Why Gentle Parenting Will Make You and the Kids Miserable.

gentle parenting doesn't work.Coming right out and not only telling people that a particular parenting style doesn’t work but also why gentle parenting will make you and the kids miserable needs some explanation, I admit. Let’s start with this.  A 12- to 15-month-old toddler slaps her mom right in the face. A third person captures mom’s startled but patient reaction and the ensuing hug, and then it’s posted on Instagram as an example of “gentle parenting.”  I know this not because I’m much of an Instagram follower—at least not much—but because my daughter forwarded it to me. “This mom is crazy,” she said. “What is she thinking?” I have to say I agree, but then she’s like a ton of parents who just want to do the right thing. They think that allowing a child to hit you in the face and giving them a lovely hug in response is the way to go, which is why sooner or later most of them end up at my door.

Gentle parenting sounds great.

Gentle parenting sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? It appears to be warm and fuzzy, with principles that appear to be more than reasonable. It highlights empathy, respect, non-violence, communication, consistency, flexibility, positive reinforcement, and attachment. I agree, all of these are great goals. The problem is not whether or not these are laudable ways of behaving, but rather how they are implemented. There is the theoretical goal of these responses, and then there is how they actually play out in practice. Ideology, even if it is great, can only take you so far before you “slap” face first into the real world (no pun intended).

Let’s take apart the style and see what can go wrong. 

Gentle parenting is understanding and respecting a child’s feelings and needs, and responding to them in a compassionate and nurturing way.

Why gentle parenting will make you and the kids miserable: It treats all feelings as equally important.

Any decent parent understands that a child’s needs are of paramount importance, but can the same be said about their child’s feelings? In gentle parenting, there is really no differentiation between feelings and needs. They are, for all intents and purposes, the same. But are they? The truth is that there is a huge difference between acknowledging and responding to a child’s feelings about having their finger caught in the door and acknowledging and responding in the same way when they scream and have a total fit, perhaps deciding to throw a couple of items off the counter because they can’t have a cookie.

An appropriate reaction to the first is necessary and desirable. A child must be cared for, loved, and comforted, and if hurt, given extra attention, help, and cuddles. But in the case of a three-year old screaming and throwing a fit because they want a cookie, that needs to be dealt with in a different way. “Gentle” parents would be encouraged to stop what they were doing to respond to and acknowledge their child’s feelings. “I know you’re upset about not having a cookie. We all love eating cookies, but sometimes it’s not a good idea before dinner. Let’s have a cuddle and read a book instead.

Why gentle parenting will make you and the kids miserable: It makes tantrums more, not less, likely.

On the surface, the above seems like an appropriate response. You have not given in to the cookie request, and you have removed your child from the situation and done something calm to help them cope with their feelings. You think you have done the right thing to deter future temper tantrums, but have you? The answer to that is no; you’ve actually made it more, not less, likely that your child will throw temper tantrums in the future. What?  I hear you say.  Why? Well, let’s find out.

The first hint is “stopping what you’re doing.” When you stop what you’re doing to respond to a temper tantrum, you are inadvertently sending a message. That message is, “There is nothing more important in my day than stopping to attend to you whenever you think you need something.” Now perhaps you’re thinking, “Okay, but that’s good, isn’t it? My child’s feelings are important.” But as I explained earlier, not all feelings are equally important, nor do all acute feelings warrant a parent’s intervention. This is an “I can’t get what I want when I want it” screaming fit, and though there’s no doubt that’s a tough feeling to have and an even harder feeling to come to terms with, irrespectively, it is important for the child to learn how to cope with that feeling themselves. Distracting them from the feeling doesn’t help them learn that.

But more importantly, if you stop what you’re doing, it sends the message to your child that what you were doing prior to their outburst is not as important as the feeling they are having in the moment and that nothing should stand between them and the fulfillment of their immediate desire. Now what if you’re attending to one of your other children? Or you are doing the family laundry or paying bills. Ask yourself: Are those things really less important than your child’s immediate wants? After all, how happy would they be if they had no clean clothes to wear, if their sibling was hurt because your attention was diverted elsewhere, or if you were evicted from your home for failing to pay your bills?

Why gentle Parenting will make you and the kids miserable:  It talk about respect but…

I love respect, really I do. I think all humans, in fact, all life, deserve respect. Respect for nature and for each other is fundamental, but what does respect mean in this gentle parenting context? Apparently, it means respecting a child’s feelings and needs and responding to them in a compassionate way.

Beyond the separation between feelings and true needs that I’ve already mentioned, there are two problems with this. One is that humans aren’t always compassionate. Sometimes they get tired, grumpy, or sick. Expecting perfection from a human being is likely to breed a huge sense of guilt because most people will not be able to always respond in a compassionate manner to every little daily hickup with a three-year-old. Then they feel bad because they didn’t measure up, and that leads them to overcompensate when faced with a behaviour dilemma the next time. The “slapping” video is a prime example. Look at the virtue signalling inherent in that clip. “I’m a gentle parent who can only act compassionately, so it’s perfectly fine for my child to slap me in the face and I won’t respond because I’m compassionate and gentle parenting is HARD.”

Why gentle parenting will make you and the kids miserable: Respect should be a two way street.

Then we come to the fact that their behaviour when they throw a tantrum is not respectful to you, and surely the goal of “respect” is that they learn it’s a two-way street. Your child must learn to show you respect as an adult, which does not include throwing a hissy fit if they don’t get what they want. If you pay attention to that negative behaviour, all it means is that you will get more of it.  With regard to our gentle parenting video example, there is a way of responding appropriately after your child hits you, but it does not include doing anything fun like reading a book together.

Gentle parenting advocates for using non-violent and non-punitive methods of discipline, such as redirection, natural consequences, and positive reinforcement, rather than physical or emotional punishment.

Gentle parenting uses loaded words.

Ok, let’s pick this one apart. Well, I can agree on the non-violent part. I don’t think violence solves anything. Redirection, as we’ve already discussed, has natural consequences, which I adore; who wouldn’t see the utility in that? If you use your bike and you leave it out in the rain, you don’t get to ride it the next day—no argument there. So we’re left with the biggie: positive reinforcement rather than physical or emotional punishment.

Positivity is important.

The first thing to note with this is that I advocate for lots of positive reinforcement. Kids love positivity and need to be noticed when they get things right, but notice the language here. Positive reinforcement should be used rather than “physical” or “emotional punishment.” Agreed, but those are loaded terms, and somehow physical punishment sounds far more reminiscent of an 18th-century flogging than what is likely to be a swat on the butt, though as I’ve already said, in my view there are better ways to discipline a child.

The term “emotional punishment” all comes down to what emotional punishment is defined as. If you say to your kids, “I wish I’d never had you and I hate you,” that would be emotional punishment, and they’re right—that’s something you should absolutely never do, and frankly, I haven’t met any parents that would do that in all my years of practice. What they likely mean by “emotional punishment” to me is simply giving time for the child to “reflect” on their transgression, or what we might call “time out.”

According to this account, “time out” is emotional punishment (emotional harm) that could permanently scar your child. But is this true, or is it just something used to keep wavering parents in line? And, in the case of our three-year-old, is redirection or “time out” the more effective approach likely to keep you from calling me in a few years?

Why gentle parenting will make you and the kids miserable: Redirection has to be appropriate.

Redirection can be helpful before a behaviour pops up. Most parents can see a possible problem coming from a mile away and know if their child is just totally overtired or otherwise in a terrible mood. Using redirection in these circumstances when putting your little one to bed just smooths over the ripples and allows everyone some space. But let’s say that the cookie explosion is in the middle of the day, they’re not tired, and they are determined to make their feelings known. Well, then you have to respond. And the way you respond will either lead to more problems down the road and a trip to my door, or it won’t.

If you redirect in these circumstances, you are effectively running away from a confrontation. You don’t want to deal with the cookie tantrum and the thrown items; you want to direct your child to something else instead. As a parent, you have denied your child a cookie, so all is well and good, right? No, not if you then read a book together. The first instinct to deny the cookie was good, but if you redirect in this circumstance, you are effectively giving a fun reward to your child for having thrown a fit. You have taught them that though they didn’t get the cookie, they got something far more valuable: you and your attention. You stopped whatever it was you were doing to respond to their desires, and though they got a different positive effect from the one they originally anticipated, they still got one.

Time out is simply a way of denying attention to a behaviour, yet according to this approach, it is considered “emotional punishment.” It gives an opportunity for reflection without the distraction and attention inherent in reading a story together. That reflection is not inherently punitive. It does not damage the child, but it does thwart that response in the future, and it teaches that throwing things when in a fit is not okay (you could probably just ignore the tantrum completely if it included just whining and no destructive behaviour).

Why gentle parenting will make you and the kids miserable:  Who is the captain on the ship?

Gentle parenting prioritizes open and honest communication between parents and children, allowing for dialogue and problem-solving together.

Ok, you ask, “What’s wrong with this?” Yes, I like communication, but when you include problem-solving together, that makes me a little worried. As a parent, you should be problem-solving with your child only in very limited circumstances. Why?  Because your children simply do not have the depth of knowledge to solve problems with you. You can teach them about what they should do in certain dilemmas and practice the skill, but should they help you decide to move house, visit a friend, or wonder what to make for dinner? Should they determine when they will take a bath?

This unworkable idea is often presented as being open to dialogue, which seems much more to me like they want one thing and you want another, and that you should negotiate, but let me explain why that’s simply not a good idea. Your child is like a passenger on a ship. You are the captain, and you chart the course, direct the sailors, and keep things running in the right direction. Do you, as captain, ask your passengers for directions? Or what should you do when you get close to a body of water that makes you concerned? What if your passengers suddenly wanted to go in a different direction than the one in which you are travelling?

Any “dialogue” between your passengers and you would be peripheral over things that really didn’t matter one way or the other. Anything that stood in the way of your voyage could not be allowed to stand because it interfered with the safe running of the ship.

It’s the same in your family. Allow dialogue over peripheral matters like the blue cup or the red cup at the dinner table, for sure; that teaches the concept of choice, but don’t allow your children to run your family ship. You must make the decisions, not them, because you have the necessary depth of experience to do so. Allow that to reverse and have your children run your family ship, and you’ll run straight into chaos, which I’d much rather you avoid.

Tune in to part two of why gentle parenting will make you and the kids miserable – next time.

There’s more on this topic—a second part—which I’ll get to next time, but for now remember that gentle parenting is a parenting ideology like any other. It blinkers you and streamlines you into a particular way of behaving that may blind you to its negatives until it is too late to change. Though definitively sexist and exclusionary in today’s world, Aristotle said, “Give me a child until he’s seven, and I’ll give you the man.” Let me tell you, it applies to all children. Every day you go past that age for any child, changing their behaviour becomes more and more difficult.

Don’t forget to see the follow-up to this article that dissects more aspects of the gentle parenting style.

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Have you been practicing gentle parenting and now wish you hadn’t. Click here to see how to get parenting help.

Here’s an article on why being a victim makes nobody happy and why teaching kids to transcend issues leads to much greater happiness in adulthood.

Would you like to read more about what’s really behind all this proliferation of these parenting styles?

Or how about reading Annie the Nanny’s ten tips to being a successful parent.

Do you revolve your whole world around your kids?  Here’s why making your kids your world isn’t such a great idea.

Do you know what to do when your child encounters peer pressure?

Would you like to teach your children to be kind?

Annie the Nanny spent a lot of time over the years talking about common parenting issues.  Here’s a clip of her on CTV talking about how to help your children become resilient and help parents over ride their instinct to over protect.




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