The gentle parenting movement has gained quite a bit of momentum. More and more experts and social media influencers (both Christian and non Christian) are extolling its benefits. If you are a Christian parent who is struggling to find their own parenting “voice” or style, if you are thinking about trying gentle parenting, or if you have tried it and are still unsure, I hope that this post will give you some perspective on the topic so that you can have the information you need to make a decision that is best for you and your family.
What is gentle parenting?
This is not an easy question to answer. And it’s not for a lack of information, but rather and lack of consensus. If you ask 5 different proponents for their definition of gentle parenting, you will likely get 5 slightly different answers.
The matter is confused by the fact that there are a number of different names for this parenting movement. It has been called respectful parenting, positive parenting, non-violent parenting, to name a few. Generally, they have some elements in common. Let’s take a look at some common tenants.
The foundations of gentle parenting
In gentle parenting, the parent tries to put themselves in their child’s shoes and attempts to understand the “why” behind the behavior. Generally speaking, the presumption is that the child is not acting out on purpose, but rather from a lack of skill or emotional resources. By understanding where the child is coming from, the parent is in a better position to re-frame the behavior as developmentally appropriate and in need of empathy rather than coming from a place of defiance that needs correction.
2) Validation of emotions
This is connected to empathy. In gentle parenting, there is an emphasis on accepting and validating all of a child’s emotions and inner experiences. No emotions are seen as “bad” and it is the parent’s job to validate and “see” the different emotional states of their children without a desire to fix it.
This might look like a temper tantrum that is allowed to run its course while a gentle and calm parent reflects feelings and creates a safe space for their child to process through the whole range of emotions that comes with a meltdown.
Understanding that “children are people too,” gentle parenting proposes that children have the same rights to be heard, express emotions and have their feelings considered as the adults in the family. Kids are often given a number of choices and their input is sought. Some proponents encourage parents to limit the number of “no’s” they say to their kids and try to find the “yes” in response to every request (safety issues excluded, of course).
4) No punishments/ time outs
Gentle parents do not use applied corrective measures to address behaviors. This means no sticker charts (which can externalize motivation), no rewards for good behavior (which can create people-pleasing) and no time outs (which can create separation when a child most needs connection).
Proponents place an emphasis on firm but kind boundaries. Gentle parents hold the boundary and the child gets to voice their dislike. Boundaries are always held within the context of all the other tenants above – respect, empathy and validation. A child’s upset with a boundary is heard and reflected. The parent stays calms while reflecting the child’s emotions back to them (“You are upset about no more TV. I don’t like when I have to stop doing something fun. It’s still time for bed.”) The boundaries may extend to holding a child’s arms to prevent them from hurting others, but typically boundaries are not a “hands on” endeavor for a gentle parent.
Underlying beliefs of gentle parenting
1) Kids are “good inside”
Children’s misbehaviors are seen as caused by a mis-attuned parent, insufficient co-regulation with a calm adult presence, innate developmental traits (ie: an underdeveloped “thinking brain”), or lack of skill. Gentle parents offer their children a lot of latitude when it comes to repeated misbehavior. Parents employ all of the tenants above while holding the kind but firm boundary.
2) Children have a voice
One of the biggest underpinnings of gentle parenting is a desire to get away from blind obedience and compliance without question. Gentle parents believe that this will set children up for possibly being mistreated or becoming people-pleasers later in life.
Children are encouraged to have strong opinions, express themselves and question instructions. Gentle parenting does not ask children to try to make other people happy with their behavior and gives children permission to push back and question the norm.
3) Gentle parenting will lead to well-adjusted adults
People who were parented harshly or dismissively are often proponents of gentle parenting. Their fervor comes from place of pain and wanting something better for their own kids. Gentle parenting is held up to be the key to unlocking mental health and relational stability in adulthood.
What does the Bible have to say about parenting?
Biblical support for gentle parenting
There are plenty of verses that seem to indicate that this is the “right” way to parent. These verses tell us to not exasperate or embitter our children (Colossians 3:21, Ephesians 6:4), to treat them with respect and consideration (1 Peter 5:2-3) to confront sin gently (Galatians 6:1) and to not hinder the little children from coming to Jesus (Matthew 19:14).
Other Bible verses related to parenting
The Bible also tells parents to train our children (Proverbs 22:6), teach them what the Lord has done (Joshua 4:20-24; Deuteronomy 6:6-9; Psalm 78:4), discipline them (Proverbs 29:17; Hebrews 12:7-11), and teach children how to obey (1 Timothy 3:4).
The Bible is full of examples when the latter is not adhered to. In 1 Samuel 2:12-33, we learn about Eli and his wicked sons. We are told that Eli was aware of their wickedness but his parenting intervention consisted of simply telling them, “What you are doing isn’t right.” There were no consequences or limits set. No discussion of the sin-filled path they were on. They continued to work within the tabernacle while being a disgrace to the priesthood. Eli didn’t train, teach or discipline them and it cost him his very own life and the lives of his sons.
David was another person in the Bible who does not seem to have trained his children. In 1 Kings 1:6, we learn that David didn’t even do the bare minimum of questioning his son as Eli had done. David was a “hands off” father in every sense of the word. He didn’t instruct, guide or correct his sons and they grew up to be self-serving and rebellious men.
Maybe it’s a combination…
Gentle parenting is not a free-for-all, permissive approach as demonstrated here in Scripture. But correction is a fundamental pillar of bible-informed parenting (the passages above show us the disastrous outcome when we do not).
The heart of gentle parenting is beautiful – children should be respected, heard and understood. They also need structure, limits and instruction on what is right and wrong. For a Christian parent, that means a discussion about sin and the state of their heart. We cannot detangle grace from the cross. We can’t teach our kids to love Jesus if they don’t understand the depths of what He did for them.
Every generation seems to think they have found the “key” to unlocking the mystery of parenting.
When my kids were little, the parenting pendulum had just begun its swing away from an obedience-above-all-else mindset, which created unattainably high expectations for children. Now it seems we have swung past the midpoint and have now created equally unattainable expectations for parents.
Once concern I have for parents who fully embrace the gentle parenting method is that it has the potential to create feelings of never good enough or fears of causing their children lasting emotional harm. Unrealistic expectations for our children or ourselves is not helpful.
Like everything in life, we need balance. We need to show our children grace and we need to teach them about sin. Our kids need to know that they are loved and they need to know that there are consequences to choices in life. Our kids need to be heard and validated and they need to know that Mom and Dad are in charge, keeping them save in a world they do not quite understand. We need to have realistic expectations of our child’s age and development and we need to show them how their actions affect others. We need to connect with them and we need time to ourselves without guilt or shame.
So… is gentle parenting biblical? Yes. It absolutely embodies the heart of Christ. Is it sufficient? That’s up for you to decide.