Gentle parenting seems to be the parenting style du jour, and there is a lot to love about it. With a focus on centering the child’s feelings and addressing the underlying emotional causes for their behavior, gentle parenting is the antidote to the authoritarian style of parenting with which many of us were raised.
Rather than correcting behavior with time-outs and groundings, gentle parenting—also referred to as “respectful parenting” and “mindful parenting”—acknowledges the emotional strife that motivated the behavior. It avoids punishment and corrections in favor of emotional assessment and acknowledgment. On the surface, this is an admirable goal and many of the gentle parenting tips and tricks have helped me be a calmer (and maybe even a better) mom.
At first blush, gentle parenting seems like the gold star for parenting. After all, who doesn’t want to parent more gently? Who doesn’t want to be respectful of their child’s feelings?
But there is a dark underbelly to the gentle parenting movement that doesn’t often get discussed: Despite its emphasis on empathy for the child and gentle interactions, gentle parenting isn’t so gentle on moms.
Gentle parenting disregards the mother and sets unrealistic expectations
Parenting groups dedicated to gentle parenting have become a hot bed for mom shaming and judgment. There is fear-mongering and hyperbolic warnings about the ways we’re ruining our kids’ lives or setting them up for failure. And there is little room for nuance and grace. In centering the child, gentle parenting often disregards the mother.
A key tenet of gentle parenting is to follow the child’s lead, whether it’s getting ready for school in the morning or potty training. Instead of telling a child to put their shoes on so we aren’t late for school and work (“hurry up” is a big no-no with gentle parenting), the parent should model getting dressed and ask the child why they don’t want to put on their shoes. Instead of giving stickers or M&Ms as a potty training reward, parents are advised to give their child a choice between underwear and diapers.
On its surface, none of this seems particularly problematic—until you dig a little deeper. Taken to its extremes, gentle parenting ignores the realities of modern motherhood. Take the potty training example, for instance. Sometimes a child needs to be taught to use the toilet so they can attend preschool. As working mothers, we don’t have the time to model toilet training and patiently wait while our child chooses between diapers and underwear. Sometimes, we need to use tricks and parenting hacks (i.e., stickers and M&M rewards) to get the job done. And we don’t need the added pressure of feeling like a failure for doing so.
Children are not tiny adults
Children are not small adults. Sometimes they do things irrationally and illogically. Sometimes they refuse to put on their shoes simply because they don’t want to, and not because of some underlying stress or emotional upheaval. Sometimes their misbehavior—or even just their annoying behavior—doesn’t warrant deeper emotional exploration.
“Across the parenting boards and the group texts, one can detect a certain restlessness,” Jessica Winter writes in the New Yorker. “A fatigue is setting in: about the deference to a child’s every mood, the strict maintenance of emotional affect, the notion that trying to keep to a schedule could be ‘authoritarian.’ Sometimes, the people are saying, a tantrum isn’t worthy of being placed upon a pedestal. Sometimes, they plead, their voices rising past a gentle threshold, you just need to put your freaking shoes on.”
When parenting philosophies turn to mom shaming and judgment
The parenting style also makes me uncomfortable for the same reason than many trendy parenting styles make me uncomfortable: there is a certain smugness among its most staunch proponents. Not surprisingly, there is also an air of judgment and blame on—you guessed it—mothers.
Under the gentle parenting philosophy, parents (and let’s be honest, when we say “parents,” we really mean mothers) are responsible for assessing and responding all of their child’s emotions. Misbehavior is presumed to be the result of the child’s stress or anxiety—something that we must have caused or exacerbated.
“Under the gentle-parenting schema, a child’s every act must be seen through a lens of anxiety and threat-detection—which heightens the parent’s dual role of child psychologist and emotional-security guard,” writes Winter.
Despite its warm-and-fuzzy name, the more I learn about gentle parenting and the messages delivered by its staunchest proponents, the more it starts to feel like a remix of the tired old song that’s been playing since the beginning of time—that mothers are responsible for their child’s every feeling and action, that mothers are to blame for everything, and that mothers should always push aside their needs to tend to their child’s.
Parenting style extremism thrives on our fears that we’re messing up
Gentle parenting evangelists don’t just put the responsibility and blame on mothers, but they also tend to catastrophize our parenting missteps. By focusing in the way a child's behavior impacts us, rather than whatever is going on inside themselves, we are “wiring a child for co-dependency.”
Any parenting style taken to its extreme thrives on creating a doomsday approach to parenting. It seems to say, If you don’t get this 100% right 100% of the time, you are ruining your child. You are a failure. You are a bad mom.
No matter what we do, it feels like we're getting it wrong. If I let my child know that she hurt my feelings when she yelled “I hate you” in the grocery store, am I setting her up people-pleaser who has no boundaries or self-worth? If I tell my child “good job” for getting straight-A’s, am I raising them to dependent on extrinsic motivation and likely guaranteeing an addiction to prescription pain meds? Where does it end?
Gentle parenting's emphasis on empathy for the child lacks empathy for others
Of course, as adults, parents should exercise emotional control. I do not believe we should blame our children for our problems and feelings, nor do I believe that we should revert to the “because I said so” authoritarian parenting approach with which many of us were raised. But that doesn’t mean we should pretend that we are emotional robots without feelings or needs of our own, nor should we ignore the fact that our kids' actions impact other people. For instance, when my five-year-old hit his brother, in addition to acknowledging his feelings of anger, I also wanted him to understand that his actions caused pain. When my teen calls his brother a mean name, I might say, "I understand you're frustrated, but you hurt your brother when you said that." When my tween gets in trouble for talking in class, I might acknowledge his restlessness while also acknowledging the way his actions made it harder for others to learn and resulted in an uncomfortable phone call with his teacher. I want them to know that their actions have an impact on other people. Isn’t this what empathy is about, after all?
Related: Parenting Tips & Tricks
Gentle parenting focuses on emotional awareness and understanding, namely understanding and acknowledging the emotions of the child. Emotional awareness isn’t just understanding our own feelings and motivations, but also being aware of the way our actions can impact others. How can we expect children to learn this if we don’t help them do so?
There is no one “right” way to parent
I am all for expert advice and gathering information that will help me be a better parent. But where does it end? I can’t help but wonder if all this parenting advice and the emphasis on trendy parenting styles are preventing us from believing ourselves to be the good mothers that we actually are.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t validity to the gentle parenting approach or other parenting styles, for that matter. On the contrary. I will continue to use a loose interpretation of some gentle parenting maxims to guide me, along a little “lazy parenting” and what I like to call “good enough parenting.” But the extremism of the gentle parenting philosophy is a good reminder that there is no one right way to parent.
I’m all for self-improvement, but lately it feels like we’ve gone astray. In our quest to be better and more informed mothers, we’ve stopped acknowledging that we’re human. We’ve stopped cutting each other and ourselves some slack. We’ve stopped taking a big picture approach (e.g., Does my child feel loved and supported?) in favor of a microscopic view of all aspects of our daily lives (e.g., Did I fail my child by saying “hurry up”? Will my child have an anxiety disorder because I forgot to tell my child why they did a good job with their drawing?).
In the New Yorker piece, Winter adds a bit of levity to the discussion, reminding us that children have been blaming their parents for generations. “If members of Gen X can blame their high rates of depression and anxiety on latchkey parenting, and if millennials can blame their high rates of depression and anxiety on helicopter parenting, then perhaps a new generation can anticipate blaming their high rates of depression and anxiety on the overvalidation and undercorrection native to gentle parenting.”
Maybe it’s time to take a step back, stop trying to find that one perfect parenting style, and instead listen to our guts. In our quest for knowledge, we’ve put “experts” on a pedestal and stopped listening to that little voice in the back of our own head. No wonder we’re all so burned out.
Related: Your burnout is not your fault
There is no bright-line rule, no one "best” way to parent. And no matter what we do, perfection is impossible. Whatever parenting philosophy makes the most sense for me and my family, as hard as I try, I’m going to mess up sometimes. I’m going to make mistakes. And that’s OK.
So instead of trying to follow gentle parenting rules, I’ll keep striving to parent gently. And that includes being gentle with myself too. Some flexibility and a whole lot of grace is essential to raising kind, resilient and independent kids. It’s pretty key to raising happy parents too.