Guide to Gentle Parenting: Balancing Empathy and Discipline

In the 1960s, as people became more aware of the impact parents have on their children, psychologist Diana Baumring identified three main styles of parenting.

The types identified were authoritative, authoritarian, and permissive parenting styles.

Later, in the 1980s, Eleanor Maccoby and John Martin, both Stanford researchers, added neglectful/uninvolved parenting styles to the mix. 

You may think you’ve heard of far more parenting styles than just four, and you’re right! There are many parenting styles, but each falls under one of these main four categories.

Today, we’re going to dig a little deeper into gentle parenting, which falls loosely into the category of authoritative parenting.

Does gentle parenting work? No parenting style is guaranteed to “work.” However, when correctly applied, gentle parenting can aid children in developing confidence, self-esteem, and independence and build better emotion regulation skills. In addition, it can lead to improved relationships between child and parent.

If you’re ready to learn more about gentle parenting, what it involves, and how you can get the best possible outcomes, read on.

Key Takeaways 

  • Gentle parenting focuses on positive reinforcement while setting firm boundaries in place.
  • The four main focuses of gentle parenting are empathy, respect, understanding, and boundaries.
  • When implemented correctly, gentle parenting can help children foster positive behaviors.
  • Gentle parenting teaches children to be responsible for their actions without rewarding, punishing, or bribing them.
  • Children of gentle parenting adjust behavior because they understand it, not just because they’re afraid.

Gentle Parenting Style – The Basics Explained

Gentle parenting has minimal drawbacks and rarely negatively impacts a child.

Instead, children develop compassion and understanding elements that help spur healthy social connections and drive positive behaviors.

Below is everything you need to know about gentle parenting.

What Is Gentle Parenting?

Gentle parenting is evidence-based parenting designed to help raise happy and confident children.

You will need to be compassionate while enforcing consistent boundaries to encourage the type of behavior you’d like to see in your child.

Valuable life lessons are taught through discipline (age-appropriate), and children are taught and encouraged to work as part of a team (the family) while showing and communicating their feelings in an age-appropriate, socially acceptable way.

Four Main Elements of Gentle Parenting

Four main elements make up the gentle parenting approach:

  • Empathy
  • Respect
  • Understanding
  • Boundaries

Is Gentle Parenting Effective?

If applied correctly, gentle parenting can help children learn how to empathize. The same lessons as traditional parenting, except a greater focus on feelings, will result.

As your child learns that their behavior impacts you and makes you feel certain ways, they can see how you respond to them. This means that effective parenting can only work if you are behaving correctly.

Benefits of Gentle Parenting

Gentle parenting focuses on a child’s cognitive development and is designed to foster positive traits.

One of the known benefits of gentle parenting is that it reduces anxiety in children and can even help shy toddlers improve in social scenarios.

Discipline is not used as a form of punishment but to encourage children to behave differently without reducing to shouting, yelling, or punishing unduly.

Even during high-stress times, showing gentleness can teach children flexibility, understanding, and frustration tolerance and spur positive growth and development.

Problems With Gentle Parenting

Gentle parenting rarely negatively impacts a child’s mental health and development.

That said, there is the potential for parents to slip into a habit of being too permissive or not setting the correct expectations and boundaries for children.

This may lead to overindulging a child’s emotions and behaviors while the guidance or lesson falls by the wayside.

Gentle Parenting Example

An example of gentle parenting in action:

The child of a gentle parent is crying and frustrated. Instead of trying to get the child to stop crying, the parent remains calm, which shows the child that they’re in a safe space and can express negative emotions.

Instead of shouting or presenting solutions, the gentle parent might say, “I can see that you feel very strongly about this at the moment, but…” and then present some possible options.

How To Start Gentle Parenting

You may think it’s too late to start gentle parenting, but it’s not. You don’t need to make an announcement or tell your child that everything is about to change.

Instead, start implementing new behaviors and ways of doing things slowly in the family unit. A few pointers are below:

1. Draw Attention to the Action and Not the Child

Example: Instead of saying, “You’re being very nasty to your sister. Stop it!” try saying, “I don’t think your sister likes it when you say and do those things. Let’s try something else and see how she responds…”

This helps to separate the negative behavior from the child, allowing them to adjust their behavior without feeling as if they are “bad.”

2. Teach Different Kinds of Kindness to Your Child

If your child doesn’t know what kindness looks like, they won’t know how to be kind to themselves or others. You can start by showing kindness toward yourself.

For example, if you’ve had a long day, you can say that you will soak in the tub and go to bed early to be kind to yourself. That way, you can teach your child to be kind to her/himself and others in the same way.

3. Forego Instructions and Encourage Your Child To Be a Teammate

You may be used to giving your child commands and instructions that may inspire them to rebel.

For example, instead of saying, “Wash the dishes and get your bag packed for school!” you could say, “Should we get the kitchen cleaned up together before you get your school bag ready?”

Children would rather be part of a team and work together than be consistently told what to do.

4. Encourage Positive Behaviors Without Actually Saying “No”

When you say no, it can seem like a command. For instance, your child is about to encounter a kitten, and you’re fearful that the kitten will get hurt.

Don’t shout, “Don’t touch the kitten!” Instead, say something along the lines of “Let’s use our gentle hands with this one,” or “these kittens are only for looking, not touching.”

How To Discipline With Gentle Parenting

Gentle parenting discipline requires you to be a coach instead of a punisher with your children.

First, you need to focus on no longer offering treats, bribes, or rewards for behavior. This means no star chart, no candy, and no “if you do this, I will let you do that” behavior.

Discipline with gentle parenting eliminates shouting and scolding and ushers in the way of teaching your child to understand why certain behaviors are unacceptable.

For instance, instead of yelling at your child to hurry up and get their shoes on, you can calmly explain that you will be late if they don’t meet your expectation of being ready on time and that would make you sad/angry.

Teaching children how their actions can make others feel is a good way to approach discipline with gentle parenting.

Common Gentle Parenting Mistakes

As a gentle parent, you probably don’t want your child to experience discomfort or unhappiness, but that can sometimes hinder your child’s development.

Try to steer clear of the following common gentle parenting mistakes: 

1. Jumping in Too Soon To Eliminate Frustration 

Frustration is a normal part of life, and it’s better to teach your child how to regulate those feelings than to jump in and make it all better. 

2. Hindering Attachments Formed With Others 

You will undoubtedly want to ensure that you have all the influence over your child’s development, but sometimes you have to ease your grip on the reins and let others engage with your child.

For example, if you’re worried they will teach your child the wrong approach to life, you can use the opportunities as teaching moments.

3. Swooping in To Ensure Your Child Never Feels Disappointed 

Remember that your child won’t always be a child. Cars will break down, partners may leave them, the weather may be bad, and holidays sometimes get canceled.

If you spend your time ensuring that something grand is offered in replacement for everything that doesn’t work out in your child’s childhood, you may find them unable to handle disappointments and changes of plans in their later years.

4. Not Setting Firm Boundaries or Being Inconsistent 

It’s a good idea to determine the family rules, communicate what they are, and then stick to them.

Gentle parents may sometimes overlook the rules, but that can lead to children overstepping boundaries or learning that the rules are only sometimes applicable.

Gentle Parenting vs. Authoritative Parenting

You may be wondering why we compare gentle parenting and authoritative parenting when we already said that gentle parenting falls under authoritative parenting.

It’s true that both parenting styles are very similar; however, authoritative parenting allows for positive and negative reinforcement, whereas gentle parenting only allows for positive reinforcement.

Gentle Parenting vs. Permissive Parenting

Permissive or indulgent parenting allows the child to hold most of the decision-making power.

On the flip side, gentle parenting actively tries to understand how the child is feeling and why the behavior is present and then implements understanding, lessons, respect, and empathy to incorporate boundaries and better coping mechanisms.

Gentle Parenting Tips

Parenting is a journey. Here are some tips to help direct your path.

  • Make empathy a priority. Children can follow instructions but shouldn’t be treated like robots. 
  • Ensure boundaries are age appropriate.
  • Ensure boundaries come with explanations/reasons. For example, saying, “Do this because I told you so,” is not an effective, gentle parenting technique. It’s good for your child to know why they are doing things a certain way.
  • Be conversational with your child. Shouting or losing your temper may stop the behavior, but that’s because your child is afraid, not because they understand. Instead, discuss things with your child and expect them to change their behavior based on their understanding instead of fear.
  • When your child makes a mistake, help them to learn from it. It’s the action you want to punish, not the child. Instead of shouting and punishing them when they make a mistake, explain what they have done wrong and help them carry out the correct behavior/action.

Related Questions:

Is Gentle Parenting Biblical?

According to research, gentle parenting is supported in the Bible, but this does not mean that it is a biblical approach or was designed as a biblical way to raise children.

When Do Children Learn Empathy?

According to Psychcentral, at the age of 4, children start to show that they understand the feelings of others and can associate their feelings with the emotions of others. 

Is Gentle Parenting Right for Me? 

Gentle parenting is a popular style because it can be highly effective and promotes healthy relationships between family members.

Whether it is right for you depends on how much time and effort you wish to put into parenting as gentle parenting is time-consuming and must be consistent.

Take the time to explore all the parenting styles to determine which style is the best fit for you and your child.