Gentle Parenting And Permissive Parenting Aren't The Same

Many Of You Are Very Confused About What ‘Gentle Parenting’ Actually Is

A young mother talking to her toddler son inside in a bedroom.
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One of the latest “parenting style” trends that keeps coming across my social feeds is so-called “gentle parenting,” also sometimes referred to as “positive parenting.” If it’s come across your feed too, you’ve likely also seen conflicting reactions in the comment sections.

Some commenters claim to love what they think is gentle parenting. They believe that children are incapable of manipulation and that a child’s every expression of emotion, no matter how disruptive or destructive, should be tolerated or even encouraged. They give off an aura of smug righteousness as they believe their children are more emotionally intelligent than the children of people who don’t use gentle parenting techniques.

Other commenters roll their eyes because they believe “gentle parenting” means letting your children run the entire show, thereby producing entitled, whiny, overly dependent, helpless brats.

Both sides are confused about what gentle parenting actually is.

They’re confusing it with permissive parenting, also known as indulgent parenting, which studies have shown can negatively impact a child’s development. When parents neglect to set firm but loving boundaries with their children, when they ignore or indulge inappropriate antics, kids with certain temperaments will exploit that absence of boundaries and engage in destructive or even dangerous behavior.

But gentle parenting is not permissive parenting. People who think they’re practicing gentle parenting but in reality are practicing permissive parenting are missing the point of gentle parenting, and they’re not doing their kids — or themselves — any favors.

Gentle parenting is about establishing fair, firm boundaries with your kids without the use of harsh punishment. It’s about ensuring that a child’s needs are met, their emotions are heard, and they are also taught to consider others when it comes to expressing those needs and emotions. With gentle parenting, there are consequences for inappropriate behavior, but the consequences correspond to the misbehavior.

In other words, gentle parenting is authoritative parenting.

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Having been a parent for 15 years now, I’m guessing the modern label of gentle parenting, which seems to have started to become more mainstream around 2015, may be a shift from the word “authoritative” which sounds an awful lot like “authoritarian,” a harsh, militaristic style of parenting that experts agree can be harmful. But compare virtually any description of “gentle” or “positive” parenting with “authoritative” parenting, and you’ll see they are basically identical.

Gentle parenting does not mean you let your kids get away with being assholes. It just means you use tools other than violence and coercion to teach your expectations. It means you are the authority in the household (hence the original label, “authoritative”), but you also respect and consider your child’s emotions and needs in the context of their developmental stage.

For example, if a three-year-old purposely pushes over a cup of juice, spilling it all over the kitchen floor, the gentle/authoritative response would be to have the child clean up their mess, helping as necessary, and perhaps while sopping up the juice ask the child why they spilled it. You may not get a clear answer out of a three-year-old, but you may be able to infer that they want to practice pouring and dumping. Playing with a bucket of water and cups on the porch might be the solution here.

This two-part disciplinary response conveys the message to your young child that we don’t spill in the house — but if you want to practice pouring and dumping, this is how we do it. Getting to play with pouring in a non-destructive way after cleaning up their mess lets the child know that their caregiver cares about their needs … but still has boundaries.

On the other hand, if an eight-year-old purposely spills a cup of juice, the response would likely be different. A neurotypical eight-year-old spilling a cup of juice on purpose is probably doing so out of frustration or anger. At that age, they can clean the mess independently, and you make clear that although feeling angry is okay, expressing it in this way is unacceptable. Any further consequence would depend on from where the anger originated.

With gentle parenting, as with authoritative parenting, the caregiver is always playing detective.

What need is at the root of a child’s crappy behavior? What message are they communicating that may not be immediately obvious? An eight-year-old angry about loss of video game time may be stressed out from a major change in routine, like starting school, and having trouble directing that energy. Or they may simply be overly attached to the bright sounds and exciting noises of video games and just need some time doing other real-world activities. There is no one-size answer or approach.

What gentle parenting isn’t, though, is the parent cleaning up the spilled juice while cheerily empathizing with their child’s angry emotions as their child continues to flail and scream on the floor, and the parent saying in a desperate attempt to get their child to calm down, “Okay, what about five more minutes of video game time?” That’s permissive parenting, and it’s not an appropriate response for any child regardless of age. But, based on the comments I’ve seen in threads about gentle parenting, lots of people seem to picture exactly this scenario when they think of “gentle” parenting.

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What gentle parenting (aka authoritative parenting) does emphasize, though, is that a parent maintains their cool.

I’m suspicious of any parent who claims they never yell at their kid, because we’re all human and we all lose our shit sometimes. On my hardest parenting days, I have outright screamed at my kids. But the goal with gentle parenting is definitely to yell as little as possible and instead approach dealing with shitty behavior from a standpoint of helping the child learn acceptable behavior instead — not just punish arbitrarily.

So, you may have considered yourself an authoritative parent and not realized you were also practicing gentle parenting, which you may have thought was more like permissive parenting. And you may have thought you were practicing gentle parenting only to realize you misinterpreted what gentle parenting is and now realize you were inadvertently practicing permissive parenting. (And, as such, you may be at your wit’s end feeling like your kid has tyrannical dominion over your life.)

Either way, now you know. Gentle parenting is just another way of saying authoritative parenting. Call it whatever you want, but study after study confirms it’s the most reliable way to raise emotionally intelligent, well-attached, confident, responsible kids. Happy gentle parenting!