When typing in the hashtags #gentleparenting or #attachmentparenting in the search engine of Instagram, they yield over 800.000 and 600.000 hits, respectively. When you are on social media, it is almost impossible to not stumble upon post after post of "free-range" children, Montessori playrooms and ways to gentle-parent your child. It almost seems like a barrage of hacks, tricks and methods to use for your child. Gentle parenting, at this point, is the prevalent parenting strategy, particularly among higher educated people. The parenting book shelves are lined with gentle approaches to your tot's tantrums and sleep solutions. The internet is flooded with self-righteous parents who share their opinion on, well, pretty much everything (and one of their blog posts you're reading right now). Gentle parenting is the trend, but what does it actually mean, and are there any pitfalls to the approach?
A little history
Ever since the end of the Second World War and Dr. Spock's revolutionary parenting book Baby and Child Care, parenting techniques have strayed from the harsh, disciplinary and authoritarian systems popularised before, and leaned towards more needs-based approaches. Gentle parenting does not have a clear definition, but being part of the attachment parenting approach, it usually includes a no physical punishment policy, meeting your child's emotional needs with patience and kindness, as well as creating a "yes" environment in which the child can explore their surroundings safely. The term "attachment parenting" was widely popularised by William Sears in his books from the 1980's, in which he stresses the importance of the mother in the formative years and the physical and emotional closeness to the caregivers.
Attachment parenting, or gentle parenting are an important step into a new era of parenting, an era that will hopefully bring forward resilient, kind people with a strong sense of individuality. It will, furthermore, hopefully laud a new era of how we perceive child-rearing, and, by extension, nursery schools, schools and even systems in the adult world.
Defining "gentle parenting" (or not)
By now, you may be wondering about the title of this post. Those who know me can safely assume that I am mostly supporting the "gentle parenting" hypotheses and consider myself one of the gentle parents in this world. I strongly believe that only if we treat children and babies like fully-fledged citizens of this world, can we take the next step in our socialisation and human development - however, I cannot deny that there are also some significant problems with the trend that is "gentle parenting."
First and foremost, there is no clear definition of what "gentle parenting" constitutes; which is inasmuch understandable, as there cannot be one “formula” of parenting (as much as we probably wish there’d be one). Whether gentle or not, parenting is still strongly shaped by our cultural and socioeconomic background – as well as our own personal triggers and childhood experiences.
In addition, many of the information provided in regard to “gentle parenting” is ripe with lacklustre anecdotes and platitudes, without ever really telling you what to DO when your child refuses to leave the playground and you've already asked nicely ten times. The suggestions provided mostly lack any real-life applicability, as they usually presume you have only one child at hand and the patience of the Dalai Lama.
Let me illustrate this last point with an example: Your tot has a tantrum. They don't want to wear their warm shoes because their flip flops are so much more fun to look at, but it's cold outside. Now, what you would read in many gentle parenting books would be something along those lines: Kneel down to your child, speak in a calm voice. "I know, you really wanted to wear those flip flops now, I can see that you're angry. You know, sometimes Mummy also gets angry. It's OK to be angry, I get it, I would also love to wear my new shoes, but, sadly, it's still really cold outside, but we can wear the funny hat with the cat ears, wouldn't that be fun?" and so on and so forth...
Now, while that is all sweet and everything, this approach comes with a few inherent problems. First, it's a barrage of words that your aggravated tot might not be able to register at this point. I've seen countless parents bombard their tots with logical, reasonable and gentle statements, that were just wasted breath because their children were far too angry to listen to anything they said. Secondly, speaking in a permanently gentle register might give your child the feeling they're not being taken seriously in their emotion. Imagine you having a rant and your friend just calmly saying, "I see that you're angry, that must feel horrible". You'd feel like they're making fun of you. Thirdly, and probably most importantly, what if there are some other components to the situation that make it very hard to kneel down and gently hold your useless soliloquy?
Imagine the same situation, but it's actually your tot's fifteenth tantrum already. It's Friday, you're nursing a headache; while your toddler is screaming, your baby is wailing in the car seat and you know you only have mere minutes before they will start screaming, too, if you don't put them in the car and rock them to sleep by driving off. You have an appointment to keep and are already late because you accommodated your tot's demand to change socks five times until they were happy. You know you still have to run to the store afterwards and you are seriously sleep-deprived because your baby is teething, and your tot is also in some transitional stage that makes them cry a few times a night.
Honestly, I don't think even Ghandi would retain patience in such a situation. And yet something like this happens to mothers every day, sometimes more than once a day. And with every situation, our patience is ground down, diminished, reduced. We tell ourselves to pull it together, but we clench our hands, grind our teeth, pulse quickening, blood pressure rising. And when we ultimately freak out, we feel guilty because we didn't manage to "gentle parent". Because we showed emotions. Because we weren't some fucking happy Disney princess who is constantly chirpy, sings and dances and carries all the burdens of life with a smile.
Is that now some "rough them up for the world" bullshit? No. It's simply a fact. Parents in our "civilised" society labour under ridiculous circumstances. We don't have the "village" anymore, and now not even the luxury of the full-time, stay-at-home caretaker. We have to do everything ourselves - and are expected to do so, or we're losers. We are with our children 24/7, and, oftentimes, we are very lonely during this time. And the worst thing is that being a gentle Disney princess all day long doesn't even guarantee that your child won't display problematic behaviour later on.
I know plenty of hardcore gentle parenting subscribing parents, and let me tell you this. More often than not, the children of these uber gentle parenting parents are pretty spoilt. They are unkind, disrespectful and, frankly, very annoying. When we are at the playground, the children who are the worst are mostly from very lowly educated people, and "gentle parents". Both the Kevins and the Leonidases of the world can tyrannise your child equally.
And before you may think this is an appeal to the "teach your children some manners" crap from previous generations. It isn't. By being "kind", I don't mean being polite. I mean that, because the child feels safe in the boundaries the parents have clearly established, it can be forthcoming and gentle (and also be rough and rude sometimes without it being a big deal). By "respectful", I don't mean saying your "pleases and thank-yous", but realising that you are part of a bigger community where other people matter, too.
Boundaries and gentle parenting
In the past months, I started reading more and more about the boundaries parents need for themselves to be good parents - books written by parental advisers who are strongly advocating for gentle parenting. And here comes the catch - or maybe the epiphany: gentle parenting and strong boundaries are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they rely strongly upon each other, because only when we have firmly set the perimeters of our relationships can we embark on them with joy and positivity.
Our children will not suffer childhood trauma because you've lost it a few times. They will also not suffer trauma if you deny them something. Of course screaming at your children or using physical force is never OK and should always be refrained of, but raising your voice at some point will be necessary for some children to understand that the boundary has now been reached, or that you are at the end of your tether and it is, in fact, the final warning.
Setting our own boundaries, in my opinion, is a key component to being a "gentle parent". Also, because I believe children notice when we are being inauthentic - i.e. if we're speaking in a quiet voice but boiling inside and wanting to throttle our child. When we are well and relaxed and feel safe, we can set this feeling for our children. There is a reason why you have to put on your oxygen mask first in the airplane before you put it on your kids - because what good are you to your kids if you lie next to them, passed out?
Being a good parent always includes reflecting and being the bigger man (or, more often, woman) - quite literally. We shouldn't be as close to an emotional breakdown as our children, or at least not as easily triggered. But that doesn't mean we can’t state clear boundaries and, in the face of sleep deprivation and an exhausting everyday life as a mother, "lose our shit" now and then. On the contrary. People lose their shit all the time in real life. And with us, our children are in a safe and nurtured environment (ideally). There they can encounter emotions like anger and sadness, not only within themselves, but also with their primary caregivers.
The importance of the aftermath
In most “gentle parenting” books, there is big talk about why you should never lose your shit, but little of what to do when you’ve actually already lost your shit. In her wonderful book The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read, Philippa Perry stresses the importance of the aftermath, rather than an intense situation itself. The most importance thing is mending the cracks of your bonds as soon as possible after it has happened. When you lose it, it is important to be able to apologise and talk about your anger with your child. This way, they will learn how to work through negative emotions, and, furthermore, will learn that apologising doesn’t mean “giving in” or “being weak”.
Instead of shaming yourself for having negative emotions and occasionally displaying them, turn them into lessons for yourself and your child. And try to forgive yourself, because this way your child will learn to forgive themselves, too, when they’ve acted out of the ordinary.
Let's talk about guilt
We can’t talk about shaming without mentioning guilt. Another dimension in which the trope of gentle parenting can actually act harmfully for many parents, is the perpetual guilt it can bestow on parents - at least in an uber gentle interpretation. When our children push our buttons one to many time, we lose it and then feel guilty. This guilt leads us to being less authentic, or to act out of our given boundaries (because we're trying to make it up to the child). Thus, we create an environment in which the child doesn't feel safe anymore because it deviates from the routines that are ideally already established. Our parenting becomes "whimsical", in the sense of that your decisions are often made on a whim and driven by either frustration or guilt.
"Parenting", in whatever form, means raising your children. It is an activity, not a state. To parent means doing something, administering care and boundaries. I feel that, in this society, many seem to struggle with our tasks as parents. While respecting children and their needs must be at the base of any parenting system in my opinion, it doesn't automatically mean to raise little tyrants and narcissists who think their needs are the only ones that matter, or struggle to rebound from any disappointment or boundary. We must take off the velvet gloves and dare to parent again - to guide, to lead and, very importantly, to set boundaries - but not only for our children, but for ourselves. It is OK if you don't want your kid to watch you poop, or to eat a honey bread on the sofa. It is OK to tell them that you don't like that. Recently, I read that the best parenting strategy is to be "kind and firm", and I agree. And probably, being "firm and kind" is even more important. First, establish all the boundaries you need at this point in your and your child's history. Then you can be a kinder self within your set boundaries and you and your child - or children - can be happier within this clearly established area.
Studies have long shown that empathy in people is diminishing and disorders like narcissism are on the rise. While I do believe it would be far too simple to state that the ascent of misinterpretations of attachment parenting are to be blamed (because it is never that easy), I feel there is a point where we have to reclaim our roles as parents. And that includes guiding your child through the pitfalls of our communal living within this society. Believe me, it will be far easier for your child to be told, for example, to not interrupt people when they're speaking, by you - a loving person who wants their best - than from someone who is finally fed up with being interrupted and tells them to shut up.
Gentle parenting = parenting
So where does that leave us with gentle parenting? Please, do "gentle parenting". In fact, do "parenting" because I think that all the things that make parenting "gentle" should be implicit in this wonderful and hard job of raising children. "Parenting" by itself should mean to meet your children with respect and to want the best for them and meet their needs. Anything else is really just a form of abuse. So, parent. Do a good job, be a real human being, not a singing, ever-happy Disney princess. Show anger, frustration and sadness when they're real. Lose your shit now and then, it's OK. Be firm and kind.
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