Ask any parent about their secret to raising good kids and they’ll tell you a million stories that can all be summed up in one takeaway: No one has it exactly all figured out. Parenting styles that work for one family might not work for another. Plus, coming up in our parents’ shadows can present its own set of challenges that make us wonder if we’re raising our kids the right way.
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But the more we understand about early childhood and adolescent development, psychologists and pediatric healthcare professionals agree that a gentle parenting or positive parenting approach to raising kids is one of the most beneficial parenting strategies. It not only positively impacts your child’s mental and emotional health, but it could also have lasting, long-term effects on the relationship you’re building with them.
Pediatrician Karen Estrella, MD, explains how gentle parenting is different from more traditional parenting styles and how it could positively impact your child’s future.
The goal of gentle parenting is to raise confident, independent and happy children through empathy, respect and understanding, and setting healthy boundaries. This parenting style focuses largely on age-appropriate development.
Traditional parenting styles focus on punishment and reward. When your child does something good or shows good behavior, you reward them with fun activities, treats and positive feedback. If your child does something bad, though, they might get put in timeout, for example, or you might spank them (a decision doctors say you shouldn’t do).
Instead of focusing on punishment and reward, gentle parenting focuses on improving a child’s self-awareness and understanding of their own behavior.
“The idea is to be more like a coach for your kid rather than a punisher,” says Dr. Estrella.
For example, let’s say you’re getting ready to head out the door for work. You have to drop your child off at school or daycare on the way, but they’re throwing a temper tantrum. You’re worried you might be late to work and your patience is wearing thin.
In this scenario, a traditional parenting style might inspire you to scold them. “Stop acting childish and put on your shoes,” you might yell. “You’re acting ridiculous and you’re making me late for work! Wait until we get back home.”
Notice in this example that there’s a lot of negative connotation happening. You’re focused on your child’s action and on the frustration it’s causing you. By yelling, you’re instilling a sense of fear in your kid, and now you both feel anxious or angry. Your child’s behavior may stop because they’ll recognize you as an authority figure; however, their behavior is likely to happen again.
“Kids don’t always understand that what they’re doing is wrong. They just stop their behavior because they’re afraid,” explains Dr. Estrella. “They don’t really understand why they should stop that behavior unless you explain why.”
A gentle approach would be to stay calm and firm ahead of time before leaving the house to set expectations. Instead of yelling or starting with the negative, you might take a pause and meet your child where they’re at. Maybe you get down to eye-level, and say calmly, “I’m going to drop you off at school and then I’m going to work. We need to leave on time. I expect you to be ready with your shoes on at the door when I’m ready to leave. If you’re not ready, then we’ll both be late and I will feel angry. If I get angry, you will lose privileges.”
Another approach would be to say, “When you don’t get ready on time, it hurts my feelings and makes me anxious. Why are you having a hard time?”
When you approach the situation in this way, you’re exhibiting empathy and respect for how your child is feeling, and you’re giving them a chance to process their own behavior and hold themselves accountable. By remaining calm, you’re also giving your child the space to recognize how you respond to conflict and giving them the opportunity to turn their behavior around. An important part of this strategy, then, is setting up expectations in advance, planning on how to respond if your child exhibits negative behavior and the ways you can handle it peacefully.
“Gentle parenting is about taking a pause as a parent and, instead of yelling or screaming, you’re trying to help your kids understand what is happening,” notes Dr. Estrella. “In practice, it sounds good, but it can be challenging for parents because when conflict happens, you’re angry and you want to respond right away.”
Gentle parenting presents a unique set of challenges that require you to rewire how you think about raising your kids and the way you handle conflict and expectations. Here are some pros and cons to consider when taking the gentle parenting approach.
With gentle parenting, you center how their actions directly impact how you feel. This teaches them the same lessons about consequences that traditional parenting styles have, except with a focus on feeling. As your child learns how they’re making you feel, they’re also seeing how you’re responding to them.
“Gentle parenting in that sense helps kids down the line understand and ask themselves, ‘Is this behavior going to give me a good outcome or not?’” says Dr. Estrella. “Kids learn a lot by imitating their parents. If they know their parents react to things by yelling and screaming when they’re agitated, kids will respond the same way because they think it’s OK.”
On one hand, if you only focus on correcting bad behavior, you’re missing out on the ability to instill motivational behavior. Think of gentle parenting as coaching a game: If your child is having a hard time passing the ball, keeping up with teammates or doing a good job, you would work with them to figure out what strategies work best and how to help them improve their game. The same thing goes for parenting: If your child is having trouble with aggression, talking back or following rules, what are some small ways you can redirect their focus to help them get on the right track?
“If you’re a coach and an advocate for your kid, you would respond by saying, ‘OK, you can do this. I know this is hard but we’re going to help you out. You’re obviously upset, so I’m going to give you some time until you calm down and we can talk again,’” says Dr. Estrella. “That helps them build a little more of their personality and know that even though this is a temporary challenge, they can overcome it with your help.”
Gentle parenting requires two things:
“This is a little bit tough because parents might be working a lot or their kids are in daycare or school or at the grandparents’, so there may be a stronger connection with other caregivers,” says Dr. Estrella.
Not to be confused with helicopter parenting, gentle parenting requires you to be heavily involved in helping your child question, analyze and process their behavior rather than taking over for them. Finding the time to instill good behavior from a young age becomes more and more beneficial the more you follow this parenting strategy through the years. But if you start with this approach later in life or struggle to find time throughout the day to instill these lessons, it can be more difficult to achieve.
Part of gentle parenting is recognizing what are the triggers that set off your child’s bad behavior. Do they have trouble getting ready because they’re just not a morning person, are they afraid of going to school, or is it something else? Then, you have to recognize your own triggers.
“Another challenge is overcoming how we were raised and trying not to mirror the parenting skills from our parents,” notes Dr. Estrella. “You have to step back and say, ‘OK, as a kid, that reaction my parents had only caused fear,’ or ‘I don’t think my parents’ actions helped me down the line, so let’s try a different approach.’”
Recognizing what works for you and breaking away from the norm can be a fresh start for putting healthy boundaries in place. This way, when you get angry or stressed, you’re able to actually take a step back and think before you act.
One of the biggest fears about gentle parenting revolves around the idea that you might be seen more as a friend than a parental figure. Dr. Estrella says this belief that you won’t be taken seriously is actually misleading.
“There’s this misconception that gentle parenting gives more freedom to your kid and lets your kid do whatever they want,” says Dr. Estrella. “It’s more about saying, ‘Let’s work together to try to help you improve your behavior and help you develop the skills you need to manage more difficult situations down the line.’”
And instead of your child responding from fear, your child is more likely to respond with empathy and mutual understanding.
Here are some tips to get you started on the road toward gentle parenting.
You want to make it clear that you’ve embraced a gentle parenting approach. By doing this, you’re getting every adult who interacts with your child on board with the idea. You can do this by explaining expectations on a case-by-case basis with teachers, peers, friends, babysitters and extended family members.
Expectations are also important for your child to know up front. If you’re having dinner every day at 6 p.m. and phones are required to be off or out of the room at that time, then any deviation from that behavior is understood in advance.
“This way, your entire family is on the same page and you’re dealing with what the expectations are for every situation as well as what the consequences will be,” says Dr. Estrella.
Studies show that in order to promote changes in positive behavior, you have to praise your child four more times than you give negative feedback.
“Even in situations where you may be arguing with someone, you want to try to be calm so your kids will recognize that it’s better to be calm instead of yelling or screaming,” says Dr. Estrella.
Knowing how you want to react to circumstances before they happen is good, especially if you don’t want to be reactive in the moment. For example, if you’re taking your child grocery shopping, think about how you’ll respond and what you’ll do if they get upset when you don’t buy the toy or snack they want. Having an internal plan in place will help you take a step back in the moment and respond calmly and efficiently.
“The more you do this, the more these decisions will become internalized and feel more natural to you,” reassures Dr. Estrella.
Try to stick to the plan. If bedtime is always at 8 p.m., try not to deviate from that. If you put your foot down on a decision, stand your ground. The more consistent you are, the more your child will understand and respect your expectations for their behavior.
“If you set very clear limits, I think in the long run, it will be less time-consuming,” says Dr. Estrella.
Ask reflective questions like “Why are you responding this way?” and “Do you know how this makes me feel?” when negative behavior occurs. This will help your child relate to how you’re feeling. From there, you can both talk about outcomes and consequences, what’s triggering for them and what’s triggering for you, and how these all play a part in your relationship.
Studies show that this mutual understanding and team approach to parenting increases a child’s sense of attachment to their parents. This greater sense of attachment is then associated with fewer depressive symptoms and greater levels of gratitude and forgiveness later in life.
You won’t always be successful right away at a gentle parenting approach. It’ll take time and patience to embrace this style of parenting and to reap the benefits — for you and your child. In part, gentle parenting requires a level of conscious parenting, or the ability to check in with yourself and evaluate what kind of parent you want to be and how you want to be received. If you’re committed to this parenting strategy, or you’re curious about how to get started, you can always check in with your pediatrician for advice, too.
“There’s a lot of trial and error,” says Dr. Estrella. “By setting limits and giving expectations ahead of time or prepping for a new change in behavior, it will help kids feel more calm and less aggressive.”