I think ‘gentle parenting’ gets a bad reputation at times. I’ve had a number of conversations recently with friends who think that I don’t set enough boundaries and can be too permissive in my parenting – at least compared to them. And while I agree that I am working on setting clearer and more consistent boundaries (generally, not just with my children!) I think that gentle parenting is by no means permissive. In fact, for me, when done ‘well’, it is the perfect way to support my children, while at the same time setting loving boundaries. For me, it’s a great way to hold the line, enforce discipline and work with your child, rather than against it – which means you are able to build a life-long sense of connection and teamwork, rather than ‘rule over your children’.
I realise parenting styles are a personal choice and this blog is not here to judge or criticise – it is about sharing different approaches and ideas so that each and every one of us can figure our own way. I also realise that, as with all things parenting, sometimes there are days when resilience is low and despite best intentions, we just need to get through the day – and that is fine too.
So first of all, what is gentle parenting and what is the difference to other parenting styles?
The term "gentle parenting" was popularized by the American pediatrician and author Dr. William Sears, who is often referred to as the "father of attachment parenting." What I didn’t know, though, was that the concept of gentle and nurturing parenting has been around for centuries, and is rooted in various philosophical and cultural traditions:
“Gentle parenting is a philosophy of parenting that emphasizes kindness, respect, and empathy for children. It is characterized by a focus on the child's emotional needs and a belief that children thrive in an environment of love and understanding. Gentle parenting can include elements of authoritative parenting, such as setting clear boundaries and offering guidance, but it also emphasizes the importance of emotional connection and mutual respect.”
The other 2 main parenting styles that are commonly recognized today are authoritarian parenting and permissive parenting.
Authoritarian parenting: This parenting style is characterized by strict rules and high expectations, with little room for negotiation or flexibility. Parents who use this style may use punishment or the threat of punishment to enforce their rules, and they may not explain their reasoning to their children.
Permissive parenting: This style is characterized by a lack of structure and rules, with few consequences for misbehaviour. Parents who use this style may prioritize their child's happiness over discipline, and they may struggle to set boundaries or say "no."
In all honestly, although I truly believe in and aim to practice only gentle parenting, there are days when I will enforce rules with the threat of punishment or struggle to say no. That’s just the way things go at times, in the heat of the moment and the day to day! But when I am able to stay in the space of gentle parenting, I feel much more I tune with my children and who I aspire to be as a person and a parent.
So how does Gentle parenting and Discipline work? And is that really a way to ‘hold the line’ without raising your voice or scolding?
In gentle parenting, discipline is viewed as an opportunity to teach children, rather than to punish them. The goal is to help them learn from their mistakes and to encourage them to make better choices in the future, while maintaining a positive and respectful relationship between parent and child.
What does that look like in practice?
Focus on communication and connection: When one of my children misbehaves, or acts out, or is struggling in some way, I try to approach the situation with empathy and understanding. I do my very best to start off by saying something like: ‘It looks like you are having a hard time. Do you want to talk about it?” Then I will listen to my child's perspective and feelings, and try to see the hurt, or frustration or feeling that is causing the behaviour.
I’ve noticed that I can jump in too quickly at times and try and justify or ‘correct’ what they are saying rather than just letting them speak and get it all out. When I do this, especially my eldest will very quickly shut down and say something like ‘You never listen. Why bother, you don’t understand me!’ So, that’s something I am working on! ;-)
Offer guidance and support: Rather than punishing my children, I try to offer guidance and support to help them understand why their behaviour was inappropriate and how they can make better choices in the future. I try to encourage them to take responsibility for their actions and to learn from their mistakes. We might sit and talk about what they feel they did wrong and how they could do this differently next time. If we sit and explore these together and really brainstorm, I am always amazed how insightful they are and how creative their solutions are. It also seems to take out the whole ‘blame’ thing, and instead the conversation becomes a positive one of moving on and learning from the situation.
Use natural consequences: Instead of imposing consequences, I will try and allow natural consequences to occur. This can be really tricky for me, as I don’t want them to ‘suffer’! An example that I came across many years ago, when my eldest was about 2, and was constantly insisting on going to the park in sandals, even when it was cold and rainy. We would get into a massive power struggle at the door over wearing coats and wellies until I finally decided to let him go to the park in his sandals.
I took the wellies and warm coat with me, just in case. And low and behold, within 50m of leaving the house, his feet were cold and he wanted to wear the wellies and warmer coat all by himself! And every time after that he’d be interested to find out what the weather was like and what he should wear. I was amazed, to say the least!!
I do acknowledge, that every child is different and that this approach probably wouldn’t have worked for my youngest, whose pain and cold threshold seems much higher than his siblings’ (or mine for that matter!) and he would no doubt have had no problem getting soaking wet…. I also recognise that if you have more than one young child, this approach can be far harder to try…
But the theory is that the child experiences for himself the cold/ wet and this allows him to learn from the experience without feeling punished.
Encourage positive behaviour: Instead of focusing solely on correcting negative behaviour, I try to be really aware of and encourage and praise the positive behaviour. My daughter and youngest have started to enjoy setting the table in the morning (not always, sadly!! ;-)). And when they do, I will be really vocal about what a great job they are doing and how this is all helping us get ready in the morning, as a team. The same applies when my eldest (or one of the others) helps each other – I will mention it openly at the breakfast table so that everyone can hear the contribution each of them has made for us to get to the breakfast table on time, as a team. Without fail, it puts a huge smile on each of their faces and you can see the pride they feel. It also helps reinforce good habits and encourages them to make some of these positive choices in the future.
I also notice, that when I have days where I ‘jump in’ and do things for them (because it can be quicker) or take over halfway through – a lot of their positive energy and self-sufficiency melts away. And I instead have 3 children asking me to do all sorts for them (Can you put my socks on? Can you get my school bag? Can you get me a spoon?) – when only the day before they were happily doing these things for themselves!
Time-ins rather than Time outs: when things are getting tough and we all need to cool down, I will encourage each of us to either take ourselves off and out of the equation to ‘cool off’ for a bit (nobody is every set away for a time out, as I don’t believe in leaving kids to deal with their big feelings on their own), or we have ‘sofa time’ that allows cooling off time, as well as connection. I wrote a blog about this a while back that you can read here.
Setting boundaries and gentle parenting
Enforcing boundaries in gentle parenting involves setting clear expectations for behaviour while maintaining a positive and respectful relationship with your children. And I have noticed that when I do more of this, and in a more consistent way, my children are overall happier. It’s these ‘guardrails’ that they seem to thrive on – to know what is and isn’t expected of them as well as what is planned next. Especially my middle child is very clear on this. When I am ‘wishy washy’ she immediately picks up on it and struggles.
When I see behaviour that I don’t like, or something needs to be done for their own good – for example not eating sweets before dinner, I will say something like: “I can’t let you eat those before dinner, sorry. But you can put them in a safe place, and we can save them for tomorrow after school.”
There are a few other things that help me work alongside my children, rather than in a ‘them and me’, and in constant battles against them:
I try to offer (reasonable) choices where I can: All of my children are currently craving more autonomy and decision making so I am resorting more and more to giving them choices within the boundaries I’ve established. This helps them feel empowered and part of the decision-making process. For example, if dinner is still a little way off and we’ve put the sweets away, but I can see they are still really hungry, I might add to the above: “Hhmm, I can see you are really starving, and dinner will be another 20 minutes, so how about I find you a different snack that you could have to keep you going? What about a cracker with some butter, or a few slices of apple?” Sometimes they might suggest a third option that I hadn’t even thought of, and if I think it’s an acceptable alternative, we’ll go for that. A really good one in this example is to let them taste the food that is cooking, assuming it is nearly ready. My children love tasting the Spaghetti Bolognese sauce that is bubbling away while we wait for the pasta to cook – it tides them over, distracts them and gets them involved and interested in the food. Especially for my youngest, who would just eat pasta with butter, if he was left to his own devices, it’s been a great way to get him used to the taste and texture of pasta sauce.
Apart from anything else, I know too well myself, that when I am starving, I snack on small healthy things to keep myself going as well (or do lots of tasting of the food), so not acknowledging that same need in my children seems hypocritical.
2. Positive reinforcement:
When my children respect and accept the boundaries I have set, I will sometimes talk about it later with them to acknowledge that that might have been hard for them, but that they still stuck to it. If the issue was putting sweets away, I might encourage them by saying: “I know, that was really hard. I find it hard to put away things that I’m really excited about as well. You can be really proud of yourself.” The idea behind this is that positive reinforcement will hopefully encourage them to continue to make good choices.
3. Taking a break:
Sometimes, when my children struggle to stick to a boundary, like being rough with their sibling even though they know they should be using their words, I might ask them to take a break from playing together. I explain that they are both struggling today and seem to have a lot going on themselves and that doing something else individually for a while will help them both reset. It’s not about blame, or punishment, it’s about acknowledging that there is clearly something bothering them that is causing this behaviour.
If I have the time, I will also try and sit with them both to get them to talk through what it is that is going on for them and verbalise this so that both children see what is behind the behaviour that is causing them trouble: “Rupert, it looks like something is going on for Isla and she is getting really frustrated. Let’s give her some space. Isla, I am here to help you if you need me. When you are ready, tell me what is going on for you, then we can figure it out together.”
Or, sometimes, it might be that something is going on right there and then for them, that is making them squabble. Again, if I have the time, I will try and sit with them to get them to talk it through with each other: “Isla, what is going on for you?” “Rupert took my toy, even though I wasn’t finished with it!” “Rupert, Isla wasn’t finished with the toy and she’s really mad that you took it.” “But Mummy, it’s my special toy, I didn’t want to share it ever!” “Hhm, Isla, Rupert says that is his special toy and he doesn’t want to share it. What do you think the solution could be? And Rupert, Isla is still really mad and sad because she likes playing with that toy too – what do you think the solution could be?” Usually, after a bit of back and forth, they both come to surprisingly amicable solutions and work things out together. And that, for me is the key – they have switched from being mean to each other and fighting, to being heard themselves, empathising with the other person and then, together coming up with a compromise or a solution. For me, that is far more valuable than me punishing them, giving them a ‘time out’ or taking away the toy – which would leave everyone, including me, frustrated, misunderstood and alone.
4. Finding an alternative way:
This one is particularly tricky for me when the boundary that was overstepped has to do with big feelings such as anger. When my eldest ends up slamming doors and marching off because he’s mad with me, or the World, then I know that just punishing him for that behaviour won’t help him or me. However, the behaviour is still not acceptable. So, (in an ideal world!) I will try and say something like: “I get that you are angry. I hear you. It’s really, really frustrating. I still can’t let you slam the doors in this house. You need to find a different way to let off steam. I am here to help you, if you need me We can figure this out together.”
For me enforcing these boundaries is all about offering empathy, understanding, and support to help my children navigate these challenging situations and make positive choices – not only now when I am there to help them, but in the future as well. It’s about maintain a positive and respectful relationship with them, working together rather than against them.
Setting boundaries is clearly one important aspect of parenting – but what about discipline? Is it possible to discipline without raising your voice or scolding?
Absolutely! Not always of course, as we all have days where we just need the kids to listen and do as they are asked, or because we just don’t have the patience and bandwidth ourselves. And that is fine too. But I have found it is possible in gentle parenting, and when it works the added bonus for me is that I feel connected to my child, rather than ‘at odds’ with them.
1. Setting clear expectations:
The clearer I am able to communicate my expectations, or the fact that ‘we are running late, we’ve all got to work together today, I really need your help!’ the easier it seems to be for my children to understand why I am rushing about and what they can do to help. And when they do help, I immediately will positively reinforce that, by saying things like: “amazing, Isla is already dressed! And Rupert is setting the table already! And Josh is up and doing his homework”. Equally, when one of them is not pulling their weight, I will remind them that we are all part of a team and that they need to do their ‘bit’ as well.
2. Use a calm tone:
This is hard for me sometimes – I know the theory but it is still hard for me to remind myself of this in the moment, when emotions are running high! The louder your child gets, the quieter you need to become, so that you can help them calm back down. Coming alongside my children, acknowledging that they are struggling and that I am here to solve whatever it is with them, calmly, really helps! It helps de-escalate the whole situation and prevents my children from becoming defensive or digging their heals in – there is no need, anymore!
3. Using nonverbal cues:
This one is great for when I’ve caught them doing something that they and I know they shouldn’t. For example, my eldest loves his sweets and the other day, just before bedtime, I gave him a cuddle and noticed his fleece pockets were bulging with something, so I asked him what ‘treasures’ he had in his pockets? It turns out, there were 20 sweets stashed away to snack on while reading in bed (!) Really!!!??? Often, I will end up getting really exasperated and lecture him. But that day, I was so surprised at the audacity of his idea, I ended up pulling a face. And that instantly made him giggle and say “ok, ok I get it!” We then found a solution together that worked for both of us – he could take some gum to read in bed (and brush his teeth afterwards of course!) and all the sweets went into a bag where he does his homework, so that he can have some of those after school when he needs an extra energy boost. That nonverbal cue was a powerful way to communicate my expectations and boundaries without raising my voice. Using eye contact, (or in other instances maybe a firm but gentle touch, or a gesture) conveyed my message in a respectful way.
4. Get curious
This is another one I have tried more recently and really love. Especially when I know a certain behaviour from one of my children is triggering to me, I will do my best to say to myself: “Let’s get curious. XYZ is struggling, what is really going on for them?” As soon as I reframe the situation to being curious about what is going on for them, I feel much less ‘attacked’. I can see that their behaviour (as infuriating as it may be) is their way of communicating an unmet need, or a desire for connection and attention, or built up tension from a tricky day. And when I do that, I can much more able to offer empathy and understanding rather than anger or frustration. And as an added bonus, this reframing also helps when your spouse is driving you up the wall… ;-)
5. Connection before correction
This is an idea I came across a while back when I was reading Gabor Mate’s book Hold on to your kids. I wrote a blog about this too, where you can find out more. The idea is, that all children crave connection with their care giver and if you connect with them first, you will be much more able and effective in correcting any behaviour. An example is, rather than shouting across the room to “Turn the TV off now!!”, go and sit with your children and watch a couple of minutes with them. Join them in their world for a moment and then gently bring them back to the now. And then go to dinner together. Equally, when they are playing up in front of their friends, take them aside in an appropriate moment and remind them that you understand it’s fun to be around friends and ‘be cool’, but XYZ is still not appropriate. As always, in the heat of the moment, this isn’t always do-able but when it is, it is magic!
Why limiting screen time helps as well
I have found more and more that when I limit screen time in our house, the connection and cooperation that I can expect from my children is much, much higher. And this is turn helps with their general sense of happiness and the behaviours they show. I know there is a time and a place for screens, and as with all things parenting, the amount of screen time is a very personal choice for each family. Our children do watch some TV and play computer games at times – but we’ve drastically reduced the amount, and it’s had a really positive effect.
When my children are not spending lots of time on screens, they are more likely to engage in other activities that promote physical, emotional, and mental well-being, such as exercise, reading, creative play, or spending time with family and friends. They also end up getting bored which (after some grumbling) allows them to really use their imaginations and come up with ideas and games that keep them happy for ages!
Having less screen time, especially before bedtime, has helped them sleep better too. I notice that especially my youngest struggles to switch off, on the evenings when we’ve had a family move night. He’s much more ‘wired’ and excited than if he’s been playing all day.
And for my eldest, who loves watching (in my opinion, mindless!) YouTube videos and playing computer games, since we’ve limited this, it is as if he is slowly finding his way back to us from being a grumpy, unmotivated pre-teen to a 10-year-old who wants to join in and connect. Not always, of course, but the difference before and after screens is stark!
Why self-care is so important and will help you not raise your voice…
I never realised just how much self-care is a crucial part of parenting, until I ended up getting really frustrated with my children and husband and feeling ‘hard done by’ – and that in turn, helped no-one! But when I managed to get out for a regular swim or gym session, have a relaxing bath or have a lie-in, I was much more able to give, as I had recharged my own batteries again. Taking your own self-care seriously, helps you maintain your physical, emotional, and mental well-being. When you prioritize self-care, you are better equipped to handle the demands of parenting and provide your children with the support and care they need.
1. It reduces stress:
As we all know, parenting can be stressful, and self-care can help reduce stress levels. Taking time to engage in activities that promote relaxation and stress reduction, such as exercise, meditation, or hobbies, can help you feel more centered and calm.
2. It increases your energy levels:
When I go to the gym or practice other forms of self-care, it actually gives me a boost. It helps me feel more energized and refreshed, which can be especially important for parents of young children who require a lot of attention and care….(I see you and I remember those early days!)
3. It improves mental health:
Prioritizing self-care can help parents maintain good mental health and prevent burnout. Activities such as therapy, journaling, or practicing mindfulness can help parents manage stress, anxiety, and other mental health challenges.
4. You are being a positive role model:
This one was really crucial for me. I was starting to see my children give up on their own needs in favour of giving somebody else what they needed. And while sometimes that was helpful and nice, when it was happening all the time, I realised that they were not seeing me prioritise my needs and that that is a really important thing to teach and learn! When parents prioritize self-care, they demonstrate to their children the importance of taking care of oneself. Children learn by example, and when parents model healthy habits and behaviours, children are more likely to adopt those habits themselves.
5. It actually enhances your parenting skills:
When you take care of yourself, you are much better equipped to handle the challenges of parenting. You are likely to have more patience, empathy, and emotional resilience, which will all in turn, help you be more effective and nurturing as a parent.
So next time, when you are wondering whether you really can ‘afford’ to chill and have a bath just for yourself – you can and you should! In fact, you are doing not only yourself a favour, but your family as well – today and as a role-model for healthy behaviours!
That’s all from me today, I’d love to hear how you deal with parenting in your home