Tired of Unruly, Disrespectful Kids? Start Gentle Parenting
Before I became a parent, I received the same piece of advice on repeat: Just love your kid. At the end of the day, that's all that matters. I already knew how to change diapers and all that kind of stuff, so I wasn't too worried about the rest.
I made loving my kid the root of my approach to parenting. I was tough but understanding. I set rules, followed through with consequences and gave my daughter plenty of love.
Initially, my style of parenting worked fine. Then, the pandemic hit and made me question everything I thought I knew about being a good mom. In desperation, I tried out a parenting style known as gentle parenting. Two years later, I can't imagine ever going back.
Early On, I Scoffed at the Gentle Parenting Concept
Obviously, I never planned on being an aggressive parent. I didn't believe in corporal punishment, and tiger parenting seemed like a recipe for years of future therapy. I just wanted to be, oh, I don't know, a normal, reasonable, loving parent.
I didn't think I needed a book or a label to tell me how to do that. I'd just set reasonable rules, enforce reasonable consequences, and give a reasonable amount of encouragement and affection.
In my years of working with kids, I'd met far too many who had simply not been parented. You know the kids I'm talking about. The ones who come over for a playdate and help themselves to any snack they want, leave trash on the floor, and laugh when they grind slime into every fiber of your couch.
I assumed that was the result of being too "gentle." What hippie-dippy parenting style lets kids get away with being entitled pests?
It's almost comical how clueless I was about the concept of gentle parenting. I utterly failed to make an essential distinction: Indulgent and gentle aren't synonyms at all.
Speaking of comedy, I genuinely thought I had this parenting thing figured out. I didn't get what was so hard about it. My daughter, Lily, was 5 at the time. She followed rules, ate all her veggies, loved school, you get it.
I rarely had to be the bad guy, and I thought we had a pretty healthy relationship. Then, March 2020 came along and handed me my parenting a**.
The Pandemic Shed Light on Problems I Didn’t Know Were There
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. in full, Lily's school went fully remote. As was the case for most schools, there was zero plan in place. Teachers and administrators had no clue what to do, and neither did parents.
I was fortunate to have my mom, a special needs instructor, in the house to help. Even then, it was a mess. The list of stress-inducing frustrations on my plate was long. In any given day, my thoughts included most of the following:
- How the **** are kindergarteners going to learn anything over Zoom? One of them just did a backflip off the couch, and that one doesn't have pants on. And the teacher can't seem to figure out how to mute the kid whose parents are considering divorce in the background. This is insane.
- I swear to God if that iPad falls off the table one more time...
- No. No more snacks. It's literally been 11 minutes since you last ate.
- How am I supposed to work? If I even have work, I can't get any of it done.
- You know what, take the snacks. Eat whatever you want, I don't care.
- Why is logging into Zoom so complicated? Yes, I know you just missed an entire class. I don't care about that either right now.
- Oh, the cat peed on the couch again? On the noise-canceling headphones I just bought? Sounds about right.
- Yes, I know we're out of toilet paper. I don't have time to wait in line at seven different stores. Use a towel. Use the wall. I don't care anymore.
- What do you mean your homework is too hard? It's coloring. I know you can color. Just DO IT ALREADY.
I'm not proud of any of those thoughts, but the chaos of the early pandemic days shone a glaring yet helpful light through all the holes in my "reasonable" parenting philosophy. What once felt like a sound method now resembled Swiss cheese.
Lily and I were at each other's throats 24/7. My well-behaved, rule-following kiddo was suddenly stubborn, refusing to do homework I knew she could do in her sleep. She was whiny and demanding, and my reactions were far from "reasonable." I gave stern glares about the mess in the living room. I yelled. I lost my temper about a homework assignment for 5-year-olds.
If I wasn't capable of being reasonable, why on Earth would I expect a kindergartener to do any better? The picture above is how I found Lily, my precious 5-year-old, after yet another stress-inspired homework battle. Oh, I thought. Oh.
That was the moment I realized that just loving your kid isn't enough. I sat down next to her. She wouldn't even look at me. I asked her if she was OK. She shook her head. I pulled her onto my lap, and she held onto me for dear life, buried her face in my chest and sobbed. How had I missed this?
Gentle Parenting Is Difficult and Intuitive at the Same Time
After a lengthy snuggle, we ripped the coloring page in half and I surrendered to a different, more intuitive way of parenting, one that acknowledged and validated my child's emotions. We started out by just talking. I learned that she felt lonely and that I said no a lot.
I started yelling less and saying yes more. Yes, we can turn the living room into a fort. Yes, you can sleep in my bed tonight. I need to finish my work first, but yes, we can go run around in the rain when I'm done.
That's not to say I abandoned discipline. There were still rules and consequences, but not without understanding the reasons behind Lily's misbehavior first. My new approach revolved around empathy and respect: aka gentle parenting. As you can see, Lily and I both liked it a lot better.
The Basics of Gentle Parenting Are Easy
At its core, the gentle parenting approach is "just loving your kids." It differs in that it transforms the loosely defined concept of love into a verb. Gentle parenting is defined as an evidence-based approach to raising happy, emotionally healthy children. It's based on four main components:
The idea is to teach children to identify and express their emotions, establish age-appropriate boundaries, and use discipline to teach valuable life lessons. The goal isn't to punish negative behavior but to help them understand and emulate positive behavior. To do that requires modeling that behavior. Instead of flying off the handle about a misbehavior, speak in a calm, firm tone.
Think about how you'd like your spouse or boss to handle a mistake of yours. You'd probably respond better to patience and empathy than a harsh reprimand. Kids are even more sensitive, and yet we often disregard their complex emotional selves.
Gentle parenting validates a child's feelings, enforces firm yet compassionate consequences and allows parents to lead by example. This mindful parenting style may not be as results-focused as tiger parenting, but it's much, much better for children's mental health. It's not overly permissive, either. Gentle parents still set expectations for their kids, only backed by age-appropriate, empathetic tactics rather than harsh discipline.
The main focus of gentle parenting is understanding.
In practice, this means meeting your kids where they are developmentally, not where you think they should be. For example:
- Understanding that a toddler isn't crying at two in the morning to be rebellious, but because he has separation anxiety and needs comfort
- Understanding that your 10-year-old didn't do his homework because he was overwhelmed, not lazy
- Understanding that your teenager made an irresponsible choice because the part of her brain used for reasoning and impulse control isn't fully developed
When you understand the reasons behind a child's behavior, both from a developmental and emotional standpoint, it's easy to see why stern words and harsh punishments aren't the most effective approach.
If Your Current Strategy Isn’t Working, Give Gentle Parenting a Try
Daunted? Don't be. Practicing gentle parenting isn't complicated. To start, try the following:
- Model kindness. Be kind to yourself. Be kind to your partner, your neighbors, your family members, your dog. Take interest in the feelings of everyone around you, and discuss these feelings calmly and compassionately.
- Comment on behaviors, not people. Instead of saying, "You're always so mean to your sister," try saying, "It looks like your sister feels sad when you do that. Let's try something else instead." That way, kids won't feel defined by their mistakes.
- Reformat questions. Instead of demands, like "Get dressed or we'll be late to school again," try "I bet you can't finish getting dressed by the time my coffee is ready. Want to try?"
- Encourage the positive. Replace don't's with do's. Instead of, "Don't pull the dog's fur!" try "Let's use gentle hands on the puppy. Good job! Look how happy she is."
For a more in-depth look at gentle parenting, check out pretty much anything written by Sarah Ockwell Smith, author of "The Gentle Parenting Book." "Raising Good Humans" by parenting expert Hunter Clarke-Fields is another great place to start. The best part? If you're like me, you'll find yourself parenting yourself in the process.