What is gentle parenting and how can you raise your kids this way?
If being smacked and shouted at was how you were raised, you may feel there must be a better way to bring up your own children.
But if the other extreme – ‘permissive parenting’, where there’s very few boundaries and little or no discipline – is a step too far, could ‘gentle parenting’ be a good middle-ground?
Gentle parenting focuses on four key elements: respect, empathy, boundaries and understanding. And while it’s all the rage on social media at the moment, this school of thought has been around under different names for a long time.
As consultant clinical psychologist Emma Citron (citronpsychology.co.uk) explains: “Gentle parenting has likely become another fad, but it’s merely a different name for old rope.
“Any type of parenting should be encouraged to be gentle parenting – in psychology, we call it positive parenting. It’s based on the idea that we notice the positive things children do and make a fuss of them, but ignore the silly things, because the model is encouraging good behaviours rather than poor.”
She says there’s no need for punishments or negativity if you have a good relationship with your child, based on listening and gentle communication. So, for example, instead of saying, ‘Get your feet off the couch’, it’s more helpful to say, ‘I’d prefer you not to put your feet on the couch because the mud gets on and I have to wash the covers’.
“You can have consequences,” explains Citron, “but there’s no need to raise voices or be negative or punitive – all that does is erode the relationship and the trust and communication between you.”
Mum-of-one Kelly Medina Enos “stumbled across” gentle parenting when her son George, now three, was 18-months-old, and she posted a video on TikTok about him hitting her and asking for advice on what to do.
“At the time, I was just defaulting on how my parents brought me up, which was authoritarian-style, with a stern voice and saying, ‘No, you do not hit me!’ Somebody mentioned gentle parenting and I started looking at various books,” she says.
The York mum has since embraced it so wholeheartedly that she now posts videos of her gentle parenting journey to 389,000 followers on TikTok.
“Research says children brought up with gentle parenting have more regulated emotions, and there’s less chance of them having depression,” says Enos. “They’re more emotionally intelligent and able to communicate those feelings to people. But I don’t read too much into the stats, I just know it works for me and my family.”
Here, Enos shares her take on gentle parenting…
Use positive language
Positive language is powerful, says Enos: “Just change a few things you say to them. Instead of ‘No, get down from there’, it’s ‘Feet on the floor please’. Instead of ‘Stop running’, it’s ‘Walking feet, please’. There’s not a ‘one sentence wonder’ for every child, you have to find out what works for both of you.
“If you say, ‘No! Don’t you dare draw on that wall!’, children don’t tend to hear the words ‘no’ and ‘don’t’, they just hear the part after and think, ‘Oh, I get to draw on the wall’,” adds Enos. “So say something like, ‘Pens are for paper’. You have to change the way you speak to them.”
If they ignore you…
Enos admits this will still happen and gentle parenting is not “a magic wand that works overnight” says Enos. Explaining that her son loved climbing on the table: “I’d say, ‘Feet on the floor please’. If that was ignored, then I’d say, ‘Do you feel safe up there?’ If they say they do feel safe, ask them how they’re going to get down. And as a last resort you might say, ‘Either you can get yourself down, or mummy can help you’.”
Dealing with hitting
Instead of telling a child to stop hitting and punishing them, Enos explains that a gentle parent might say: “I won’t let you hit me. If you continue to hit me, I’m going to move away to keep myself safe.”
If the child gets upset when the parent moves away, you could say: “I understand you’re upset, but I will not let you hit me.”
Enos says parents need to “be the calm in your child’s storm” when tantrums occur. “When George was having a tantrum, I just sat down on the floor and gave him enough space and allowed him to feel his feelings,” she says. “When there was a break in the crying, I’d offer a hug, and if he said no, I’d say I was there when he needed me.
“I’d remain calmly sitting, model deep breaths, and if he got a bit more verbal, I’d discuss how deep breaths could help him when he’s really frustrated. Expecting them to regulate their emotions on their own at this age is impossible.”
Give them options
If you find yourself in a power struggle with your child, give them options, suggests Enos. For example: It’s bath time soon – do you want me to set the alarm for five minutes or 10 minutes? Or: How much more playing do you want to do, two minutes or five minutes?
“They’ll feel really in control of their routine,” says Enos. “And you’re still respecting them, but you’re getting them to do what you’d like them to do.”
Introduce them to Happy The Hoglet
New ITV children’s series, Happy The Hoglet – about a baby hedgehog who learns how to build inner strength by tackling his big feelings – could be a helpful way to get young children more familiar with this approach. Enos says: “We’ve started watching [and] that’s been absolutely amazing – you can see the animals having emotions and everybody coming together, helping them resolve that emotion.”
Teach them breathing exercises
Enos says her son uses a ‘breathe board’, which has an infinity loop-shaped groove in it that the child runs their finger along one side as they inhale, and down the other side as they exhale. “And you can do a clever thing where you put five fingers in front of them and pretend they’re candles and ask if they want to blow them out,” she says. “They blow all your fingers down, and that really helps to regulate their emotions – not smack-bang in the middle of a tantrum, I’ll admit.”
Create a ‘calm down corner’
Enos suggests putting cushions, books, a breathe board, non-stimulating ‘fidget’ toys etc in one space – she’s used a cupboard under the stairs where the door was kept open, offering it to her son when he was getting frustrated. “A lot of people think it’s in place of the naughty step, but the difference is that a child goes to the naughty step to think about what they’ve done, whereas the calm-down corner is for when your child’s emotions start to rise,” she explains. “It’s not a place of discipline.”
Don’t expect to be a ‘perfect’ gentle parent
“I’m not going to say I never shout at George,” admits Enos. “I have moments where I do shout, and I think I need to stop doing that. It’s not easy and it takes a lot of practice. But don’t think if you shout at them that you’re the worst parent in the world and that you’re not even doing gentle parenting, because you are.
“I’ve found that deep breaths and taking a moment away from George is a good idea, when I feel that what’s going to come out of my mouth isn’t the parenting that I want it to be.
“Gentle parenting – especially if you’ve been brought up in a very different way – is even more tricky,” she adds. “But if parents are even changing just one or two things that their parents did when they were growing up – for instance, if they were smacked and they chose not to smack their own child – they’re still breaking the cycle.”
Happy The Hoglet airs in the UK every weekday at 10.40am on ITV’s littleBe and in the Republic of Ireland on RTÉjr.
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