Do You Know What It Means to Parent Gently?

diane sitting on steps with three kidsI was struck by a sermon I heard this week in which the pastor talked about how the quality of gentleness has been emphasized repeatedly in the Bible.

Basically, we are admonished to be gentle, even when facing times of frustration, impatience, disappointment, and anger. (If you Google the Bible and put in the keyword “gentleness” you’ll find there are a myriad of verses to support this.)

This got me thinking about the importance of gentleness in parenting and how much the messages I was hearing from the sermon related to how often parents can feel frustrated, impatient, disappointed and angry with their children.

Parents may not have considered how important it can be to embrace gentleness when interacting with children, especially in those times when the natural tendency is to be frustrated or angry.

What is gentleness anyway?

What do you think of when you think of a gentle person? I see someone who is soft-spoken, kind, understanding, appreciative and tender-hearted. This is someone who is not yelling or sending shame-based messages of disappointment.

When someone is gentle with another person, they are accepting and appreciating, even when they disagree or are disappointed. They are choosing to go beyond their disagreement or disappointment to appreciate that there is some underlying reason for challenging or difficult behavior.

I think related to gentleness is patience. I see this as the willingness to trust in the power of time and gentle guidance in order for a child to mature, gain insight, and learn self-control.

Over the years as I have studied parenting, I have been impressed by the number of approaches that I believe promote the growth and development of emotionally and relationally strong and healthy children.

Sometimes there are off-putting extremes that are almost rigid in their absolute tone as if they are the single right approach or philosophy. This comes to mind when I read negative critiques about attachment parenting.

Promoting secure attachment is one of the most important jobs parents have.

Regarding Attachment Parenting, people believe incorrectly it can sometimes lead them to become overindulgent and lose confidence in their responsibilities to be firm.

There are a number of websites that promote what is called Gentle Parenting.

Those who embrace this practice are embracing the principles the pastor described in his sermon: the importance of being kind, compassionate, calm, tender and loving, and to do all of these consistently.

Being gentle means to avoid the opposites of gentleness: being harsh, judgmental, punitive, rough, rigid, close-minded, and authoritarian. Gentle parenting promotes trust; its opposites promote fear, uncertainty, guilt and shame and feelings of abandonment.

toddlers on ipadsStacy Maaser’s website, Embracing Motherhood, offers a description of what she calls Five Secrets to Gentle Parenting that includes the following:

  1. Make time to connect. This includes things like having at least one family meal a day, engaging in focused and attuned conversations whenever possible, making good eye contact and paying attention to what kids say.
  2. Replace commands with positive comments, including providing explanations for those commands. Examples they give include: instead of “Put your toys away,” say “Toys need to be put away so no one trips over them.” Instead of “Brush your teeth now,” say, “Your teeth probably need a cleaning after all that food you ate. What do you think you need to do to get them clean again?”
  3. Allow for natural consequences. (Example…)If you told your children their clothes will be washed only if they are placed in the hamper for dirty clothes and they do not do so, they must look around for something to wear or do their own laundry. If your children refuse to eat the dinner they are served, they can either go hungry or make their own dinner (and clean it up) from whatever you have in the pantry.
  4. Give your children choices. Allow them to select items in the food store to be served at dinner during the week. Invite them to choose which days of the week the foods are served. When getting ready for bed, give children the choice of which job to do first: brush their teeth or put on their pajamas.
  5. Acknowledge feelings and empathize. Let children know you recognize their feelings and can understand them, even when you have to restrict their behaviors. For example, you can tell children you understand how frustrating it is to have to always hold hands while walking across the street but still insisting that they do so. You can state that a child is showing how angry he is when he tries to hit you and still be firm about preventing that by holding his hands at his side or walking away from him.

Many of the approaches and underlying philosophy of Gentle Parenting mirror other parenting approaches that are basically authoritative in nature.

Healthy parenting has a variety of qualities that are universal regardless of the specific label placed on the approach or style of parenting.

By focusing on the quality of gentleness, parents have the opportunity to reflect on their beliefs and behaviors. They can embrace this very important aspect of healthy, nurturing parenting to promote strong and secure relational bonds of safety, trust and connection.

Maaser recommends those interested in learning more about Gentle Parenting check out Attachment Parenting International. I encourage readers to do this in order to further their knowledge and increase their options for parenting children in ways that promote emotional and relational health now and for the future.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. To what extent did you experience gentle parenting when you were a child? If you did, how do you think that impacted your levels of safety, trust and connection to your parents? If you did not experience gentle parenting, how do you think that impacted you then and now?
  2. What can you do to be a gentler parent, even in those moments when you are frustrated, angry or disappointed in something your child has said or done?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Lakeside Global Institute