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What is gentle parenting?

No more time outs!

Gentle parenting is a modern method of connecting with kids that often looks wildly different than the way today's parents were raised.

This approach suggests that we shouldn’t threaten or reward our children. Instead, we should help guide them through the decision-making process so they will arrive at a healthy response on their own.

For example, if a child growing up in past decades was slow to get out the door in the morning, a parent might shout, "Hurry up! You're going to be late for school!"

The gentle parenting philosophy asks parents to dig a little deeper to understand why a child might be dawdling in the morning. Are they deep in pretend play? Are they reluctant to leave the comfort of home? Are they having trouble with a classmate?

In understanding that underlying desire of the child, the parent can better enlist the child's cooperation by saying something like, "I know you're having so much fun playing with your stuffies. Let's leave them right by the door so you can play with them the second you get home."

Also called "respectful parenting," "conscious parenting," "mindful parenting" or "intentional parenting," gentle parenting is a "nurturing style of raising children that allows parents to partner with their little ones to promote growth and development," says Amanda Vierheller, an early learning specialist and co-founder of Playgarden. "This parenting style encourages open communication and reflection to lead children in making positive choices independently."

How gentle parenting works

You have probably already seen examples of gentle parenting in social media through Dr. Becky Kennedy, who often provides how-to scripts to help parents understand what kids are feeling. Or maybe you've listened to Janet Lansbury's "Unruffled" podcast that uses specific situations to demonstrate her respectful approach to raising children.

And that understanding and respect is key here.

Rather than seeing the parent as the authoritarian ruler and the child as the unquestioning subject, gentle parenting evens the playing field a bit. Yes, parents are still enforcing boundaries and making important decisions, but they also treat children as fully-realized human beings with thoughts and preferences. Instead of ruling with an iron fist, parents use empathy and kindness.

Once parents provide structure and support, kids gain confidence in their own abilities, helping them approach the world more independently. They're not waiting for parents to tell them what to do because they know their parents trust them to make decisions.

According to Vierheller, gentle parenting can use a handful of different techniques, like using specific, meaningful praise, giving explanations rather than orders and creating open dialogue for communication.

"Natural consequences, rather than punishment, are used to guide little ones while encouraging social-emotional learning. Gentle parenting respects the feelings and thoughts of children, empowering them to become confident," she says.

Rather than banishing an emotional child to a silent corner of the house in a time out, Vierheller says you should instead "support little ones by providing hands-on tools to help them process and manage feelings, such as books, fidgets, stress balls and plush toys.”

You want your kids to know that you are always there for them to discuss any feeling they may have, even if it seems big and scary.

How to practice gentle parenting

“Many of us respond to this [gentle parenting] idea because we feel that we were parented without sensitivity, and we’re seeking to establish connections that we feel we lacked in our early experiences,” says Mariel Benjamin, program director at the Mount Sinai Parenting Center and Vice President at Cooper, an online parent support system.

Even so, today's parents, especially those who grew up in a disciplinarian household, may have difficulty making the switch to this parenting style that doesn't rely on time outs or reward charts, which are very clear and actionable. It may take more time and emotional effort to provide the type of guidance and affirmation required by gentle parenting.

If you are starting on the gentle parenting path, the Cleveland Clinic offers this advice:

  • Plan ahead for negative behavior (if your child gets hangry at school pickup time, come with a snack!)
  • Be consistent with setting limits (keep daily routines the same)
  • Set realistic expectations (of your family and yourself)
  • Work together as a team (to benefit your relationship in the long run)

Benjamin notes that gentle parenting doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing approach. You can find your own "balance between limits and sensitivity."

Gentle parenting at every age and stage

When you think about gentle parenting, you need to take the developmental age of the child into account. You can even begin incorporating gentle parenting into your routine with infants. As your child grows older, they will better understand the nuances of their emotions and your response.

  • For babies, gentle parenting is fairly instinctual. "Understanding their cries as communication, attending to their needs, using your voice and touch and smell to soothe them, making sure they feel safe and loved — all the basics of newborn care fall into that responsive parenting philosophy,” says Benjamin.
  • With a toddler who hits her sister, you might say something like, "I see that you're crying and you seem frustrated and disappointed. My job is to keep everyone safe. So even when you're frustrated, keep your hands to yourself. I'll set a timer, and your sister will give you the doll when the timer dings."
  • For preschool children, you might need to hold your boundary while redirecting the activity. Benjamin gives this example: "I know you’re having fun and you want to stay at the party, but we still need to go. Leaving is hard, but we can do hard things. Do you want to walk like a dinosaur to your stroller, or should I carry you?"
  • For older children, Benjamin explains you may say something like, “I understand how angry you feel that I won’t let you do that. It’s okay to be angry at me, but I’m not changing my mind. When you’re ready, I’m here to talk.” 

You can identify, validate and empathize with your child without giving into their demands or saying the dreaded, "Because I said so!"

Benjamin says, "Our goal is to show our children that we — the adults — can tolerate their distress and survive."