Friday, 14 February 2014

What is Gentle Parenting?

OK. Before I get started here I want to make something clear. I'm not an expert. I haven't read every book going so my use of parenting terms may be a bit loose. Furthermore, I've only been doing this motherhood thing for 26 months, with one kid. So what follows is what gentle parenting means to me, and is not intended as a judgement on any other way of parenting. Heck, I don't have all the answers, so who am I to judge?

But anyway.

A few times on this blog I've mentioned the term 'gentle parenting'. But what actually is it?

Well, despite it's rather woolly sounding name, it's actually rooted in an understanding of the human brain – more specifically, a child's brain. It's also influenced by childrearing practices that are considered completely normal in many cultures, and were probably considered normal in our culture once too. So before anyone dismisses it as a fluffy, new-age fad, it's not.

For me, gentle parenting is about asking myself three questions:

  1. Would I like it if someone treated me like this?
  2. Am I being reasonable in my expectations of my child at this stage in her development?
  3. Is this helping her to grow into the kind of person I want her to be?

Let's look at these each in turn.

So, number one. This is a rule I try my best to live by. (Note I say 'try my best'. I'm not always successful. Too often, I'm unsuccessful. But still I try.) I do believe that, as far as possible, you should treat others how you wish to be treated. So it makes sense to apply it to my relationship with Toddler. Would I like it if someone yelled at me? No. Would I like it if someone I love ignored me when I was deeply upset? No. So should I do those things to Toddler? No.

There is a limit of course. I wouldn't particularly like someone changing my nappy. And I wouldn't like someone to say no to me if I asked for icecream for breakfast. So, of course, I'm sensible about this – if it relates to health, hygiene or safety I may have to ignore this rule. But most of the time I don't have to.

Number two – here's where the science comes in. I'm not very good at science, but one book I've found that explains child brain development very clearly is ToddlerCalm by Sarah Ockwell-Smith (you can read my review of this book here). Basically, I have to continually remind myself that Toddler's brain is very different from mine. Huge chunks of it (the empathy bit, the logic bit, the emotional regulation bit) aren't there yet – or at least they are still massively under-developed. The rest is a mess of links and connections that haven't been pruned down yet. Which explains why an innocent question about what she wants for pudding might trigger off a 10 minute monologue quoting a dozen children's books. She hasn't sorted the wheat from the chaff yet, mentally speaking. So when she's reciting 'Horsey Horsey' to herself instead of telling me which tights she wants to wear today, I have to stay calm and repeat my mantra – "she's only two, she's only two, she's only two ..."

So this means that I need to fill in for the bits of her brain that aren't working quite yet. If I ask her to tidy up but she's off in her own little world, I may have to accept that I'm doing the tidying for now. If she has a tantrum over something seemingly ridiculous, I have to be the calming, consoling bit of her brain rather than ignoring her, or worse, laughing at her. (Although I may share the most bizarre tantrums with friends or on social media later when she's not around. Because if I don't laugh about it, I'd probably cry.)

Number three is probably the most crucial question. There seems to be a bizarre contradiction in our culture where we want our kids to be obedient and quiet and do as they're told until they're sent out into the big wide world where they have to be independent and assertive and think for themselves. So as much as I can I try to remember the qualities I want Toddler to possess when she becomes an adult.

This means I don't make her say sorry, because I don't want her to grow up thinking that sorry makes everything better. It often does if it's sincere, but using the word as a 'get out of jail free' card is not sincere. It means I think hard before I make a rule, to make sure it's actually necessary and just me exercising my authority for the sake of a quiet life. It means that if she does something wrong, I take the time to explain to her why it was wrong, and hopefully will one day help her to work out how to put it right, rather than inflicting a punishment on her that she will remember long after she's forgotten what she did wrong.

So that's what gentle parenting means to me. It's essentially about treating my daughter respectfully – like I would any adult, with the caveat that as she isn't an adult, she'll need a little more help while she learns and grows.


  1. Great description, I think that's pretty much what it means to me too. Doesn't mean I'm always very good at it though!

    1. Haha yes, I may be able to write a blog about it but that doesn't make me good at it! But I'm trying to do better and that's the important thing! I find writing things down helps to focus my mind so that I can remember what I'm aiming for in those fraught moments.