What is 'gentle parenting'? It's about 'breaking the cycle' of disrespect, experts say

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Parents who practice "gentle parenting" say the method can help a family's dynamic become healthier and more empathetic. (Photo: Getty Creative)

When it comes to choosing the best way to raise your kids, the list of parenting methods and buzz words can be overwhelming. Do you identify as a "tiger mom?" Are you into "attachment parenting?" Or, when it comes to which type of parenting methods you practice, do you prefer an approach that takes your child's feelings into account?

Robert Johnson says when it came to tasks like setting boundaries, coping with bad behavior and teaching your child through a positive discipline method, his journey led him to "gentle parenting." The Connecticut dad credits the parenting style, which involves fostering qualities you want to see in your child through compassion and consistent boundaries, with making him a better parent.

"Gentle parenting can help a family's dynamic become healthier and more empathetic," Johnson tells Yahoo Life, adding that the practice can also reduce tension and resentment between caregivers and children. "In gentle parenting, parents establish firm boundaries to make children feel safe and secure but they also provide space for children to express their thoughts, wishes and needs."

"Families can also adjust to pick behaviors and rules that are more beneficial to everyone," Johnson says. "This type of adaptability is a crucial talent to acquire in childhood, as being able to adapt to change is critical to effectively navigating the ups and downs of life."

What is gentle parenting?

"Gentle parenting is a parenting style that encourages a relationship with your children based on their desires and choices, rather than expectations and regulations imposed by the parent," says Shauna Hatcher, a certified nutritionist and expert staff writer for the National Wellness and Public Health Network. "It educates youngsters to do the right thing by emphasizing optimism and patience above fear or punishment."

Hatcher says parents who practice gentle parenting teach their child by treating them as a little adult: A child's feelings are heard and respected, and discipline comes in the form of real life consequences rather than from punishments imposed by Mom and Dad.

Gentle parenting in action

But what's a real-life scenario where gentle parenting can be seen in action? Hatcher says to imagine asking your child to wait for you before moving across the room with a full glass of milk. Instead of listening, the child crosses the room, spills the milk, becomes visually frustrated by the accident and acts out further.

Within the guidelines of gentle parenting, yelling at the child isn't an option. A gentle parenting response would instead involve getting on eye level with the child and helping them regulate their emotions by expressing understanding for their frustration, then reminding them that is why you provide guidance in the first place — to avoid accidents and keep them safe.

In place of consequences like a time out or losing a favorite toy — what some might consider "traditional punishments" — the child would be asked to help clean up the mess they made: a real-world consequence to the mistake of spilling the milk.

"Gentle parenting advocates working together as a family to educate children to express their emotions in a socially acceptable and age-appropriate manner," says Hatcher. "It's seen as a useful way for growing children who are joyful, autonomous and self-confident."

How to get started with gentle parenting

Mo Mulla is founder of parenting website Parental Questions. As a parenting expert and father who uses gentle parenting in his own home, Mulla says it's important for parents to do some research before diving into the parenting style to make sure the practice is a good fit for their family.

Mulla recommends finding books, blogs and even gentle parenting classes on the topic before going all in, but offers some pointers to parents wondering how to get started with the approach.

First, point out to your child that they have a voice and you want them to use it. By allowing your child to have a voice when making decisions, Mulla says they're more likely to feel respected and heard.

Mulla also suggests learning what will calm each of your children down when they're upset, remembering that what works for one child may not work for another. And, the father of two cautions against starting any sentence with, "Because I said so," which can cut off a child's ability to understand the situation and learn from it.

It's also both a group and individual effort.

"If you have multiple children, try to make [one-on-one] time for each sibling, even if it's just for a few minutes once or twice a day," Mulla adds. "Kids need to know they are loved and don’t have to compete for your time."

Gentle parenting discipline

Marcela Collier, an expert in gentle parenting who shares knowledge, tips and real life examples from her own family on social media, is passionate about helping moms and dads around the world adopt a gentle parenting style in their own homes.

"I prefer to call this parenting style 'parenting with understanding' because kind responses are not enough to correct behavior," says Collier. "You need to have an understanding of the needs children communicate through their behaviors. Every behavior is the communication of a need."

Collier describes parenting with understanding as a focus on teaching children the skills they need to communicate their needs effectively and explains traditional parenting focuses on punishing children for "bad" behavior, not teaching kids the skills to communicate their needs. With a traditional parenting approach, she says, children end up feeling shameful and discouraged.

According to Collier, a major misconception about gentle parenting, especially in online communities, is that it gives your child total free reign with no set boundaries or discipline. Collier says that notion could not be further from the truth.

"The main difference between discipline and punishment is that punishment is what you do to a child and discipline is what you do for a child," she says. "Behavior is communication: Your child is clearly communicating something even if it's not coming out respectfully."

The goal of gentle parenting, says Collier, is to help children figure out positive ways to communicate their needs, not to focus on punishing them for acting out.

Problems with gentle parenting

Are there downsides to gentle parenting? It all depends on who you ask.

Mulla, for example, says he sees "no significant disadvantages" to his parenting style.

Hatcher, however, warns that gentle parenting can involve a lot of work for Mom and Dad and "is not for the weak of heart."

"This parenting method necessitates a great deal of self-control," she says. "You'll need to be proactive rather than reactive and you must make deliberate judgments and serve as a role model for empathy, understanding, respect and communication."

Johnson says despite the hard work, gentle parenting has been worth it for his family. His gentle parenting mantra is borrowed from a saying popular in many religions and cultures.

"In essence," Johnson says, "when it comes to gentle parenting, the Golden Rule reigns supreme: Treat others as you would like to be treated."

Collier says this is what gentle parenting is all about.

"The gentle parenting journey starts when we make the decision to break the cycle of disrespectful parenting in our families," she says, "and to start responding to our children differently."