Family, Kids & Relationships

The true meaning of gentle parenting — and how to use it

Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr

About three out of four millennial parents practice gentle parenting, according to a recent survey by Lurie Children’s Hospital. And nearly 9 in 10 millennial parents say their parenting style is different from the way they were raised.

Also referred to as positive parenting, warm parenting, responsive parenting, peaceful parenting, conscious parenting, or respectful parenting, “gentle parenting” is a popular term for the parenting philosophy in which parents and caregivers avoid using physical force, harsh punishment, and threats to discipline kids.

It’s the approach of treating your child as a fellow human being and working with them to solve problems. It’s leading with love and compassion and trying to meet your child where they’re at developmentally.

This “gentler” or “warmer” approach to parenting is recommended by most child development experts because:

Common misconceptions about this parenting philosophy

There are a lot of misconceptions out there about the peaceful parenting trend. Some people complain that this more compassionate parenting approach results in kids getting “too soft” and being allowed to “get away with” too much.

Here are some helpful ways to reframe many of the complaints and misconceptions about the modern parenting approach:

Gentle parenting is NOT: Permissive
Gentle parenting is: Introducing discipline in age-appropriate ways

Gentle parenting is NOT: Allowing disrespect
Gentle parenting is: Encouraging mutual respect

Gentle parenting is NOT: Letting kids get whatever they want
Gentle parenting is: Preparing kids to solve their own problems

Gentle parenting is NOT: Making kids “soft”
Gentle parenting is: Teaching kids to manage their emotions

Gentle parenting is NOT: Lack of consequences
Gentle parenting is: Making sure kids fully understand the consequences

Gentle parenting is NOT: Having no authority
Gentle parenting is: Modeling the behavior you want to see

And if you’ve tried it at all, you’ll know that gentle or conscious parenting isn’t “too soft”…it’s actually extremely hard!

Why gentle parenting is a privilege

In fact, practicing this kind of parenting all or most of the time is so challenging that not everyone can do it. Instead of judging others for not being warm and empathetic in every parent-child interaction, let’s remember some of the things that make gentle parenting harder to access for some parents:

  • Unequal access to resources, education, and mental health care
  • It’s much easier with support from a “village”
  • The need to overcome unhealthy cultural or family norms around rest, self-care, etc.
  • It assumes all other basic needs (food, housing, healthcare, etc.) have been met
  • Varied opportunities and capacity to reparent negative lessons from childhood
  • Time is tight for single parents, those who work long hours, etc.
  • Differing challenges related to mental wellness or neurodiversity
  • It assumes you were taught emotional regulation skills
  • It’s harder to stay calm and patient under financial stress

When parents support each other and have empathy for other parents’ situations, we can start to rebuild that sense of community — or “village” — that many families need.

Examples of respectful parenting

Even if positive parenting is your ideal parenting philosophy, it can be hard to use it when you’re dealing with difficult parenting situations, such as behavior that you never expected from your child.

Next time your kid does something that you consider “wrong” or “bad,” try to see it from their perspective, and use that to have a more effective conversation.

Here’s an example: Say your child told you they turned in their school project yesterday before playing video games for a couple of hours. But you just got an email from the teacher saying the project is missing!

First, cool yourself down before approaching your kid about it. If you lead with “Why did you lie to me?” you’re setting yourself up for a battle, blow-up, or shut-down.

See the suggested script for how the conversation might go from your end. And don’t forget to listen!

Here is another example of how to use this approach with younger kids.

How to apply gentle parenting to toddler behavior

For toddlers who don’t understand logical reasoning and the consequences of their actions yet, trying to practice gentle or positive parenting comes with its own set of challenges.

When your toddler does something you consider “bad” or “wrong,” remember that for them, the behavior is just another way of figuring out their place in the world. Toddlers don’t understand right and wrong yet. They’re constantly seeking out ways to connect, communicate, and learn.

Yes, it’s your job to set firm limits. But you can do that most effectively through moments of connection — not through punishment, yelling, or power struggles.

Take the example of when a toddler slaps you. It’s certainly shocking, hurtful, and worrying for parents and caregivers. But it’s also a learning opportunity for your little one. A toddler is not going to be able to tell you what caused them to hit, and won’t absorb a lecture about how hitting is wrong either. Calling them or their actions “bad” will only add to their feelings of insecurity and panic. So what can you do?

Here are some steps to take when you find yourself in a situation like this:

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.