. A truly balanced child-parent relationship has all of that—and double the love.