If you’ve heard of the phrase “gentle parenting,” you might be aware that it’s linked to attachment parenting, positive parenting, or other non-punishment-oriented styles of raising children.
This parenting style can even be controversial, with some advocates saying that time-outs are too harsh and children should not receive negative consequences for bad behavior (and using the word bad to describe behavior would be off-limits).
However, it is appropriate to consider gentle discipline strategies as a parenting plan no matter where you fall on the spectrum of opinion, or what you believe the Bible says about child behavior.
Gentle discipline can refer to any parenting approach that is not physical. This method does not have to conflict with the belief that children must learn to obey their parents’ authority.
Many gentle parenting advocates say that you should not use any form of punishment, but it is possible to enforce consequences for bad behavior in a way that is kind, calm, and not shaming. This broader definition of “gentle discipline” is what this article will discuss.
Gentle Parenting for Real Life
As parents, we learn and grow along the way, and it’s impossible to know how to handle all child behavior before it happens.
Just when you think you’ve entered a season of peace and you feel like you might finally have things together, your child hits a new developmental phase. Suddenly, there are new challenges to handle.
Or, your family life is hit with external stressors, and your child’s behavior takes a turn for the worse at the same time.
Knowing some healthy parenting tips can benefit you and your child. When you don’t feel that your parenting success relies on punitive methods, this perspective can help you not to see your child as the enemy or slip into an antagonistic attitude. That’s not to say that gentle discipline is easy; in fact, it requires a great deal of self-discipline.
Here are some methods and principles of gentle discipline.
Principles of Gentle Parenting
So, what does gentle discipline look like in action? You might think, “Okay, time-outs are controversial and there are options other than spanking. What options, exactly?” You’ve probably heard of natural consequences, but what does that look like?
This type of parenting can still work on the basis of the parent being in authority and the child needing to obey. But there are ways to enforce limits and consequences without spanking.
Time-outs are one example. Even though they are controversial and some experts say not to do them, other experts believe it is possible to implement them helpfully: they should be short, with a clear explanation of what behavior the time-out is meant to address.
Expectations change as children get older. Discipline might be as simple as requiring a child to say something again, politely instead of rudely. It focuses on correction and setting limits.
Gentle discipline can combine with parents’ Christian beliefs that they should teach their children to obey. It simply means that your emphasis is on consistency, not harshness.
Set Clear Expectations
Children need simple, clear communication. That’s why teachers spend the first day or two of the school year reviewing the “procedures” of the classroom.
It’s important for kids to know what is expected of them and not to have chaotic parenting (the opposite of authoritarian, but no less harmful) based on whatever is annoying to their parents at the time.
Indulge Your Child Whenever You Can
Jacob Abbott, author of the 1871 book Gentle Child Training, taught that parents often seemed to believe they needed to be more strict. But Abbott, a minister, believed that children should be indulged as often as possible and given freedom whenever it is good for them:
“It seems to me that children are not generally indulged enough. They are thwarted and restrained in respect to the gratification of their harmless wishes a great deal too much. Indeed, as a general rule, the more that children are gratified in respect to their childish fancies and impulses, and even their caprices, when no evil or danger is to be apprehended, the better.
Children may be greatly indulged, and yet perfectly governed. On the other hand, they may be continually checked and thwarted, and their lives made miserable by a continued succession of vexations, restrictions, and refusals, and yet not be governed at all.” (Gentle Child Training, p. 32)
As a parent, you probably know your natural tendency. If you tend to be too strict, try saying yes more often, and making sure your rules are necessary. If you tend to be too lenient, you may need to be more consistent with discipline.
In Gentle Child Training, Jacob Abbott wrote that parents should use the mildest consequence possible, but apply it with the greatest possible consistency. A consequence can be as simple as a correction. It can even be administered in a lighthearted way for a lesser offense.
Gentle discipline is really self-discipline. Some children feed off the ability to rile up their parents’ emotions. The ability to be calm and keep the big picture in mind reinforces your authority and confident leadership.
Consistency doesn’t replace grace.
Sometimes, it’s okay to let your child off the hook for something when they “should” receive discipline. Your child’s heart and needs are more important than any parenting strategy or formula, and you as their parent are the only one who can be in tune with them enough to know when they just need a little extra grace.
Maybe your tantruming toddler is just tired. Maybe she just needs you to pick her up and carry her around, smooth her hair out of her face, and offer her cold water. Maybe your teenager is overwhelmed with stress at school and just needs a break and eventually, a listening ear. And at all stages in between, it is okay to pause and ask yourself if your child needs discipline or maybe some patience and understanding—or a little of both!
Set your child up for success.
Learn about their current developmental stage. Minimize screen time. Give them time to play outside. Minimize your possessions if possible to create a more relaxed environment. Recognize that a certain amount of boredom is good and fuels creativity
>Set a good example.
Acknowledging your child’s emotions while setting boundaries on how they express them Being frustrated is okay, but yelling is not. Modeling self-regulation as a parent is very important. If you are not able to address an issue with self-control, it’s better to let it go till you are calm.
Connect with your child.
You do not have to make every discipline moment into a teaching opportunity to make an impression on your child. You can often use stories and before-bedtime explanations rather than having long conversations about sin in the heat of the moment.
Use your discretion to know when is the best time to address a heart issue in your child, and recognize that changes in attitude take time.
When a child seems the most unlovable is usually when they need connection. This principle doesn’t mean to ignore a child’s cues that they need to be alone. Connecting with your child means indicating your availability and responding to their cues for connection.
Consider a few last tips.
- Rule out other causes for misbehavior/disobedience. Perhaps a child is stressed for a reason you haven’t realized, especially if the behavior is new and unprecedented for them.
- The younger you start with consistent discipline, the better. The older your child is, the longer it will take for you to see results from consistent training.
- Be on the same page with your spouse if possible, but at the very least communicate about which discipline strategies you are comfortable with.
- If your child starts new types of disobedience, take time alone to consider how to respond and what discipline they may need. It’s okay if you don’t know how to handle it in the beginning. Attitudes and rudeness, for example, can be much less clear than a younger child who just says no.
Older children often develop more complex behavior problems, and even younger children may have been affected by something you haven’t realized. Don’t hesitate to seek Christian counseling or play therapy for parenting issues.
“Yellow Flowers”, Courtesy of Masaaki Komori, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Daddy and Daughter”, Courtesy of Humphrey Muleba, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Father and Children”, Courtesy of Juliane Liebermann, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Secrets”, Courtesy of Sai De Silva, Unsplash.com, CC0 License