In my experience, nothing is more terrifying or more wonderful than being a parent. I haven’t been in the parenting world long, but I’ve done my fair share of scouring the Internet for help with common parenting struggles—everything from newborn sleep tips, to teaching my two year old not to run into the street or throw food on the floor. Wherever I go for advice, be it Internet articles, other moms online, podcasts, videos, or books, I always come across the phrase “gentle parenting.”
Just taking a quick scroll through gentle parenting social media, I would see phrases like “all emotions are valid” and “Ten Things to Say Instead of ‘No.’” I assumed that this was a permissive style of parenting, where parents yield to their child’s every whim and do little to teach self-control. When I began to look deeper, I realized that this trend is not actually new, and that it aligns much more with biblical principles than I first thought.
Loving By Setting Boundaries
While Sarah Ockwell-Smith coined the term “gentle parenting” in a book she wrote in 2016, the overall style of gentle parenting matches “authoritative” parenting, described by developmental
psychologist Diana Baumrind in an article she published in 1966. The gentle or authoritative parent’s goal is to set firm boundaries and hold limits with love, seeking to connect and empathize with the child while also disciplining through natural and related consequences.
Authoritative parenting stands in between two extremes: permissive parenting (allowing a child to do whatever he pleases) and authoritarian parenting (holding boundaries without compassion). There are many ways in which parents can misunderstand or misapply the “gentle” part of gentle or authoritative parenting. However, when balanced by a biblical understanding, gentle parenting can be a useful tool for Christian parents.
The most helpful aspect of the gentle parenting trend is its emphasis on loving your child by setting and holding boundaries. Just as physical boundaries keep young children safe, behavioral boundaries are necessary for them to feel safe as they learn about themselves and the world around them. When boundaries are crossed, it is the parent’s responsibility to discipline the child by allowing him to experience consequences. According to gentle parenting, the consequences should be immediate and as closely related to the unwanted behavior as possible so that the lesson sticks in a young child’s mind.
Say a toddler is playing with his toy cars but suddenly starts flinging them around the room. The boundary is that he cannot throw his toy cars. A quick and related consequence involves taking the cars away and not allowing him to play with them as long as he cannot play with them correctly. The toddler is naturally upset at losing his toys, but the next time he has them and wants to throw them, he will eventually remember what happened the last time and stop himself. The child is learning two very important lessons here: self-control, and the law of sowing and reaping (Galatians 7:6).
Expressing Emotions Appropriately
In gentle parenting, setting and holding boundaries can sometimes get lost in what is often called the “OK the feeling” script. It goes something like this: “Johnny, I see that you are angry about not being able to have cookies for lunch. It is OK to feel angry. But it is not OK to throw your food on the floor.” Food throwing results in ending the meal, and Johnny is both hungry and upset at not getting his way.
As you can imagine, it is a lot easier to “OK the feeling” than to hold the boundary and see those consequences through. Because parents often just want their child to stop crying, they will accommodate the demand for cookies or give back the toy that they just took away. This is where gentle parenting can become permissive even when it should not.
Empathizing with the child, and letting him experience the consequences of his actions, are both vital to the process of discipline. As the parent, you must let your child be upset about the boundaries and the consequences, neither placating the crying to make it stop (permissive parenting) nor yelling and ignoring their distress (authoritarian parenting). Though boundaries define how to appropriately express feelings, they should not stop a child from expressing them by bottling them up or pushing them down. In Ephesians 4:26 Paul writes, “Be angry, but do not sin.” In other words, it’s OK to feel angry, but it’s not OK to sin in your anger. Notice he did not write, “you’re not allowed to be angry.”
Keeping the Balance
The gentle parenting trend focuses so much on validating emotions because it is reacting against the pain of having to suppress emotions, which many experienced as children under more authoritarian parents. To keep the balance between being gentle and holding boundaries, empathy is key. In Boundaries with Kids, a book on authoritative parenting from a Christian worldview which I highly recommend, Drs. Cloud and Townsend write, “Empathy is the rock on which [a parent] needs to stand when setting limits.” Parents should be there for their children in their distress and empathize with them, but still hold the boundary, helping their children acknowledge their emotions but not be ruled by them. We all need to acknowledge what we feel, assess the truth of the situation, and move on. Parents need to teach their children how to do this, so that they grow into emotionally intelligent, self-controlled human beings.
As a Christian parent, I am encouraged by much of the gentle parenting advice I come across. Knowing where the trend can slip into being too permissive, as a reaction against authoritarian parenting, helps me be discerning and take some of what I read with a grain of salt. Though the scripts can be helpful, they are not gospel. There are many ways for parents to communicate their empathy and emotional presence without saying the exact words of the “OK the feelings” script.
Although natural and related consequences are helpful, they are not the only types of consequences parents may use. Every parent and child are different, but the overall principles ring true. Children need boundaries enforced lovingly by parents who will meet them where they are, guide them, and train them, just as our Heavenly Father does for us.