This is the first post in a 3-week series on parenting observations. Week one is based on gentle parenting, week two is about parenting with compassion, and week three is about parenting with a disability.
These posts are based on my personal experiences as a parent and are not meant in any way to judge other parenting styles or decisions. I am offering my personal research and conclusions as possible suggestions for others out there, therefore these posts will be as objective as possible. When it comes to parenting: provided the method isn’t abusive, there really isn’t a wrong way to parent your child. Be secure and do what works best for you and your family and ignore outside judgment.
I never sat down and thought about my parenting style before I started the blog. I had a few ideas of how I wanted to parent Jai: ways I would be different than my parents, ways that I would be similar, what I would want to encourage, and what I might do to discipline. But I never gave much thought to a particular label for the type of parenting style I used.
Like many parents-to-be and new parents, I bought books. Lots of books. Read through websites, forums, asked around for ideas and tips on how to hone my parenting style with Jai and plan ahead for various scenarios that we’d invariably stumble upon with a child.
I cobbled together my ideas and working with Ash, we developed a style that worked best for us and went with it. Then I started frequenting online parenting groups as research for my blog. I realized there was a name for the style we had come up with: gentle parenting. This type of parenting closely aligned with the core of our personal philosophy: parenting with compassion, respect, and empathy.
What is Gentle Parenting?
Unfortunately, when labels are added to everyday actions, a natural divide is created: between what is good and what is “not good” or negatively “different.” By setting itself apart, gentle parenting stands in contrast to what is generally accepted as mainstream parenting.
But what is mainstream parenting?
Searching around online, there doesn’t seem to be a consistent definition for what is mainstream parenting. I always think of it defined as: “this is how we’ve done it, so this is how we do it” or “this is what the experts tell me is best for my child.” But that isn’t much of a definition because it’s scant on important details or those details shift on a frequent basis from study-to-study.
In fact, I would argue that it is impossible to nail down a specific definition for mainstream parenting. Outside of strictly adhering to your pediatrician’s advice on how to care for your child, there really isn’t one right way to be a mainstream parent.
So how is this different from gentle parenting?
According to their website, gentle parenting follows these six points:
- Respecting your child
- Resolve to empathize with your child
- Allow your children to have their own opinions and autonomy
- Reset your expectations to what is age appropriate and “normal”
- Take time to nurture yourself
- Give your children your attention
But wait, I do a lot of these points already (if not all)! Does that mean I gentle parent?
You may not define yourself as a gentle parent, but chances are you do take a lot of their points into consideration when raising your child without realizing it.
My argument is this: while it is important to make distinctions between styles because it allows others to understand the parameters within each style, there is a strong possibility that your version of mainstream parenting is less “mainstream” without even realizing it.
Which brings us back to my original point: there isn’t a wrong way to raise your child and don’t allow anyone’s judgment affect you for doing something perceived as slightly different from the mainstream. As the parent, you must do what you feel is best for your child and yourself.
Let us make another distinction: gentle parenting is not attachment parenting. If you did a Google search right now for “gentle parenting” you will see a lot of articles come up with both styles of parenting. It’s the “every square is a rectangle, but not every rectangle is a square” argument. Both have overlap, but they are two distinctly different styles of parenting.
Gentle parenting is also not permissive parenting, as described by gentle parenting expert Sarah Ockwell-Smith. There are boundaries and the parent is the adult in the situation at all times. If your child’s desires do not align with their own safety or what is happening at the time, the parent will find a way to guide the child through the episode while reinforcing boundaries and age-appropriate discipline if necessary.
The parent does not allow the child to walk all over pre-established boundaries and the parent is not the child’s friend. On its surface, gentle parenting seems permissive, but it’s more authoritative than anything else. There is a clear delineation between parent/child roles and it engages in age-appropriate expectations, boundaries, disciplines, and teachings with the child.
Gentle parenting is about raising a child with their individual patterns, needs, and behaviors in mind. The ultimate goal of the gentle parent is to raise a child that respects themselves and the world around them.
When we become parents, especially first-time parents, it’s hard not to imagine the extremely dependant being as an extension of us. If this happens, the child is not viewed for what they actually are: independent beings that will soon be capable of independent thought and desires.
Making the mental switch from dependent to independent can be hard if it isn’t planned, so gentle parenting steps in and gets the parents to think of their child as a separate entity from themselves from the beginning. The child is dependent and may still need close attachment, but they are still viewed as a unique individual from the parent.
It’s about recognizing that the child is autonomous almost from the beginning. When the baby cries, it’s crying because it needs something or just wants to be heard. It may be instinctual, but they are unconsciously making the decision to vocalize a desire.
Think about the difference between personalities: one child may cry for a minor discomfort, while another child will wait until they have a high fever before beginning to fuss.
This is less “boot-strappy” than it sounds. It’s about recognizing the needs of the child at any particular point of development and making sure the child receives the graciousness and respect they deserve through that period.
If the child needs an extra five minutes to get ready every morning, the parent works that five minutes in until it’s no longer necessary. If the child reverts back to earlier developmental behaviors, the parent allows it to happen provided it isn’t disruptive to the child’s overall growth. If the parent needs the child to do something, it’s about providing that child the option to make a relevant choice on the matter so they have some autonomy.
Parenting is a lot of Work
Each parenting style has its areas that take a little more work to get through than others.
For the gentle parent, they dig deep into their emotional reserves to be compassionate with an irrational toddler who cannot understand or refuses to understand what is asked of them. This is to say, there are going to be days where it’s extremely hard to stay calm and be patient. Especially when the child is screaming at the top of their lungs and becoming dead weight when picked up.
When dealing with a surly child, the key is to remember that you are the adult and put yourself in your child’s mind mentally and emotionally at the moment. By doing so, you can begin to regain control over a situation that may have spiraled out of control for various reasons.
It’s easy to forget that as an adult we had to go through similar training by our caretakers and peers. Remember, if you can, what you appreciated a caretaker doing for you in those moments, or what you wish your caretaker did for you. Then make the decision to care for your child in the way you deem appropriate for the situation without compromising your boundaries or values.
How you interact with a 16-month is going to be different from a 5-year-old, so keep the developmental needs and differences in mind. The boundaries and decision-making opportunities will be vastly different, so adjusting to the individual needs will be important even between siblings.
There is a lot of fluidity in parenting overall and gentle parenting is no exception to that fluidity. Everything changes moment-to-moment and while a child may not want to be held during bedtime stories the night before, tonight (and moving forward) they want to sit in your lap for each and every story.
While that’s a very simplistic example, it shows what is at the heart of the philosophy: recognizing your child’s desires and giving them the ability to make a decision over how something is done. Keep the necessary boundaries and don’t change those, but decide what autonomy you can provide for them that won’t compromise your role as the parent. By granting them a chance to make a decision and feel somewhat in control over their situation, it will help give them the tools to listen to when they cannot choose.
Remember the saying “always pick your battles?” That’s what is happening here.
Allowing your toddler to walk out of the house with mismatched clothing because they decided that’s how they wanted to go to daycare for the day is a great way for them to express their individuality with minimal fighting.
When it comes to another situation, like dressing up a certain way for an event, you can assert your boundaries: “you may pick any jacket you want for when we are outside, but you need to wear this particular outfit underneath.” It may not prevent tantrums 100% of the time, but it may soften them enough because your child will be smart enough to recognize that choice was given in a situation.
At that moment, you respected their desire to be an individual and they will appreciate you for it. But there will be times when it won’t be easy.
The appeal of gentle parenting, for Ash and me at least, is that it’s about creating an environment of respect, but also an understanding of Jai’s individuality and uniqueness from us.
Gentle parenting is very middle-of-the-road in its approach. It’s not about mediocrity, but rather, it is about teaching compromise, acceptance, self-respect, and self-confidence. Life is filled with moments of compromise and finding a balance between extremes, so by parenting with balance, we attempt to prepare the child for these moments and how to appropriately respond to them.
The ultimate goal is to raise a child who can weather bullying storms, take initiative on whatever they want to do, work hard, and be respectful of their partners.
There are so many more things to talk about when it comes to gentle parenting and I have barely scratched the surface. I am hoping to expand further on some of these ideas in the future, but in the meantime, there are also a lot of great resources out there. I will be updating my “Parenting” page with sites and books that I recommend on the topic.
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