Why Gentle Parenting Often Results in a Train Wreck
So this article on why gentle parenting often results in a train wreck is the second part of my article, “Why gentle parenting will make you and the kids miserable.” (Google requires different titles). If you haven’t read Part 1 yet, please do, as today we’re going to further dissect why gentle parenting will make you and your kids miserable.
Why gentle parenting often results in a train wreck: Reality versus theory.
Gentle parenting promotes clear boundaries: Gentle parenting emphasizes the importance of clear boundaries and expectations that are communicated respectfully and consistently. These boundaries are meant to create a safe and secure environment for the child to explore and learn.
Boundaries are great, so it’s no surprise that I love them. So what do they mean by boundaries when it comes to gentle parenting? Well, boundaries are just expectations about what is and is not ok, and the ability to follow through on enforcing them. So how does gentle parenting work at doing that? Well, if you look at the example of the Instagram mom getting slapped in the face, then I would have to say that it’s not that great because, when looking at the video, the first question I would have is, “Where is the boundary? If there is one, I certainly can’t see it.
Perhaps this wasn’t as good an example of gentle parenting as that mom originally anticipated, so let’s look more broadly. As I don’t suggest practicing this parenting style, the very least I can do to give it a fair shot is to look up the appropriate response for what to do when your child hits you (gentle parenting style).
1. Set a boundary, and hold firm. Use minimal words and keep a neutral tone/facial expression: “I will not let you hit me.” Then move away.
2. Don’t ignore your child, but don’t attend to the hitting. The moment your child engages in any other means of getting your attention, or being playful, or showing you what they need, respond to that! This will let them know that you are there and attentive, but that hitting does not result in the response they are looking for.
Not bad generally on boundaries, but as you can see from the video, the practicality varies from the theory. I would also take issue in two areas. 1. One is the supposed need to keep a neutral tone or facial expression. You want to avoid looking startled, for sure, but you also shouldn’t look as though it’s ok. Think of it this way: If I were to come over to your house and you opened the door and I slapped you in the face, your reaction wouldn’t be neutral. You would naturally be mad. How mad you are might be a matter for debate, but you certainly wouldn’t look neutral. At the very least, you’d look cross or disapproving. Asking parents to look neutral when they have just been slapped and maybe even hurt is not realistic. It also gives the child the idea that people don’t react if you slap them in the face, which is really an erroneous conclusion to come to. It would likely lead to a child trying it on one of their peers just to see if they got a better reaction the next time.
2. Ok, “Don’t ignore the child.” Why can’t you ignore the child? Oh, right, that would be tantamount to child abuse because ‘ignoring’ is harmful. However, if I was visiting with you and I hit you over the head because I wanted the last cookie on the plate, would you want to continue to engage with me once I stopped hitting you? Would you give me a hug? Resume our tea? I think I answered that question.
Now I know when I say this, there will be parents who say, “But you’re not being fair! These are kids we’re talking about. You behave differently with adults than you do with kids!” This works on the premise that children will magically learn and move from A (behaving like baboons) to B (behaving with polite adult rationality) seamlessly. This is a common argument that I have run into, and it’s very interesting. It’s also a complete misnomer because if you don’t face these issues head-on when your kids are small, they’ll behave in exactly the same way when they’re older—they’ll just have a more powerful slap.
All of this is to say that children don’t magically do anything. You have to teach them. Sidestepping bad behaviour by offering no consequence means that they don’t learn the negatives of what happens when you hit someone. It’s best to teach it early.
Why gentle parenting often results in a train wreck: Parenting shouldn’t be that complex.
Gentle parenting prioritizes emotional regulation. Gentle parenting recognizes the importance of emotional regulation for both parent and child. The parent models emotional regulation techniques and helps the child learn to identify and manage their emotions in healthy ways.
If I were a parent looking up the myriad suggestions about how to accomplish this, I’d feel like I’d need a master’s degree in psychology before I was worthy to be in the same room as my child. They suggest a whole list of recommendations as to how the parent can help regulate their own emotions and then those of the kids. Let’s go through some of them.
Why gentle parenting often results in a train wreck: Get your emotions under control.
Manage your own emotions in a healthy way because, among other things, they are watching you, and this is how they learn.
Sure, why not? Sensible plan. I don’t have an issue with this other than to say that nobody’s perfect, but staying calm is key. Do your best.
Why gentle parenting often results in a train wreck: Feelings are thoughts.
2. Talk about feelings and help your child recognize their emotions.
I don’t have an issue with this either, except to say that choosing when to talk about feelings is important. You’ve probably heard of the ancient poem that starts with “To everything there is a season” and continues with “A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance,” and on it goes. Point being, there are some times when it’s not appropriate for me to share my feelings, and the same goes for your child.
3. Validate their feelings… Children who are not “allowed” to express how they feel will learn that it’s not safe to express emotions. They’ll learn to push those feelings down inside of themselves. They’ll still feel the feelings, of course, because we can’t stop ourselves from feeling. Instead, they will keep shoving those feelings deeper and deeper down until they can’t fit any more emotions in there. And then they’ll explode. All those feelings they haven’t been allowed to express will bubble up to the surface, and they’ll lash out.
Ok, this is where I really think gentle parenting aficionados lose the plot. Feelings are really just the body’s manifestation of what we’re thinking. In other words, feelings are thoughts. The average human brain processes some 70,000 thoughts a day, and the large majority of those thoughts are unconscious, so we’re aware of only a fraction of them. These thoughts are usually fairly transitory, but it’s easy for us to get stuck on one, and that’s when they start to manifest in our body and make us uncomfortable, happy, sad, or whatever. Have you ever noticed that if you concentrate on a thought, it tends to get bigger? Let’s say you’re anxious about something. Say you have to give a speech. You’re worried about the speech; you fret for days before. Your throat becomes dry every time you think about it, and you feel sick. Your thoughts are manifesting in your body as feelings.
Concentrating on various uncomfortable thoughts will make them worse. I’ve no doubt some psychologists would give me a hard time on this because what I’m saying here goes against the whole way our society deals with psychological traumas, which is to heal yourself by focusing on your traumas, a strategy I think is ill advised. Teaching your child to ‘evaluate’ every feeling is simply going to mean that they dwell on every feeling, and not every feeling is even worthy of being dwelled upon, especially if it makes them feel even worse to keep thinking about it. It’s much better to learn how to let those feelings go in the first place, and that requires realizing that hanging on to them doesn’t get them anywhere or accomplish anything remotely positive.
What gentle parenting often results in a train wreck: Not all feelings should be given legitimacy.
Also, encouraging children to express their feelings every time they feel like it gives all feelings the same validity. Every feeling carries the same amount of weight. Of course, feelings are important, but they are not the be all and end all. Feeling angry because Mom won’t allow her phone conversation to be interrupted by you is not the same as feeling hurt and confused because the dog just bit you. There’s also a time and a place to express emotions, which brings us to the next point.
Why gentle parenting often results in a train wreck: Not all feelings are equal.
Many parents worry that they are “rewarding” bad behaviour by sitting with their child or hugging them when they need to calm down. I assure you, you are not.
Sorry, yes, you are. Ok, let’s first remember that not all feelings are of equal weight. While it’s completely right to hold your child if they’re hurt to help them calm down, it’s not a good idea to hold them to help them cope with the overwhelming need to want their playmate’s toy. One is a feeling worth paying attention to; the other is not. If you give lots of attention to the latter, the child will attach weight to that ‘frustrated feeling” rather than letting that thought that they can’t have the toy they want when they want it naturally pass. That feeling of frustration then brings with it physical agitation and upset to the child’s body, and your child cries or screams in response. You then come running to the rescue. Maybe you think that by running over and helping them cope with that feeling of frustration, they’ll handle it better the next time, but what really happens is that you have intervened and prevented that feeling from passing by getting your child attached to the very “thought” of being frustrated.
And when your child becomes frustrated and you sit with them, you become the ‘soother,’ the mechanism by which the child calms down. They don’t learn to deal with the feeling themselves because you are there to make it better. You are essentially a distraction from dealing with the feeling; you delay learning to deal with it rather than facilitate it. Such approaches don’t encourage independence, but rather the opposite. Learning to deal with an uncomfortable feeling on your own is key. You can say the same thing about any uncomfortable feeling, whether that’s frustration, anger, boredom, or any other. If we talk about boredom for a moment, it provides a good example. Dr. Belton, a senior researcher at the University of East Anglia’s School of Education and Lifelong Learning who is an expert in the impact of emotions on behaviour and learning, said, and I quote, “Boredom is an uncomfortable feeling. Nature abhors a vacuum, and some young people who do not have the interior resources or the responses to deal with that boredom creatively then end up smashing up bus shelters or taking cars out for a joyride.” In other words, if they don’t learn to deal with the uncomfortable feeling by themselves when they’re young, it comes out later, and not always in nice, constructive ways.
Discussing feelings after the fact (i.e., when the thought has passed) is far more helpful, and that’s best accomplished when doing things together to give it the lighthearted approach needed. It’s wonderful to have a chat with your child as perhaps you lay the table together or fold the laundry. Talking through problems with your child while you attend to other tasks is a good way to take the seriousness out of it and place it in context with all the other myriad happenings of the day.
Why gentle parenting often results in a train wreck: So about flexibility?
Flexibility: Gentle parenting acknowledges that every child and situation is unique and requires flexibility. The parent is open to adapting their approach based on the needs of the child and the situation. You’ll notice that the three Cs (connection, communication, and consistency) run through these practices.
This really boils down to the idea that different children require different responses to meet their needs in differing environments and situations, i.e., understanding the child’s point of view and level of cognitive ability in how you react to them. That’s the flexibility. Let’s take a look at this, but let me start by saying that I’m not talking about peripherals here. What colour and shape plate they get for dinner or whether or not you give your baby a soother one time but not another or whether they have three baths a week but not seven. None of that is important. This is not what is meant by this kind of flexibility.
Now a certain degree of flexibility is okay, and everyone can see its utility. There are going to be times you put your little one to bed early simply because they’ve just about fallen asleep in their soup and they’re obviously exhausted, but this is a situation where you, the adult, make a decision based on your knowledge of the situation and the needs of your child. But after reading a number of gentle parenting websites, I came up with these pieces of advice when it comes to flexibility.
1. Most often, this means adjusting their expectations of how they think children should behave to reflect a more realistic standard. For example, while it may be frustrating that a toddler doesn’t sleep through the night, gentle parents understand that they are not acting naughty. By comforting the child instead of punishing the child, the parent models empathy, which is a positive trait they want to enforce.
2.Flexibility sends the message that the family functions as a team, and not as a dictatorship. You can help show your children that their voice matters, by letting them make choices regarding minor decisions.
3. Gentle parents provide behavioral and emotional guidance while also fostering autonomy and independence. For example, they communicate the rationale for boundaries or rules at a level the child can understand, and they allow room for a reasonable amount of discussion, negotiation, and compromise.
Ok, let’s look at #1. You have a toddler that doesn’t sleep through the night. A gentle parent would see their toddler’s needs as demanding flexibility. Let’s say this little person wakes up multiple times in the night wanting you (not unreasonable for any child). This piece of advice is short on details, so I’m going to presume that showing empathy means that you lay down with them, comfort them to help them get back to sleep, or allow them to sleep and cuddle up with you. There are now two issues I have with this. Firstly, most children would want to cuddle up with mom or dad if given the choice, but these are a toddler’s wants, not needs. Everyone needs preferably a good, long uninterrupted sleep, so waking up multiple times is not actually in the child’s best interest. This is a moment where wants versus needs become confused with parental ‘flexibility’ because they are responses to a situation that the parent themselves created.
What do I mean by that? Well, a child will continue to wake up in the night if there is something to wake up for. They want you. If they wake up because of a horrible nightmare or a wet bed, that is one thing, and of course, you’d offer comfort and a change of clothes and/or bedding, but if they wake up night after night, it’s because you have trained them to do that. If you give them your attention in the middle of the night, even if you couch it in terms of empathy, you have responded to their wants and not their needs. And I love how they link a lack of empathy over dealing with a child in the middle of the night subliminally with ‘punishment.’ This is not a zero-sum game. Deciding to not display empathy during nighttime wakings is not synonymous with applying punishment.
All of this brings me to my last point. Your flexibility, empathic or not, puts your child in the position of determining what happens to your night. Again, if they’re sick, that’s to be expected, but if they just ‘want’ you, is that really a good reason for you not to get any sleep? Are your needs less important than their wants? Do you want to give them that impression?
Let’s now take point #2. It’s the dictatorship question. I like to draw attention to part one of this article where I talked about the importance of being the captain on the ship. A captain shows leadership. They might have a team, but a team is still hierarchical. Somebody is still in charge if the “team” is to work, so that would be you, their parent. Far too often, parents treat their children as though they have the capacity to make adult decisions. They don’t. They have no depth of experience, and being forced to make decisions puts the onus for their wellbeing on their own shoulders, which is terrifying for kids. Ask a two-year old whether they want to go to the park, and you’ll more likely have a meltdown than anything else. They’ll be confused and start wondering whether they liked the park last time; will it be fun this time? They’ll dither, overwhelmed by the stress of having to make a decision. They’re two! Say, “We are going to the park.” Look excited and confident in your decision and the crisis will be averted because the leadership is clear. Take my advice and keep toddlers’ choices limited. Give them choices that don’t matter and where they can change their mind 100 times if they want with no ill effects. You’ll be happy you did.
Point #3, in my view, tells parents to treat their kids as mini adults. They’re not. Negotiation? Compromise? It all sounds lovely, but it isn’t practical. You know when it is best for them to take a bath because you know what you have to fit in first. I read one attachment parenting book/bible a few years back that suggested giving children a choice as to which bicycle helmet to put on before going on a bike ride, but these are manufactured choices, and going to the length of buying multiple bike helmets just to keep your three-year-old happy seems ridiculous.
Why gentle parenting often results in a train wreck: So what are children’s real needs?
Children need direction. They require parenting that is centred on love, cuddles, and strong leadership. Children are not complex, so when you apply complex solutions to parenting issues, you’ll always be looking for a magic bullet, which sadly does not exist. Gentle parenting is just one more complex ideology among many, all trying to create a niche out of something that, if you keep it simple, means you never even have to worry in the first place.
Do you wonder how income affects what you may worry about as a parent?
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Here’s a clip of Annie the Nanny talking about the power of choice on CTV Calgary.