A complete guide for mothers and fathers about gentle parenting in the real world

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Ask five fans of so-called gentle parenting what it means and you’re likely to get five different answers.

But for a simple explanation of what it can look like, the Bluey episode “Sticky Gecko” might be as good of a broad brushstrokes explanation as you’re likely to get elsewhere.

The premise of the episode is that the matriarch of the fictional Heeler family, Chilli, is trying to get daughters Bluey and Bingo out of the house to meet their friend at the park.

As the background music becomes increasingly frenetic, Bluey engages in a series of delaying tactics, from playing games, to distracting her sister with toys.

Having reached a breaking point that many parents will recognise Chilli loses it. A few deep breaths later she asks her daughter: “What’s going on, Bluey? Why can’t you get out the door?”

Camera IconAs the background music becomes increasingly frenetic, Bluey engages in a series of delaying tactics, from playing games, to distracting her sister with toys. Credit: ABC/ABC

When Bluey admits she’s nervous about seeing her friend, Chilli first empathises and then turns leaving the house into a game.

It’s by no means a perfect demonstration of all that gentle parenting involves but it largely covers off on what Sarah-Ockwell-Smith, author of The Gentle Parenting Book, describes as its four tenets: empathy, respect, understanding and boundaries.

Chilli asks about Bluey’s feelings (respect), sympathises with her fear (empathy and understanding) and yet still ensures they get out of the house to the park (boundaries).

But enough about the fictional dogs: what is gentle parenting in the real world, why is it having such a moment and the biggest question of all. . . does it work?

What is Gentle Parenting?

Gentle parenting is an umbrella term that includes or overlaps with other approaches known variously as respectful parenting, mindful parenting and intentional parenting, with a healthy dose of attachment theory and a side order of a parenting philosophy known as RIE.

Strip away the nuance and it is sometimes defined by what it’s not: no punishments, no rewards and no time-outs.

The basic idea is to observe and understand your child’s behaviour, identify their limits and act accordingly.

Or, as Ockwell-Smith explained it to The Sunday Times: “Treating your children in the way that you would have liked to have been treated by your parents when you were a child.”

Gentle parenting may be having a moment — TikTok in particular is awash with #gentleparenting advice of varying quality — but the philosophies underpinning it are not particularly new. Rather, they have their roots in the work of 1930s educator Magda Gerber and in Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s 1980 parenting bible, How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk.

In 2022 this approach is championed by Ockwell-Smith, Janet Lansbury, an author and host of the popular Unruffled podcast, and a host of TikTokkers and Instagrammers like Dr Becky, who offers advice to her 1.2 million followers online, and Marcela Collier.

Post from Author Janet Lansbury.
Camera IconPost from Author Janet Lansbury. Credit: Instagram/Instagram

So what does it look like?

Sceptics of gentle parenting might imagine either a Lord of the Flies scenario, in which children rule the roost, or a hippie commune, in which mothers have a child hanging from their breast at all times, everyone co-sleeps and the word “no” is about as popular as mainstream medicine.

But Ockwell-Smith describes it as a mindset, rather than a set of rules. Many people, she says, may already be practicing gentle parenting without having ever heard the term.

“It doesn’t matter if you bottle feed, give birth by elective C-section, use a buggy and your child sleeps in a cot in their own room,” she writes on her website.

“Just as it doesn’t make you a ‘gentle parent’ if you breastfeed ‘til 3, homebirth, babywear and bedshare. These ‘tools’ are pretty much irrelevant, they don’t define the conscious actions and thoughts behind your parenting… gentle parenting is a way of being, it is a mindset. It’s not about how you wean your baby, or what type of education you chose. It’s not new, it’s not trendy. Gentle parents come from all walks of life, all ages, all ethnicities and most don’t even realise that their style of parenting has been given a new name, it’s just the way they have always been.”

Consider the common scenario of a child who hits a sibling. Plenty of parents might shout, tell them off or send them to their room.

By better understanding my own emotions — what makes me tick, what brings me joy, what makes me angry — I am better able to use more compassion, empathy and understanding whilst parenting my children.

A gentle parenting approach would suggest the hitting stems from an unmet need, which might be jealousy and a desire for attention or just a lack of exercise. Instead of punishing the child, the parent might simply tell them they shouldn’t hit because they’ve now hurt their sibling. The ultimate message is that it’s OK to be angry, jealous or sad but it’s not OK to hit.

Not even the most ardent promoters of gentle parenting will claim this approach delivers instant results but the idea is that, over time, behaviour improves as the child is better able to recognise and regulate their emotions.

Of course, there’s always the possibility you might, as Instagram’s Dr Becky puts it, “lose your sh.t” in the heat of the moment. In that case, she suggests, apologising like this: “Mummy was having big feelings that came out in a yelling voice”.

Perth psychologist and mother-of-two Lisa Harris has seen gentle parenting from both sides of the fence, as a mother and as a psychologist. She describes it as “parenting the long game”.

“From a parenting point of view it cultivates a positive parent/child relationship,” she said.

“I am not so much seen as an obstacle to be worked around. I’m seen as someone to work with.”

She said while rewards and punishments would work in the short-term, long term the idea was to teach children to do the right thing even without the lure of an ice-cream or a sticker chart.

Perth psychologist and mother-of-two Lisa Harris has seen gentle parenting from both sides of the fence, as a mother and as a psychologist.
Camera IconPerth psychologist and mother-of-two Lisa Harris has seen gentle parenting from both sides of the fence, as a mother and as a psychologist. Credit: Jon Gellweiler/The West Australian

“It can be quite a divide between the way we want to do things and the way you do things. . . that’s the reality and that’s one of the things about gentle parenting,” she said. “It’s harder and it can often take more time.

Dr Harris is starting a not-for-profit, Secure Kids Australia, to educate schools about secure attachment and how to encourage it in the classroom.

When gentle parenting goes extreme

Like most things, gentle parenting exists on a spectrum.

At one end are those parents who like the philosophy but exist in a world where responding with empathy and understanding in a crisis is occasionally abandoned in favour of a hastily issued threat.

At the other end are those who have taken it to the extreme, like the parent on one social media site concerned their child’s bodily autonomy was being violated if his arms were held to stop him from hitting others.

The New Yorker magazine recently dipped a toe into the world of gentle parenting after one of its journalists, Jessica Winter, read child psychologist Mona Delahooke’s book, Brain-Body Parenting. In it Delahooke relates her guilt at occasionally being an “authoritarian and controlling mum”

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