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Children play at a daycare in Coquitlam, B.C., on March 28, 2018.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

If you’re part of any parenting circle, you’ve probably heard of gentle parenting. It’s a catch-all term that generally refers to parents who try to stay calm, place a lot of importance on their child’s emotions and show a lot of physical affection.

The parenting style has exploded in popularity and controversy, partly because it’s not well-defined.

Dr. Alice Davidson is a professor of developmental psychology at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, and is one of the few academics to have actually studied gentle parenting. In the latest episode of The Decibel podcast, she shares her research and her thoughts on gentle parenting as an effective approach for both kids and adults with host Sherrill Sutherland. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

(To listen to the episode, find it on the podcast player of your choice using this link.)

In your research, who are the people that self identify as “gentle parents”?

Of the participants in a 100-person study conducted by myself and my colleague Dr. Annie Pezalla, 49 per cent of parents selected the adjective “gentle” to describe their personal approach to parenting. Consistent with our whole sample, including non-gentle parents, 84 per cent of the self-identified gentle parents were female. They were highly educated, over two-thirds of gentle parents had a graduate degree. They were mostly white. They ranged from 32 to 51 years of age. Sometimes I think people maybe assume gentle parents are just Gen Z or millennials. But we see a wide age range.

How did the parents describe “gentle parenting”? What were their goals as gentle parents?

We identified three primary themes. The first theme is this idea that parents talked a lot about regulating their own emotions. They really emphasized staying calm, not using any physical punishment or any punitive measures. A second theme they talked about was this idea of helping their child to regulate their emotions. So this involved emotional validation, and coaching – things like attending to, listening to, understanding, respecting their child’s emotional needs. We also identified a third theme, which was parents who are very affectionate with their children. These gentle parents described showing loving, emotional and physical affection to their child. Their descriptions included talk of being kind and warm and loving and giving lots of hugs.

What isn’t part of the gentle parenting philosophy?

I would say that it is not at all what we would think of as an old-school, traditional method of what’s called authoritarian parenting. This idea of “do this because I said so, because I’m the parent” where there’s this very clear hierarchy with the parent at the very top. It’s certainly not based on any kind of shame, or attempt to induce guilt, and it’s definitely not involving any dismissal of emotions.

I mentioned this authoritarian approach to parenting because I think just an important note is there’s this parenting typology that this researcher, Diana Baumrind, developed in the 1960s. She really captured the variance in parenting approaches on a matrix. So with two intersecting lines where one line is capturing warmth, and the other discipline. Some parents are low in both warmth and discipline, some are high in both, some are combination.

But “the best parenting approach” – I’m using air quotes when I say that – that is considered to be the parenting approach that employs lots of warmth and sufficient discipline, and this is called the authoritative approach. That authoritarian approach is where parenting is very high on discipline, but lower on warmth. We want to know if gentle parenting is like Baumrind’s typology, or perhaps simply another name for what John Gottman and colleagues coined “emotion coaching,” which emphasizes the importance of naming, empathizing and working through emotions with your child.

So, the million dollar question: Does it work? Is gentle parenting effective for both kids and parents?

This is probably going to be an unsatisfying answer. But the reality is, we just don’t know yet.

What we are finding in our research is that these gentle parents are so earnestly trying to parent their young children as best they can, using the tools they have. There’s also this sense that these gentle parents are hanging on for dear life. They describe themselves in our study as exhausted, as often feeling overwhelmed with the demands of parenting, as not knowing what they’re doing. These are some example quotes from our study. One parent said, “I get very easily overstimulated and overwhelmed all day, every day.” So, this approach is not so gentle on the gentle parents.

In your study, what did gentle parents say about choosing their style versus their parents’ style?

I do think that the appeal of gentle parenting is perhaps a backlash to some of the old school authoritarian approaches.

I think this approach is also very popular right now and appealing to parents, because it’s been fueled in great part by these “parenting experts” – I’m using air quotes again – and influencers on social media and YouTube. We can watch these one- to two-minute snippets of curated gentle parenting on Instagram or TikTok when we’re searching for answers or tools in our daily struggles as parents, and that can give us some comfort and some new ideas to employ with our own children. This reliance on social media platforms, as it applies to parenting, appears to have increased during the pandemic. This was a time when so many of us, myself included as a parent, were isolated at home, attempting to parent our children without the social networks and resources in place that we relied on.

Is gentle parenting a new idea?

I would say that the idea of respecting children and helping children to feel valued and heard is nothing new.

There was a psychotherapist Alfred Adler in the 1920s who talked about this. In the eighties and nineties, we started seeing more of this kind of positive parenting movement and conscious parenting, which was really focused on trying to be more mindful as a parent. I think also Gottman’s really important work in the ‘90s on emotion coaching, this importance of helping young children to understand and label their emotions to validate their emotional experiences.

And so I think respecting where children are developmentally, which is that they don’t have the capacity to handle their difficult emotions like we do, or we should, as adults is a part of the underlying philosophy of gentle parenting as we’re beginning to understand it. The term “gentle parenting” really seems to have been explicitly named and broadcast into the world around 2015 when British author Sarah Ockwell-Smith began publishing multiple books that touted a gentle parenting philosophy.

How do gentle parents respond to their child’s bad behaviour?

When Annie and I looked at what gentle parents say or do when they respond to their child’s acting out or misbehavior, we identified a variety of strategies. For example, they talk about taking away privileges or putting them in timeout, as well as these more child-directed or co-constructed approaches. Things like bargaining with or bribing their child, giving into the child’s wants or demands for food or screens. They also talk sometimes about minimizing hierarchy, so attempting to get on a child’s level – either physically, such as getting down to the child’s eye level to talk to them, or emotionally, which involves the acknowledging of feelings, validating feelings. A really important point is that this idea of gentle parenting really is a multifaceted approach. These parents are not just using one or two of these strategies, but they are using a host of these tools.

Does it go too far? For some gentle parents in our sample, there does seem to be this notion of democracy between parents and children, and attempts on the part of the parents to minimize the hierarchy. And I think in some instances, as the gentle parents are earnestly trying to follow their child’s lead, it might skew that equal distribution of power to the child.

Are there any instances when you can just ignore a child’s emotions?

Yeah, absolutely. There are times when you should. There are some behaviors that children exhibit that we refer to as “junk behaviour.” This refers to minor unwanted behaviours that may be annoying to parents and those around them, but they’re not dangerous or harmful. They’re benign. Examples are things like whining, arguing, pouting, baby talk. Children might be doing this for a variety of reasons. They’re searching for attention, in which case, trying to engage in emotion coaching may actually just reinforce that unwanted behavior.

I think the reality is that whatever emotions exist behind this kind of minor junk behaviour will likely dissipate pretty quickly without any parent intervention. So we don’t have to unpack every last emotional experience that our children have.

A lot of people say gentle parenting is going to create a bunch of self-centered children. What do you think of this criticism?

My perspective, which should be qualified by the very important caveat that we have yet to carry out a longitudinal study on the potential effects of gentle parenting, is that, in some respects, gentle parenting is perpetuating this coddling of the American mind – to use this frame from a book from a few years ago. This idea that children are fragile, they are not. Or that we should always trust our feelings. We shouldn’t always trust our feelings.

I think that despite the ringing endorsements from gentle parents about boundaries, many children of gentle parents are not learning boundaries, nor natural consequences in the midst of really challenging circumstances. Boundaries are so important. Children thrive on structure and routine and limits that help them to feel safe, comfortable. So boundaries are really important.

What else should parents do when they lose their cool with their kid?

I think that when you lose your cool with your kid and you mess up, it’s perfectly appropriate to apologize and take responsibility. These situations are really good opportunities to model acknowledging big feelings that can sometimes get out of hand, and also modeling how to repair a relationship after an intense negative exchange or emotional experience.

At the same time, I think in the same way that gentle parenting might be going overboard in the perspective that children are not only equals to the parent, but they’re totally in charge. With the notion of apologizing, parents shouldn’t necessarily feel the need to apologize to their child for every minor infraction. We are all human beings with flaws and it’s good for kids to see us mess up.

Lastly, what are your overall takeaways on gentle parenting?

I would say that parenting is so hard and we are rooting for you. Annie and I’s interest in this topic really came from our professional and personal experiences. We’re both trained in human development and family studies. We’re also mothers to nine- and 10-year-old children. We’ve observed this gentle parenting phenomenon explode around us in recent years.

I think it’s also important to remember that parenting takes a village. Don’t forget to utilize your support network of family and friends to help you out in the very challenging endeavor of rearing your children. And I think that if your child is safe and supported, it’s okay if grandma’s or another caregiver’s approach is not exactly the same as yours. Don’t forget that no one is a perfect parent.

I think self reflection is great, but remember that you are the expert on your child so don’t ignore your intuition when it comes to parenting your child. And try not to lose sight of your long-term goals for your child and the values you’re trying to instill in the midst of these inevitable very emotionally intense moments that absolutely will pass.

Children are so resilient, so it’s okay if you mess up every now and then. I really strongly believe that with unconditional love and acceptance, your children will turn out just fine.

This interview was taken from a transcript of The Decibel podcast, and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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