December 5, 2022

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Is ‘Gentle Parenting’ Too Extreme and Impossible?

18 min read

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Janet shares an exchange she had with a parent who wonders how anyone can possibly live up to the extreme idealism of “gentle parenting.” She writes: “It sounds so lovely… but it’s also crushing to never be able to live up to despite having all the tools and knowledge.” While “gentle parenting” is not a term Janet uses, she understands that it’s a catch-all for recent discussions and news articles about parenting philosophies. In response, Janet shares her own mental and emotional struggles as a new mother striving for perfectionism as she tried to put Magda Gerber’s teachings into practice. She describes moments of frustration, feelings of failure, and being judged, and how through her own experiences of self-doubt and criticism, she learned to give herself permission to be an imperfect parent in a process.

Transcript of “Is ‘Gentle Parenting’ Too Extreme and Impossible?”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Okay, I admit I’m a little more nervous than usual about this podcast because I feel it’s going to be maybe more personal and revealing than what I normally share.

The impetus for this episode came in a recent Facebook exchange that I had with a parent, and the parent concluded “this ideal of gentle parenting is feeling more and more toxic and gaslighty to me.” In response to her comment, I finally had the chance to ask a question that I’ve been wishing to ask for a while now in light of this recent flurry of complaints in the press about gentle parenting. Maybe you’ve noticed some of them. And then I really, really appreciated this Facebook parent’s candid response to my question — my question that was in response to her comment.

I’m going to be sharing these exchanges and some of the thoughts that they’ve brought up for me. I really hope you’ll find this clarifying and encouraging.

The Facebook exchange happened in response to a post of mine from several years ago actually that I reposted called “I Think I Know Why You’re Yelling.” It describes some of the things that as parents might lead us to yell. Number one is: “you aren’t taking care of yourself.” It talks about self-care, not just the wonderful bubble bath or getting away with friends or a spouse type of self-care, but something more basic and crucial, which is knowing our limits and our personal needs and setting boundaries early, starting even with speaking directly and honestly to an infant.

I give examples like: “if you’re a sensitive person who can’t sleep deeply with a baby or a toddler near you but you’re co-sleeping because you think you should, maybe you’re not taking care of yourself.” Or, “if you want to wean your child or limit their nursing, but you feel guilty about that, then you’re not taking care of yourself. If you need to go to the kitchen to make a cup of coffee, but you’re afraid to leave your fussy baby or screeching toddler, you’re not taking care of yourself. In fact, if you feel guilty about any self-care moment, you’re probably not taking care of yourself.”

I conclude: “we all give up much of our lives for our children, but it’s unhealthy for us and even less healthy for our kids to become an egoless parent, neglecting our needs and virtually erasing ourselves from the relationship. We need personal boundaries and our children need us to model them. This is what it means to have an honest, authentic, respectful relationship that will make limit setting in the toddler through teenage years clear and simple. Notice I didn’t say easy because it’s hardly ever easy.”

Oh, and one of the things I share first in that post is I say: “My sense is that we often end up yelling because we’ve actually made the very positive decision to give our children boundaries with respect rather than using punishments and manipulation. We’re working really hard to remain gentle and kind, and yet our children’s testing behaviors continue. Maybe we become increasingly frustrated, even fearful, feeling like we’ve lost all control without any way to rein our children in.”

Anyway, it’s a pretty long post, and I’ll be linking to it in the transcript, or you can look it up. Here’s the comment that I got on Facebook. She said:

This all sounds good on paper but doesn’t really apply in the real world. In the real world, taking a break to the sound of a screaming toddler is anything but a break and will leave you more frazzled. In the real world, tantrums are horrible to be around on a visceral level no matter how many books you read about childhood development. In the real world, many parents have little to no support and no amount of telling ourselves we are capable leaders can curb the sheer exhaustion we are feeling. This ideal of gentle parenting is feeling more and more toxic and gaslighty to me.

Before I share the question that I asked her, I want to talk a little about the press articles that have come out recently. They’re in pretty major publications. Assuming that they’re all written sincerely and not as a pile-on to a trend, I took them quite seriously, like I take everything. They all mention me as part of the problem, and they’re basically bashing the idea of gentle or respectful parenting, that it’s impossible. One of them even implies that there’s this harsh dark side to it all. A couple of the authors who are also parents, it sounds like they’re trying it, but they don’t feel like it’s working for them and they’re saying, “This is too extreme.”

Now, when I read these pieces, the first feeling that I had besides feeling a little attacked, the first feeling I had was I relate to what these people are saying. I totally relate to them. I remember feeling some of the feelings that they’re describing: that I just couldn’t possibly do this, that it was unrealistic, that somehow there was this expectation on me that I couldn’t live up to and it just made me frustrated and want to throw in the towel. I wanted to throw it away. I’m going to talk about the couple of those instances where I felt that way, but I felt like what I’m relating to, and I could be wrong, is this pressure that we put on ourselves as parents.

Some of us are more inclined towards self-judgment, and perfectionism, and it can get in our way when we’re learning challenging things. Learning a different way of parenting than the way that we were raised, breaking those generational cycles even in small ways is very, very challenging. It’s so courageous to even be trying, in my view. And it sounds like this commenter on Facebook was coming from that place too. This is just impossible. You’re expecting unrealistic things.

In these articles in the press, if I was to take a very unnuanced extreme take on those, I could feel this implies that they were maybe suggesting that it’s better to physically punish your children, and lash out at them when you’re frustrated. I don’t think that’s what they were saying, but I wasn’t sure what kind of alternative they were suggesting.

And so, that’s why I was happy for the opportunity to ask this parent on Facebook this question, “What would be helpful?”

Because believe it or not, and I didn’t say this on Facebook, believe it or not, all I’m trying to do is help. I’m sharing an approach to parenting that inspired me and helped me beyond measure. That’s what I’ve been doing since 2009, sharing what I’ve learned from all the classes I’ve taught with parents and children. When I get a little lost in what am I doing? Why am I doing this? What’s my purpose here? I often ask myself that question to focus me and give me the perspective that I need to know what to do next: How can I help? What can I share that might be helpful?

There’s no implication in what I’m sharing that if you’re not doing it this way, there’s something wrong with you or that I expect you to do it this particular way. It’s a very specific way that I’m sharing. I started calling it “respectful parenting” because I didn’t think people would know or understand or want to understand what RIE parenting meant. And also because I was using a lot of my own experience to interpret Magda Gerber’s RIE approach, even more for toddlers than she did and for older children, and all these details that I learned through working with parents.

So, I thought: well, if I say respectful parenting, which is about treating even a newborn with respect, maybe if I use this term, then it will make more sense to people. That’s why I started using that term. I’ve never actually used the term “gentle parenting” to describe what I do, but I noticed that I seem to be part of a catchall of gentle parenting. That’s how people are seeing this, that I’m one of the many people sharing about gentle parenting. I’m assuming that just means this non-punitive, not harsh, not lashing out type of parenting.

Anyway, I asked this parent, “What would be helpful?” And I said, “I’m also interested in the concept of,” quote, ‘gentle parenting,’ which is not a term I use. What does this mean to you?”

I thought she gave brilliant responses that were very enlightening to me.

First, she said:

Gentle parenting to me is the ethos of teaching and disciplining in an empathic way that is never punitive or emotionally reactive on the parent’s part. It sounds so lovely. It’s a beautiful idea to aim for. It’s also crushing to never be able to live up to despite having all the tools and knowledge because we are human and we are wired to be uncomfortable around screaming. We all want to do better, and we even know exactly what to do thanks to the many sources of information out there for parents and yet so many of us are stuck. I’m thinking about your question, what would be helpful? Maybe it’s just permission to be gentle-ish, capable-ish.

Wow. She really says it all there, and it helps me understand that I’m coming across as this voice of authority that’s telling you you should do it this way, and if you’re not, there’s something wrong with you.

Well, I’m a very imperfect messenger, no doubt, and I also have the problem of… Well, it’s not a problem. It’s a positive thing, but I forget that I’m not still this underground voice sharing for the couple hundred people that would follow me in the beginning where I could really speak my mind and be a little bold and share unique ideas without it being taken as that I’m any kind of voice of authority.

Well, to my surprise, a lot of these ideas that I’ve shared that were very weird to people, in the beginning, are now almost mainstream, almost conventional. Not because I did it all, but I think I had a part in it and it’s just happened that way. That is amazing to me, that ideas like you talk to a baby like a person, that you allow children to have all their feelings, that you don’t try to fix or squelch them, that a child can have ideas about what they should be doing in regard to play or exploring or spending their time even as an infant… Not all of these ideas, but a lot of them are now accepted and that’s fantastic. With it comes a responsibility that I don’t always take, which is, oh, so I actually have the power for someone to feel like they’re not living up to something that’s just supposed to be this way.

I also want to say though that everything this parent said in her comment and a lot of the things in these articles as well, I personally have felt in my early days in learning this approach.

This is one of the benefits of getting older. Between just aging and the work that we do on ourselves or even work that naturally evolves on ourselves, we become much more self-forgiving. I do, and these really strong judgmental voices that were always in my head when I was younger have very much weakened. They still have their say, but it’s not overwhelming, and other voices will usually win out.

I started taking RIE classes with my daughter when she was an infant. When I was first learning this, everything I was being taught was different than what I’d been doing pretty much. I took all of that as: oh, I’m wrong. I’m wrong. I’m wrong.

Here I was putting everything into trying to be a new mom, and now this must mean I’m failing, failing, failing, because I’m learning all these things that I could have done that I wasn’t doing. There was that to get over. At the same time though, I was so compelled and inspired to stick with it, and luckily that won out.

And then later on when my daughter became a toddler, I remember… Okay, this is 28 years ago, so we know that this had a big effect on me because I can totally remember the moment. I said to my teacher who wasn’t Magda, but another teacher who will go nameless, I said, “What do you do when you just find yourself yelling?” And my teacher said, “You’re yelling?”

And the way she said it, I believe she was probably just surprised. She didn’t have children at that time, so maybe it didn’t make sense to her, but the way it felt was so mortifying. I felt so ashamed. I broke into a million pieces, and I was never going to bring that up again. But what it did was help me to get a perspective: yes, I have a very precocious, strong, powerful toddler. She wasn’t even two yet, but still, why would I yell at this tiny person? What is threatening to me? What is overwhelming to me? How am I not taking care of myself with my boundaries with her that I’m getting to this point?

Once I got over the shame and brokenness I felt, or at least start to get over that, I was able to look at where I needed to grow because I didn’t want to be a person yelling at a not-even-two-year-old. I knew it wasn’t the parent that I wanted to be. It didn’t feel good to me.

So, that happened. But all the voices came to me in that brokenness, in that shame: You can’t do this. There’s something deeply wrong with you. This is impossible. I wanted to throw in the towel, and I feel like throwing in the towel still a lot when some kind of situation feels too challenging. I don’t like feeling uncomfortable or inept less than other people or that I’m not living up to some kind of expectation.

But the expectations weren’t coming from my teacher. They weren’t coming from Magda Gerber. They weren’t coming from anyone but me.

I’m not saying that’s what’s going on with all these people that are complaining about gentle parenting, but that’s my experience. I’m so grateful that there was a stronger voice in me that said: Don’t let those voices win. This matters too much to you. Don’t give up on yourself. Maybe you can do this.

Now in terms of everybody else though, maybe what I’m teaching isn’t what inspires you or feels supportive to you. This is just one style of parenting. It’s not the only one that works. It’s not maybe even the best one for you. These are only suggestions, not rules or meant to be taken rigidly. We have to look out for ourselves in this tough journey, find sources that feed us, nurture us, that make our lives easier and more joyful as parents. We deserve that.

I understand feeling stuck and I understand feeling crushed that I’m supposed to live up to something. At least when I was learning this stuff, it was very unique. It wasn’t so popular. So, it was clear to me that I was wanting to live up to my own goals.

Now I realize that might be less clear and that’s harder, and it’s something that I want to take responsibility for as much as I can.

Yes, tantrums are horrible to be around. It’s really hard to let another person have their feelings. That’s why I’ve written and podcasted about that topic so many times and noted that it will always be challenging. It will never be reflexive for most of us. It just won’t.

But only we can give ourselves permission to be in a process and not perfect at every aspect. In fact, not even close to that.

Here’s the response that I shared with this parent after her comment, which I really, really appreciated. I said:

I hear you. I really do. As I was reading your comment, I was thinking exactly what you said at the end. I was thinking, where is she getting the idea that respectful parenting means never punitive or emotionally reactive? Where is this never coming from? People like me also talk a lot about repair and self-compassion and imperfection. I share what I know helps build relationships and lessen challenging behavior, and I try to share a perspective that can help us feel less reactive. But there’s no implication coming from me that if we don’t live up to this every moment or go through periods where we just can’t at all or don’t want to, we’re failures or doing something wrong. Gentle-ish, capable-ish is exactly where most of us are most of the time. The good news is that gentle-ish, capable-ish is enough to be a great human parent. I understand perfectionism and bagging on ourselves. I can go there myself, but those feelings don’t come from parenting advisors or other messengers out there. Mine come from me.

I want to talk a little about the ideals that she’s talking about living up to. I appreciated Magda Gerber‘s approach and its idealism because I started to see those ideals as signposts. They weren’t a destination even. They were just helping me go in a direction, baby step by baby step. If I didn’t have those signposts, I couldn’t be assured of the direction that I was taking.

But it wasn’t about achieving those signposts or not. It was about the journey, the process.

Yes, there are going to be frustrations and feelings of giving up along the way. Absolutely. But if we keep following these sign posts, maybe there’ll be less of that. There was for me.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with being frustrated. It’s that it doesn’t feel good and it’s not the way most of us want to be with our children. It doesn’t feel good to us, but there’s no judgment on the feelings that we have in a process. They’re all just right, because they’re all our feelings, just like children’s feelings are just right. That’s what they feel.

This is definitely not about being robotic or stifled or I’m just fine all the time. No. Our children want a relationship with us. With all of our sides.

Speaking about frustration, maybe it could be helpful to let out frustration at children sometimes. My mother, I don’t remember her really yelling at us, but she would get very judgmental and angry about certain things, and there were two things. One was if we tried to tickle her… Whew! Or if we’d walk in on her in the bathroom, she made it very clear with emotion that those were boundaries that she was not going to allow us to cross and we didn’t because that was scary.

So this isn’t to say that letting out our emotions on children is not productive. It can be in the short term, I think, but for me, it was helpful to know that we don’t need to do that. We can set the boundary without creating fear.

If gentle parenting is what this parent beautifully describes, which I would like to think, I love that, then it will only work if we have very strong boundaries. Very strong boundaries. I think maybe that’s missing in some of the conversations about gentle parenting, I don’t know, but maybe that is a problem out there that people should rightfully complain about because it’s just not going to work and it’s not going to help those children. Children need boundaries.

I also want to share one more story from my learning days. I’m still learning for sure. But in the early days when I was training with Magda, there was a conference coming up and this other parent and I were going to present a workshop at the conference from a parenting perspective because most of these RIE conferences, they’re mostly attended by early childhood professionals rather than parents. But we wanted to do one for the few parents that might be there.

When we were talking about this with Magda, I said, “Well, what should we call it?” And she said, “Parenting Made Easier.” Immediately that came right off the top of her head. I’ve got to admit I was taken aback because that wasn’t the first thing that would come to mind for me about this approach that I was learning from her. To me, it was very thoughtful and careful, deep and challenging in many, many ways. But when I thought about it, I could see what she was saying.

And then a few years later when I had a three-year-old and then two other children after that, oh yeah, it totally made everything easier. When I would compare myself to the struggles other parents were having, all this care and thoughtfulness and mental challenge and emotional challenge that I’d faced learning this really paid off. This doesn’t mean it’ll pay off for everyone, or that this is your way, but it did for me.

When I hear people saying, “Oh, this is this impossible thing, and we can’t do it. It’s somehow judgemental of people that aren’t doing it,” I think of that. I think of how much easier this makes everything and therefore more enjoyable. Because if we’re struggling, we’re not enjoying being a parent. But it’s like moving that rock to the top of the mountain so that it can roll down the other side. It does get so much easier. It does.

Whether you follow some of the advice I give, follow advice other people are giving, whether you decide you want to do this non-punitive parenting thing or you want to find your own way that’s different, take a little from this, a little from that, this is your journey. My feelings about parents are all about trust. Just like my feelings about children. Trusting their process, trusting that you will find your way.

Am I the right person to help you? Maybe or maybe not. I trust you to know what works for you.

I think I would love to change the name of this podcast to Respectful-ish Parenting, Unruffled-ish. I’m going to consider that because that’s what I have learned to expect of myself and the best that we can hope for. It’s always an ish. It’s always a journey. Some days we feel it, some days we don’t.

So, I really, really hope that you’ll be good to yourselves and kind to yourselves and trust yourselves and definitely not give up on being the parent that you want to be because we really can do this.

Please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, JanetLansbury.com. There are many of them and they’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in.

And both of my books are available in paperback at Amazon: No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting.  You can get them in eBook at Amazon, Apple, Google Play or barnesandnoble.com, and on audio at Audible.com. Actually, you can get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast.

Thank you so much for listening and for all your kind support. We can do this.

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