Gentle parenting, positive parenting, respectful parenting – one or more of these terms must have reached your ears at some point if you are a parent of young kids in this day and age.
As a toddler mom myself, I was certainly bombarded with these messages as I turned to my community and, yes, the Internet, for relevant parenting techniques.
Used interchangeably, gentle parenting or respectful parenting is apparently a form of a broader category called “positive parenting”. Anchored in values such as respect, connection, and empathy, this approach emphasizes connection before correction.
Having been raised by parents who were more familiar with the authoritative approach, I was quite skeptical about gentle parenting, and whether it really worked. Honestly, it would be quite easy to assume that it’s just a fancy term for coddling and raising entitled kids.
But I reminded myself to keep an open mind, and kept researching. And the more I did, the more I learned that in many ways, gentle parenting aligned with my values and convictions, and even my own relational needs as a human being.
When my son turned one, my husband and I decided to integrate some gentle parenting principles into our approach and see what happens. This is what we’ve been observing since.
None of that “A real man should…” stuff – we encourage him to tell us how he was feeling. We would get down to his level (literally and figuratively) and listen without filling in the blanks, judging, assuming, dismissing, or immediately correcting.
To our surprise, this has helped him regulate a lot better – and even listen to correction in the end! The lesson for us? Even at their tender age, our kids want to be heard. And when we become a safe space for all those difficult feelings, we teach them how to become emotionally healthy.
He’s not always happy with them, of course – a lot of times he still tries to cross them! But he knows that when we set a boundary (whether it’s related to bedtime, a transition, or removing him from an unsafe situation), we will follow through. Yes, even if he throws a tantrum!
We also started respecting his boundaries more. For instance, we would ask him if we could kiss him on a certain body part, stop tickling when he tells us to stop and give him the option of how he wants to express himself to someone else (within reason!): a kiss, a hug, a high-five, or a wave.
What we didn’t expect was that he would quickly learn how to set his own boundaries – mostly reasonable ones, too! One thing that stands out to us is how he now knows that he doesn’t have to “perform” for others. He can seek out his own space when overwhelmed, unsure, or uncomfortable; and know confidently that we will support that need.
Natural consequences happen as a result of the child’s action, while logical consequences are imposed by parents. We’ve made it a point to let our son experience both.
If he doesn’t like the food he is served, we don’t force him to eat it. But we don’t give him the food he wants, either (namely, whatever’s in the snack cabinet!). It might mean he wakes up extra-hungry the next day (a natural consequence), but he then learns that one of our rules is we eat what’s on the table (unless there is a medical reason why we can’t).
We’ve also enforced some logical consequences. For example, when he starts deliberately damaging a toy, we take that toy away.
In this season, it’s much easier to just be a reactive parent. It takes less thought and effort to punish, yell, or scare a child into obedience. But we’re learning that these don’t do any good long-term.
Gentle parenting is teaching us to proactively parent from a place of love, not fear. We parent out of fear because we’re afraid of losing control (not that we ever fully had control, of course – a wise mentor once reminded me that control is an illusion). We look for quick ways to get them to do things so that we can get through the day “unscathed”.
But this approach calls for so much self-awareness, humility, and compassion.
It requires us to take a meaningful pause (even when so many things demand our time and energy) and be present for our kids, especially in their rougher moments.
It challenges us to let go of our assumptions and learn to value how our kids see things.
It reminds us that entering their mess and meeting them in it is the best way to build trust and develop empathy.
It exposes unhealthy narratives and patterns in our own lives as parents, and to do (and think!) better for our little ones.
It causes us to lovingly advocate for our kids outside the home, especially when it comes to reinforcing boundaries.
I will always say that it’s best to do what works best based on your family context and parenting values, but I also think that this approach is worth looking into (at the very least, to familiarize oneself).
While we’ve come across some practical applications that we don’t fully agree with, my husband and I put our heads together and thought of our own ways to apply the general principles in our home.
Gentle parenting has been one of the most difficult – but rewarding – investments we’ve made in our son’s life so far, but I can say that it’s worth it.