Gentle parenting: pros, cons and how it compares to other parenting styles

Jan 17, 20244 minutes read time

Key points:

  • Gentle parenting is one of the newest trends in raising kids, popularized in large part by social media influencers on TikTok and Instagram.
  • Gentle parenting prioritizes empathy, respect and understanding in how you relate to your child.
  • Gentle parenting has several advantages – and a number of potential pitfalls to consider.

Parenting advice has officially entered the social media era.

Gentle parenting was first coined in 2016 by Sara Ockwell-Smith, the author of The Gentle Parenting Book – but it wasn’t until recently with TikTOk and Instagram that it has really taken off.

As of late 2022, the hashtag #gentleparenting has accumulated close to 3 billion views on TikTok alone. But what is gentle parenting? And how does it compare to other parenting styles?

Most of all, what every parent wants to know: does gentle parenting work?

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Gentle parenting is truly a product of social media. Unlike the four most widely recognized styles of parenting, it wasn’t hammered out or defined by child development specialists but by social media influencers.

All of this makes nailing down a single definition of gentle parenting, well, tricky. It doesn’t even have just one name. Gentle parenting is also referred to as:

  • Respectful parenting
  • Mindful parenting
  • Intentional parenting

Every influencer advocating for gentle parenting seems to have their own approach, though most proponents agree on a few common themes:

  • The importance of empathy – that is, acknowledging what your child is feeling, even when their behavior is frustrating.
  • The belief that children deserve the same respect as adults.
  • The idea that empathy plus respect leads to a better understanding of a child’s behavior and the reasons for it.
  • For some, setting healthy boundaries is also an important part, although parents are discouraged from using rewards or punishments to enforce them.

In an article with The Conversation, Professor of Child Health and Behaviour and Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, Steven Scott shared his thoughts on gentle parenting stating, “The foundation of the idea (of gentle parenting) is in being a parent who is emotionally attuned to their child, and who tries to understand the reasons behind their behavior.” He sees great value in this, but acknowledges that it’s not the whole story. And his article reinforces the importance of also continuing to calmly set clear limits with your child.

Dad playing with child

How does gentle parenting compare to other parenting styles?

That depends on who you ask.

Some forms of gentle parenting look a lot like permissive parenting, a style of raising kids where few (if any) limits are put on behavior, and the child’s happiness is elevated above all else.

For example, one leading advocate suggests parents should get their toddler’s permission before changing their diaper and argues toilet training is harmful to children because it imposes their parents’ will on them.

Other approaches to gentle parenting look more like authoritative parenting, which encourages parents to validate their child’s feelings while putting reasonable limits on their behavior. For example, according to Giselle Baumet, gentle parenting is “highly responsive and nurturing, while also setting firm boundaries.”

On the other hand, gentle parenting is about as far as you can get from two other leading styles: authoritarian (different from authoritative) and uninvolved parenting. Gentle parenting advocates reject the authoritarian emphasis on obedience and discourage parents from saying things like, ‘Do as you’re told’, or, ‘Because I said so’. Unlike neglectful or uninvolved parenting, gentle parenting encourages lots of nurture and interaction.

Pros and cons of gentle parenting

So, is gentle parenting good or bad? Almost every style of parenting has its pros and cons. Let’s start with some of the pros of gentle parenting:

  • Gentle parenting recognizes young children don’t have the ability to control their emotions yet – and that parents should keep this in mind when dealing with challenging or frustrating behaviors.
  • Gentle parenting invites parents to look for the reason behind their child’s behavior, instead of simply reacting with anger or punishment.
  • Gentle parenting is highly nurturing (like authoritative parenting). It encourages parents to practice empathy and understanding.
  • Gentle parenting also helps parents be more intentional about their interactions with their children.

Gentle parenting may not always work and can have some drawbacks that affect both children and parents. Some downsides to gentle parenting include:

  • Gentle parenting can cause parents stress and frustration. It’s not exactly realistic to drop everything and try to have a moment with your child when they refuse to put their shoes on while you’re rushing out the door to school. Taken to an extreme, gentle parenting can make it impossible to stick to a routine. This leaves parents feeling even more stressed which, in turn, can lead their kids to act out more.
  • Gentle parenting may increase challenging behavior. Children sometimes misbehave to get their parent’s attention. By encouraging parents to talk to their child about the challenging behavior, gentle parenting may accidentally reward it. This is why most parenting experts suggest using discipline techniques that are emotionally neutral and provide minimal attention, such as time out.
  • Gentle parenting approaches kids as isolated units. This makes it harder for children to learn how their actions impact others, for good or bad. For example, when asked to advise a mom whose child kept hitting their sibling, one gentle parenting advocate suggested it was because the first child felt attacked. ‘He feels judged. He feels misunderstood’. Her solution? Make the child who hit their sibling ‘feel accepted’. Not bad advice in itself – but if you’re wondering, ‘What about the kid who was being hit?’ you’re probably not alone.
Dad with child

So, does gentle parenting work?

There’s a lot to like about gentle parenting: its emphasis on empathy, understanding a child’s behavior instead of trying to control it, and having meaningful, respectful interactions with your child.

On the other hand, gentle parenting is part of a larger trend in ‘open-source’ parenting styles – which means it hasn’t gone through the same kind of testing and study as some of the more widely known approaches to parenting.

At its best, gentle parenting follows some of the same principles as authoritative parenting, which many experts recognize as the healthiest approach to raising kids. But gentle parenting can also tip into a more permissive style, which can be harmful to kids in the long run. For example, one study found that preschoolers who grew up with a permissive style of parenting had less control and independence as teenagers.

Bottom line: it’s important for every parent to remember that no one parenting style has all the answers. Chances are, if you are highly nurturing and set healthy expectations for your child, they will feel safe, happy and loved.

And that’s what really counts.

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