I’ve had some questions about gentle parenting, and I want to answer them here because I think there are some myths and misconceptions that need to be dispelled. Here are some common questions, and my answers.
What is “gentle parenting?”
Gentle parenting is a choice. It’s a choice to use words and actions with our children that are supportive and caring. It’s recognizing where a child is in the moment and what she needs to move through that moment in a positive way. If my daughter throws herself on the floor screaming (as she did last Thursday), I could pick her up, put her in a time out, and leave her to deal with emotions she can’t possibly comprehend or process on her own, or I can sit down on the floor beside her, let her know I’m there to help her when she’s ready, and give her space to express her emotions.
Let’s look at Thursday’s scene: My daughter woke up with a cold. She had a low-grade fever and was very stuffy. She had already had a few mini-meltdowns because she wasn’t feeling well. I watched the wheels turning in her head as I asked her to come back to the table with her box of raisins. I knew this was going to be the tipping point. I also know that raisins are highly toxic to dogs, so I can’t have the open box of raisins flying out of her hand with a lightning-fast dog waiting to scarf them all down. I have to engage with my daughter for the dog’s safety, and I also know that my daughter is really looking for an outlet (you might say she’s looking for an excuse, but I think there’s a negative connotation there). She needs to release feelings that are bubbling up inside her, so she’s waiting for that last straw.
I got up from the table as she headed for the kitchen, put an arm around her to stop her from running away, and gently but firmly reminded her that we eat at the table, not while running around. This is one of the misconceptions about gentle parenting. Yes, my daughter has rules, and I do insist on rules being followed. I asked her to give me the box of raisins, and when she refused, I gently removed it from her hand and closed the box. She screeched like a banshee, stomped, sat down, and then put her face on the floor to cry. I let her know I wanted to help her and tried to rub her back. She wasn’t ready for me to touch her, so I backed off for a moment. I told her that I understood she was not feeling well and was having strong feelings right now. When it became clear that she was not able to move past this point on her own, I picked her up, put the raisins on the counter, and carried her to the stairs.
Here’s one of the differences in the gentle parenting approach. I don’t give my daughter time-outs. What would be the point? She’s 20 months old. She can’t process big feelings on her own, and I don’t want to punish her for expressing her emotions. She’s not being bad. She’s trying to deal with feelings that are overwhelming. We do time-ins. I’ve found that the stairs are a good place for us because it’s dimly lit and removes a lot of the excess stimulation. We can just sit on the steps and have some quiet time together. I sat on the steps with her and sang, “Let It Be” until she was more calm and then tried to talk to her. She started getting upset again, so I went back to singing. When she was ready, she signed, “Milk,” and we moved to the couch to nurse.
At this point, she was able to listen, so I could talk to her. I explained that I understood she was feeling yucky, and that makes everything seem like it’s a big deal. I let her know that I’m always here to help her when she has strong feelings and snuggled her close. She nursed and fell asleep. This could have been a situation that was far more stressful for both of us (and for my dog who has anxiety issues), but I recognized where she was, why she was behaving the way she was, and helped her to move through those feelings. By the time we got to nursing, she was smiling again and was calm and secure.
You can’t always be that calm, can you?
Simple answer: “Hell, no!” I’m human. I have strong feelings and sometimes have temper tantrums myself. Part of gentle parenting is knowing yourself. I know what my triggers are. I know what’s going to cause me to “lose it” and not be calm. In order to treat my child with respect, I have to be respectful of myself and my needs. I do the best I can in each moment and strive to do better in the next moment. Being a gentle parent takes practice. I’m far better now than a year ago at recognizing when my reactions have more to do with how I’m feeling at the moment than the behavior my child is exhibiting. I’m far better now at choosing the right words and actions in the moment than I was a year ago, or a month ago, or a day ago. I get better at it every day because I forgive myself for the moments when I’ve yelled instead of soothed, the moments when I’ve covered my ears instead of listened, and the moments when I had to give myself a time-out because I knew I wasn’t being the mother my daughter needed me to be. I’ve learned from each of those moments and made a choice to do better next time. At this point, almost 2 years into this adventure, I can proudly say that I am calm about 99% of the time. And I’m going to tell you that anyone who claims to be calm 100% of the time is lying or delusional…or maybe a well-designed cyborg.
I want to be a gentle parent. What books should I read?
I’ve never read a parenting book. I’ve read a number of good articles about the dangers of baby training, cry-it-out, and other non-gentle, non-baby-friendly methods. Those articles reinforced for me that I don’t want to take those approaches with my child, but they really didn’t give me a how-to on parenting. The true expert, whose knowledge on parenting practices that I respect above all others, is my daughter. She knows on an instinctive level what she needs, and if I tune out everything else and listen to her and to my own instincts, I’m going to be a gentle parent. I’m a very different parent and have very different philosophies from what I thought I would because I’ve let my child guide me.
How do you do it? How do you stay calm when your child is throwing a tantrum?
I’m going to share my big secrets with you here. This is your view to the inner workings of my parenting style. I didn’t know all of this when my daughter was born, and I’m still figuring more out each day. I am a work in progress. Here’s what I have learned so far:
- Know yourself. Know what triggers are going to make it harder for you to stay on track and parent the way you want to parent. Is it high-pitched screaming? Is it throwing things? Is it being hit in the face? It’s important to recognize these triggers because if you know that screaming is going to be overwhelming for you, you can prepare. You can control your thoughts. Your thoughts lead to how you’re feeling, and your behavior comes from that process. It’s also important to know your triggers because your child knows what they are. Trust me. I knew that morning that my daughter was going to scream when I took the box of raisins away. So, here was my thought process: “She’s going to scream when I take this away. It’s just a sound. Breathe.” After I took the raisins, “She’s expressing her frustration in the only way she can. She’s not feeling well, and that makes everything a big deal.” Knowing that the ear-splitting scream is a trigger for me, preparing myself for its coming, and talking myself through that trigger meant that I could respond the way I wanted to respond.
- Know your child. Every child is different. If you have multiple children, you probably find that you parent each child differently. That’s your instincts at work. Watch how your child reacts to different situations. If you know what situations are likely to lead to unwanted behavior, you can try to avoid those situations. If it can’t be avoided, like a doctor appointment, think ahead about what you can do to help your child deal with the emotions that situation stimulates. Being prepared for what is likely to happen helps you to respond proactively and positively. Learn what words, songs, distractions, etc. help your child to deal with big emotions. When the big emotions bubble up, you’ll know what to do to help your child deal with them. For us, that’s finding a quiet spot so that I can sing to my daughter and then talk through what was happening that caused her to become upset. If you can anticipate your child’s reactions, you can be ready with your response.
- Check-ins. If we aren’t at home, or I don’t feel we need stair time, we do a check-in. A typical check-in might be, “You got upset because you fell down. That was frustrating, but listen to your body. Your body is OK. It’s not telling you that you’re hurt, right? So you can let go of this feeling now. You don’t need it.” We check in to help her be attuned to what her body is telling her and to evaluate what is happening right now, in this moment, not in the moment where she became upset. It helps her to understand that we can let go of feelings that aren’t helping us, so that she can choose a new feeling and move forward. Another example of a check-in is with disputes with other children. “When Johnny took the toy from you, you felt angry. He gave the toy back and said he was sorry, so it’s time to let go of feeling angry, so you can get back to having fun.” I’ve been doing check-ins with my daughter since she was a newborn. She didn’t understand the words at that age, but she understood the tone and that I was trying to help her make sense of her emotions. Little ones feel things just as strongly as grown-ups do, they just don’t have the cognitive ability to process all those big emotions on their own.
- Time ins. A time out is separation from the parent and other comfort. Using a time out approach to regulate behavior makes no sense to me. Put it into the context of an adult. Let’s say that you’re angry with your spouse, and you’re expressing your anger. If your spouse says, “That’s enough. Go sit in time out!” how would you react to that? Would you sit in your time out spot and calm down? Of course not, you’d sit there and stew and wait until the time was up so you could finish expressing your anger. It’s even worse for kids because they don’t have the coping skills we develop over a lifetime, and separation from parents is hurtful. With a time in, the parent goes with the child to a quiet spot, sits with her and helps her gain control, and offers comfort. Once the child is calm, then you have an opportunity to discuss what happened, why it was upsetting for her or for you (or both), and how to avoid a similar situation in the future. You’re helping the child find her calm and teaching her how to cope with these emotions in the future.
- Know the signs. My sister and I took my daughter to a local fair last week. As the afternoon wore on, we saw more and more babies and toddlers melting down. They had reached their melting point. Whenever possible, get your child home or at least to the car before melting point. Once they are so over-stimulated and over-tired that they are melting down like that, it’s much, much harder to get them back to a state of peace. Watch your child for those little signs that she’s getting close to melting point and get her out of the melting pot.
- Give fair warning. Like most small children, my daughter doesn’t like to be blind-sided. She needs to know that something is going to happen soon so that she can prepare herself for it. That includes day-to-day stuff like bath time, pajama time, leaving for an appointment, etc. It also includes someone leaving or leaving a place where your child is having fun. When a child knows what is going to happen, it is much easier to transition than when they’re surprised. If I take my daughter away from whatever she’s doing to go put her pajamas on, there’s going to be an epic battle. If I tell her that we’re going to do pajama time after this book or in 5 minutes and give her a couple reminders, there might be a little whining, but generally, she moves straight to cooperation because she was ready. If we’re leaving a playground or the library, I give her several warnings that we’re going to be leaving soon. This usually helps us avoid a fight. I made the mistake last week of not preparing her for leaving the fair. I actually thought she was too tired to notice and was going to fall asleep in the stroller before we got to the car. I was wrong, and that led to tears when we got to the car, and she realized we were leaving. I should have given her fair warning that we were leaving.
- Prepare your crisis tool kit. Once you know what helps in these situations, you can prepare a tool kit to help you choose your reaction. The right words, songs, and actions will come naturally eventually, but in emotionally-charged situations, or when you’re overtired or over-stressed or sick, you might not remember them in the moment. When my daughter was a colicky newborn, I was running out of songs to sing while rocking her and trying to help her with her gassy belly. I was so exhausted that I just couldn’t remember what songs I even knew. So, when I was semi-conscious one day while my daughter slept, I wrote a list of song titles and kept it by the rocker. When I was drawing a blank at 3 am, I could reference it and not have to sing the same lullaby 15 times. Coming up with supportive, positive, nurturing words when you’re stressed out and your child is throwing the third major tantrum of the day and it’s only 9 am can be really challenging. Write down the responses you want to give and post them where you’re likely to need them. Just the act of writing these things down will help you commit them to memory. Some of my frequently used phrases:
- “You’re having strong feelings right now.”
- “I understand you’re upset with me.”
- “I’m here to help you when you’re ready to let me.”
You can also recap the situation so your child knows that you understand why she’s upset. “You wanted to play with the kitty, but the kitty walked away.” My daughter will instantly relax when she knows that I get what is upsetting her. “We don’t get to decide when kitty stays to play. Kitty has to make his own choices, but you can…” and offer an alternative. Diversions and distractions are invaluable in helping to smooth over the little situations that you can’t control.
- Make the Shift. Tonight, while I was trying to make dinner, my daughter was slamming into the backs of my legs, trying to shove herself between me and the counter, throwing anything she could reach on the floor, and running in circles around me as I tried to move between stove, sink, and counter. I was annoyed. I was frustrated. I tried sending her to play with the dog, but she was hurling herself on top of the dog. I tried carrying her into the living room and trying to engage her with the game she’d been playing before I started dinner. She was back hanging on my legs seconds later. In frustration, I started to snap at her. I got her name out, and then I made the shift. I simply said, “I love you.” I didn’t allow myself to continue with a list of “buts.” I just said, “I love you,” and took a moment to choose my next words carefully. Instead of “you’re driving me crazy” or the like, I got down on my knees and told her that I understood that she really wanted my attention, but right now, I needed to finish making dinner so we could eat. I asked her to please go find something that she can do on her own for a few minutes while I finished dinner, and then we would go sit down together and eat. She went to the other side of the island and played with her toys, happy and relaxed. If I hadn’t made that shift in that moment, if I’d snapped at her and said unkind words, she would have had a meltdown. That wouldn’t have been helpful to either of us, and dinner would have been ruined while I dealt with an unhappy child. When you feel those words trying to find their way out of your mouth, those phrases you never want to say to your child, make the shift. Tell your little one you love her. Tell your older child you need a moment to think. Let those words fill the space until you can adjust and choose gentle, supportive words.
- Think in moments. If you read back through this, you’ll see over and over that I speak of moments. This is intentional. If you think, “My child is having a bad day,” it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. A bad moment does not have to become a bad day. Each new moment is a new opportunity to choose a new path. When you think of everything in terms of moments, the bad stuff doesn’t seem so overwhelming, and you are more mindful of the good things, knowing how fleeting that moment will be. I’ll say to my daughter, “I understand you’re having a rough time right now.” When she’s back to a place of calm, I’ll talk to her about how we can make the rest of her day much better. When everything is framed as moments, we’re both free to choose a new attitude in the next moment. Adopting that mindset has made a huge difference in our lives.
- Be Gentle with Yourself. You’re going to have moments where you are not the parent you want to be. You’re going to have moments when you say things or do things that will not win you parent of the year. We all do. None of us is perfect. Here’s the big, big secret: your child doesn’t need you to be perfect. Your child needs you to do your best. He also needs to see what you do after you yell or slam the can of peas on the counter in frustration. Apologize to your child, and be specific about what the apology is for, being sure to leave out any qualifiers like, “I’m sorry, but…” Just say, “I’m sorry I yelled at you. I don’t want to do that, so I’m going to try very hard to choose a better response when I get upset.” You’re not just making your child feel better, you’re showing your child how to give a sincere apology. It’s also important to be gentle in your thoughts. If you’re thinking defeating, negative thoughts like, “I’m the worst parent in the world,” that’s going to affect how you view yourself, which will affect how you think, feel, and act. Try to steer your thinking to, “I’m not pleased with how I handled that situation,” and then turn your thoughts to how you can do better next time. If you’re holding fast to all the negative moments, you’re not even going to notice all those other moments where you’re truly fantastic. I do want to note that if you are behaving in abusive or neglectful ways toward or in the presence of your child, you should seek assistance. Ask a trusted family member or friend to assist with the care of your child while you get some help changing those behaviors.
So that’s my “method” in a nutshell. It’s all about choice–choosing a gentle, child-centered approach in each situation, in each moment. There’s one final common question, or statement rather, that I want to answer.
My child is already (insert age here). If I’d known about these methods sooner, it would have made a difference, but it’s too late now.
It is never too late. I don’t care if your child is 10 or 37. You can always choose a new path in this moment or the next. Yes, if your child is used to being spanked or ridiculed or screamed at when he does something you don’t want him to, it’s going to take some time for both of you to adjust to this new way of interacting. That doesn’t mean you can’t make the change. Talk to your child. Let him know that you want to do things differently, and that you want to improve your relationship with him or that you want the constant battles to end. Be honest and tell him that you’re going to do your best, but it’s going to take time to learn how to walk this new path. Ask your child to help you become the parent you want to be. I always tell my daughter that we’re a team. It’s my job to help her be her best, and it’s her job to help me be my best. Find support from other parents who are on a similar path, whether it’s joining an online group or meeting them in person. Find people who will support your efforts and encourage you on your new path. If you want to make a change and be a more gentle parent, you can. Every new moment is a new opportunity to choose a new path. What choice will you make now?