Loving our kids is easy. In fact, before a baby is even born, parents tend to have this idea that they are going to shower their child with so much love that their little darling could only respond with positive behavior. However, if you are a parent, you know the reality is that somewhere within every sweet child is a little monster that periodically emerges. And, when emotions are high, there is also a bit of a monster in every parent that needs to be tamed. It can be quite surprising and leave parents at a loss for what to do. Their child obviously needs to be taught right from wrong, but how? With gentle parenting, instead of reacting emotionally to misbehavior, it takes a lot of patience and self-control to mindfully address the situation.
Although on paper gentle parenting sounds like it would be easy, when emotions are high it's actually a lot easier to react in anger. This in turn can lead to harsh punishment that is usually more severe than what the situation really requires. As parents, it's important to remember that we are always teaching and our kids are always watching.
Author of Raising Good Humans: A Mindful Guide to Breaking the Cycle of Reactive Parenting and Raising Kind, Confident Kids and "Mindful Mama Mentor" Hunter Clarke-Fields, MSAE, E-RYT, has many helpful tips in her book. When it comes to breaking the cycle of reactive parenting, Clark-Fields writes, “You’ve probably realized already that children tend to be terrible at doing what we say but great at doing what we do. From infancy, we are teaching our children how to treat others by the way we treat them. How we respond to our children on a moment-to-moment basis creates a pattern that our children may follow for a lifetime. Therefore, the onus is on us to behave the way we want our children to behave.”
Related: How To Parent My Strong-Willed Child
What is Gentle Parenting?
Gentle parenting is a mindful approach to teaching a child through explaining, helping, guiding and modeling. It's an intentional style of parenting that is based on love, empathy and understanding. This is in stark contrast to an authoritarian parenting style which sets strict rules and incurs punishment for misbehavior without a lot of explanation.
The term "gentle parenting," however, sounds to some people like the kids are calling the shots instead. But gentle parenting is not permissive and indulgent. Kids do need boundaries. They need to be taught how to treat others and what is not safe. There should be guidelines and structure to give kids a sense of security—it's all in how a parent gives boundaries that matter.
Constant communication and explanations help kids to understand why rules are set. If they don't understand, there is a better chance they will act out. “How we respond to our children on a moment-to-moment basis creates a pattern that our children may follow for a lifetime.” Clarke-Fields shares.
Will Modeling and Gentle Guidance Produce Perfect Behavior in Our Kids?
Unfortunately, no. This doesn't mean that our kids will always behave as expected. Even if there were such a thing as perfect parenting, kids would still misbehave from time to time. It's basically born in them to be self-absorbed and defiant, which is why they need to be gently taught how to behave.
Author of The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline, L.R. Knost, explains in her book, "Parenting has nothing to do with perfection. Perfection isn’t even the goal, not for us, not for our children. Learning together to live well in an imperfect world, loving each other despite or even because of our imperfections, and growing as humans while we grow our little humans, those are the goals of gentle parenting. So don’t ask yourself at the end of the day if you did everything right. Ask yourself what you learned and how well you loved, then grow from your answer. That is perfect parenting."
How To Practice Gentle Parenting
Now that we know what gentle parenting is, the question is how do we get the patience and self-control to actually put it into practice? We all know how strong emotions can be when there is tension and stress. Is it even possible to have self-control during these times? Fortunately, it is if we consciously practice mindfulness meditation.
Clarke-Fields writes that “mindfulness meditation is intentionally training our attention to be in the present moment, nonreactive, and nonjudgmentally curious. Mindfulness is a quality we are aiming for; mindfulness meditation is the tool for building that quality in ourselves.”
It's important to find time every day to focus on what we want for our children. What characteristics do we want them to have? Then, we can show them these traits through our own actions. It's a "monkey see, monkey do" way of teaching.
"It is helpful to remember that the most strong-willed children tend to be the ones who identify the most strongly with their parents. So instead of viewing their seemingly constant challenges as defiance or attempts to thwart authority, work to parent from a place of understanding that your strong-willed child is actually on a discovery mission and is doing endless 'research' on you by testing and retesting and digging and chiseling to discover all of your quirks and foibles and ups and downs and strengths and weaknesses," Knost shares.
Plan on kids to be disobedient and look at those times as opportunities to teach. If the expectation is that your child will behave favorably and you have no plan in place, you may be caught surprised at the disobedience and react emotionally with punishment. Knost further explains in her book, "Equating discipline with punishment is an unfortunate, but common misconception. The root word in discipline is actually disciple which in the verb form means to guide, lead, teach, model, and encourage. In the noun form disciple means one who embraces the teaching of, follows the example of, and models their life after."
What Are Some Examples of Gentle Parenting?
There are so many helpful resources right at our fingertips to assist parents with gentle parenting—like Instagram accounts and websites dedicated to helping moms and dads navigate parenthood with therapist- and research-backed tips.
With over 2.5 million followers on Instagram, @biglittlefeelings is one resource that does just that.
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When sharing tips on how to best model compassion to our children, @biglittlefeelings gave two examples of gentle parenting responses:
"You're feeling sad that iPad is all done. It's hard to turn off the iPad, I get it! We'll watch more tomorrow."
"You're feeling angry. It's ok to feel angry, it's not ok to hit. I'm going to move baby over here to keep her safe now."
Instead of threatening or punishing in the moment when our kids are screaming through disappointments or hitting their siblings, it's about validating their feelings and staying calm, but also holding necessary boundaries. As Kristin Gallant and Deena Margolin (the parent coaches behind Big Little Feelings) explain, "Then, later, during a calm moment (when their brain's are able to learn information), we teach better behavior, coping skills, what to do next time."
Do Not Get Discouraged!
Although gentle parenting can be hard at times, our children live with us for such a short amount of time, in the grand scheme of things. Take this time to enjoy every precious moment, whether good or bad. They are all opportunities to teach and guide and then launch our young adults into the real world with a good amount of confidence. Remember that you can only do your best with what you have or know. Learning your child is a constant challenge but an incredibly rewarding experience.
As Knost writes, "Growing children with an inner compass that guides their steps toward kindness and compassion and generosity of spirit is far, far and away superior to training children to operate on automatic pilot." This goes back to all of that time and effort put into communication, modeling and leading that really helps kids to understand how to act. It only makes sense that they then naturally take on more positive behavior as they continue to grow.
Next up, 125 quotes on being a parent.
Hunter Clarke Fields, MSAE, E-RYT, Raising Good Humans: A Mindful Guide To Breaking The Cycle Of Reactive Parenting And Raising Kind Confident Kids
L.R. Knost, The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline