As a parent, you know your child best, from your son’s favorite television show to your daughter’s best friend. But you also know what makes them most upset. For instance, when you take a trip to the grocery store and your 5 year-old son sees his favorite ice-cream flavor, he begs you to buy it for him, kicking and screaming. But you know that it’s 5pm and the sugar rush will likely lead to an all-night rager on his end and a headache on yours.
There are countless parenting styles, all sharing the same ultimate goal: to raise a healthy, happy, and well-rounded child. In today’s article I will introduce a style of parenting that I came across during my time studying child and adolescent development. The approach derives from the philosophies of early attachment and attunement originated by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, who studied attachment styles between children and their mothers.
Early Attachment philosophy teaches us how initial forms of connection between you and your child (through physical touch and emotional relationships) lead to greater stability, security, and overall healthy emotional development for your child.
Attunement is your ability to respond with appropriate language and behavior based on your child’s emotional state, allowing you to recognize their mood and emotions, and from there adapt to their response. In the past, healthy attunement has been linked to emotional awareness, empathy, self-control, and healthy relationships among others.
Now that we know a bit about attachment and attunement, let’s jump into three key aspects of Gentle Parenting…
You know better than anyone that being a parent can be a challenge. Between driving your daughter to her dance recital to ensuring that dinner is on the table, there is a lot to get done and A LOT that can happen in between. It’s easy to respond to the stress of life as a parent with issuing controlling demands—but parents know kids often refuse to comply. The Gentle Parenting philosophy would advise giving your child a small selection of choices instead of strict commands. It teaches that offering choices to your child is important for their self-esteem and problem-solving skills. By doing so, you are limiting their options to making appropriate choices. Allowing them to be a part of the decision-making process gives them a greater sense of ownership of their choices. This creates more buy-in on their part, leading to more cooperation between the two of you. For example, rather than telling your daughter she must take a bath right now, you can ask her, “What would you like to do first, brush your teeth or take a bath before getting into bed? Or shall we do both at the same time?”
The overarching goal of gentle parenting is allowing you, the parent to step into your child’s shoes and understand why they are behaving that way, from an open and honest point of view. It is easy to say, “He is just spoiled” or “They are doing this on purpose.” However, it is important to remember that just like you and me, your kid learns from experience. Preventing children from making mistakes can affect them throughout their teenage years and adulthood by decreasing their sense of confidence, resiliency, and courage.
With that said, many assume that gentle parenting is care-free and permissive. However, it is important to recognize that just like many mainstream parenting styles, gentle parenting does enforce rules and regulations! But instead of using force and punishment, you and your child are encouraged to discuss possible solutions to problems that arise, working together rather than against one another. For example, imagine your son decides to sneak into his sister’s room to tease her during her play time. Rather than yelling at your son for misbehaving, you can ask him to explain why he made this particular choice. Once discussing the issue, you could encourage your son and daughter to communicate their feelings towards one another, such as “When you teased me, it hurt my feelings and made me really angry.” Or, “I just wanted to spend time with you.” You can then ask your son how he would feel in a similar situation, giving him the chance to understand his sister’s point of view and validate her feelings. This form of empathy is extremely important, as it allows children to deal with uncomfortable emotions and develop choices that do not affect others negatively.
Just like any parent, you want to teach your child the difference between right and wrong. But how do you do this without the use of “time-outs” or confiscating your child’s favorite toy the moment they do something wrong? According to Gentle Parenting, setting boundaries with your child is the way to go. It is important to approach the situation in a calm and supportive way, connecting with your child and their needs. Empathize with them as they discuss the reasons behind their choices, then together you can develop a reasonable limit. Nevertheless, it is important to resist temptation and remain reasonable throughout the process. As the parent you know your child’s limits, every child has their own temperament. It is important to attune to your child’s needs and utilize your knowledge of them to develop appropriate limitations.
For example, imagine your teenage daughter decided to sneak out of the house with her friends on a Saturday night to go party with her friends. This is extremely frustrating; what if she makes a bad decision? What if she is kidnapped? Or drugged? There are endless frightening possibilities that go through a parent’s head. You call your daughter, furious, and she returns home extremely upset. She yells that you embarrassed her and ruined her life. So, what do you do? Gentle Parenting explains that in this moment, it is important more than ever to focus on the relationship, rather than punishment when it comes to your teenager. While it can be a scary time in a parent’s life to see their child grow older, it is important to recognize that your teenage daughter will share less information with you if she does not trust you. The goal is to provide your daughter with a sense of empathy while using a calm tone of voice, yet remaining direct in your delivery. Harsh punishments often backfire. Therefore, it is useful to collaborate on clear and reasonable limits.
While all this information can seem overwhelming, it’s important to note that Gentle Parenting, attachment, and attunement take nothing more than your ability to remain present and understanding of your child, while staying empathetic and aware of your own needs as a parent. Just as you are empathic towards your son when he scrapes his knee for the first time, try to be empathetic when he gets in trouble or makes a mistake.
In all this, it is important to acknowledge you are doing your best. You are a real-life superhero after all, trying to help generations to come.