There has been a backlash by many parents against any type of parenting that might be perceived as not being gentle or kind to their child. In research looking at extinction sleep training, one of the biggest barriers that advocates of cry-it-out face is that parents are not comfortable with it and thus do not want to use it on their child. This has led to modifications such as controlled crying, as advocates struggle to make their product more accessible and kind-sounding.
In all this, there has been a rise in so-called “gentle” parenting methods. Methods that some real gentle parenting advocates question as being gentle. The question that many people rightfully have is, ‘How do we know if something is gentle or not?’ As I mentioned in my own forward for Sarah Ockwell-Smith’s The Gentle Sleep Book (which really is gentle!), one must beware the wolf in sheep’s clothing. The wolf who tells us he is gentle and helping our children, but in reality is really in the same vein as other wolves who prey upon our children, treating them as sacrifices in a quest for restoring parent-centric parenting.
So what makes for gentle parenting? How can a parent discern the sheep from the wolves dressed as sheep? I hope the following three criteria will help you establish which pieces of “gentle” parenting advice one can take as truly gentle while immediately discarding the rest.
Gentle Parenting Premise #1: Accept Your Child’s Emotions as Valid
Our children’s emotions can be as confusing as Lost, not being aware of where they’re going or even where they’ve been. Often we find ourselves bewildered at their sudden outburst of strong and not always positive emotions: They cry at things we can’t fathom, they seem to cling to us when we need our space, and they are loud and boisterous when we want them to be quiet. Yet one of the most important elements of gentle parenting is that we accept their emotions – especially their negative emotions – as valid. These emotions are as real to them as ours are to us, and just as people may not understand when we become sad or angry or frustrated over something that wouldn’t upset them, so our children are learning to cope with their own rollercoaster of emotions.
There are many wolves who will attempt to tell you that only some emotions are valid enough to deserve a response (we’ll get to the response bit below as it’s another gentle parenting premise), the implication being that not all emotions are valid. One of the more common phrases is the use of the “protest cry” in sleep training. These wolves tell you that you are being responsive when your child really needs you to be responsive and that makes being non-responsive okay when the emotion is simply not a valid one.
Yet all emotions are valid. In gentle parenting, we accept that there is no “wrong” emotion. What may need work is how our children learn to control and express their emotions, and even a “protest cry” (with the implication being they are simply crying because they don’t like something but aren’t truly upset) is valid and an attempt of our children to share how they feel with us. It’s we how we respond to different emotions that will vary. Which bring us to…
Gentle Parenting Premise #2: Always Respond to Your Child
Only a wolf will tell you that you can safely ignore your child’s expression of emotion. The one caveat to this is making sure parents know that it is always okay to take a moment to yourself when you feel that you are at your wit’s end. Not losing your mind and getting angry and possibly hurting or yelling at your child is critical and if you need to walk away for a short period, that is absolutely always acceptable.
What isn’t part of gentle parenting is ignoring a child’s attempt to share emotions with you. Tantrums, “protest cries”, and distress at nighttime are all situations in which children need responsiveness. What will be different in gentle parenting from mainstream parenting is how we respond. Mainstream parenting tends to view how we respond to our children in a black-or-white manner, especially when it comes to negative emotions. Either one gives in completely or one ignores. There is no in-between.
The wolves tell you that valid emotions involve giving in whilst you ignore the non-valid ones. For example, when a child hurts themselves physically, you must comfort, but if a child is protesting a change to bedtime or having a tantrum, you can safely ignore. A real gentle sleep will remind you that children are distress and require our help. Not just in the moment, but to help them learn to properly manage and express their emotions. This does not mean that “giving in” is the only answer, but that being there is.
Being there, however, takes many different forms. For example, a child who is protesting a much-needed change (for the family) to a bedtime routine still needs comfort in dealing with this change, but it doesn’t mean one abandons the change altogether (unless there are valid reasons to). A parent in this case may stay with the child for the change, talking to them about it, validating their emotions, and making it clear they are always there, even if not in the same way that existed before. For a child having a tantrum, as another example, the parent acknowledges the feelings, is there for comfort when the child calms, and then makes sure to talk about alternate ways of expressing emotions next time.
It means parents accept as valid the sadness or fear that accompanies such change or situations and helps their child to cope in ways that make sure the child is aware the parent is there for them as a pillar of support. For there is no situation in which ignoring is helpful to our children who are simply trying to learn. Being present doesn’t mean doing everything for them or doing whatever they want at the expense of others. It simply means being there, and that is responsiveness.
Gentle Parenting Premise #3: Your Child is Unique
I realize a lot of lip service is given to this by everyone, yet in practice the opposite seems to rule the mind. We all say our children are different and unique, yet wolves tell parents that their methods will work for all children. There is no need to look at an individual child’s situation instead offering up pages of pre-existing plans that aren’t tailored to a particular child at all. I have heard of far too many people having paid hundreds of dollars for a personal visit with a sleep trainer to simply be given generic instructions of what to do that did not take into account anything about their child.
Wolves love the generic and will make it seem like their “gentle” solutions will help anyone and everyone, even though there is no method that will do that. Even gentle favourites like co-sleeping don’t work for all children or families and a real sheep will understand this and work with that (though be willing to acknowledge when it looks like it’s what a child wants). This love of the generic is why many wolves still adhere to first-wave behaviourism premises: You can get certain behaviours out of people by doing a specific thing, but the reasons why you get these changes will vary immensely and many of the underlying changes that take place will not be what parents are looking for.
Real gentle parenting advocates will acknowledge the individual circumstances and work with families one-on-one to see what will work for them. When they write books of advice, the advice tends to be much more general as specific how-to’s simply don’t work. There is no step-by-step bit of advice that will work for all children as children vary on levels of sensitivity, prior experiences, emotion regulation, and emotionality. These things readily interact to make any notion of a set schedule or instructions that works for all impossible.
Those of us sheep realize the frustration when parents just want to be told what to do, but the only thing we can say for certain is to get to know your child. Spend time learning your child’s methods of communication, likes and dislikes, how your child responds to certain people and events, and then you have a basis for knowing how to work with your child to make changes that may be necessary. Us sheep can give you ideas or tools that may help, but we also acknowledge that sometimes they won’t. We also know sometimes the ideas we have may not be what you want to hear, but when looking at your child’s individual biology and development, it may be what your child is communicating to you.
There are obviously many more nuances in the gentle parenting world, but I have found that these three are some of the surefire ways to distinguish the real sheep from the wolves in sheep’s clothing. One other small bit of advice is that if it sounds too good to be true (e.g., a gentle sleep training method that will get you 12 hours of uninterrupted sleep), it is. So just because the word “gentle” is thrown about does not mean it is actually gentle, it just means someone is definitely aware that parents actually want to be kind to their children. Don’t be tricked by the wolf, but rather keep your eyes peeled and learn how to find and get rid of them. For your child and your family.