What to do when social media insists you should be a 'gentle' parent

What to do when social media insists you should be a 'gentle' parent

An illustrated woman as a windup figurine, looking exhausted.

The modern mother who spends any amount of time on social media could be forgiven if she feels constant pressure to remain preternaturally calm even as her 3-year-old flings spaghetti in her face or bops their newborn sibling on the head with a plastic toy. 

After all, much of the messaging she encounters in certain online spaces is to acknowledge her child's feelings and respond warmly while setting a firm boundary. In general, this is excellent advice that aligns with research suggesting kids do the best when their parents respond to their needs while also setting consistent, clear expectations for behavior. Additionally, parents who can regulate their own emotions during stressful interactions model invaluable coping skills for their children.

Yet, as the terms "respectful" parenting and "gentle" parenting have become ascendant on social media, moms who encounter these approaches are often bombarded by advice, scripts, and tips emphasizing the importance of living up to the meaning now imbued in those words. Boundaries must be set playfully. Daily tasks, like putting on shoes or cleaning up toys, must become games. Consequences should occur naturally, not as punishment. Children shouldn't be asked to apologize for hurtful behavior. 

"Some but not all of it seems to revolve around parents, but specifically usually mothers, never losing their tempers, which isn't a terribly realistic way to go through life as a human," says Jessica Grose, New York Times opinion writer and author of Screaming on the Inside: The Unsustainability of American Motherhood, of online parenting advice. 

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The implication is that using consequences, voicing frustration, or sternly setting boundaries will fracture the child-parent bond in disastrous ways and inhibit a child's emotional development. Another possibility is that if popular strategies don't work for a certain mom, she's not mastered being gentle or respectful, and therefore failed her child, which will ultimately harm their relationship. 

Despite social pressure to adopt "gentle" or "respectful" approaches, child development experts say the terms aren't well-defined, nor have they been rigorously studied. That doesn't mean the strategies they promote aren't helpful — they can be — but moms should feel like they have permission to question what advice is appropriate for their child and family. 

This is particularly true given that most "gentle" and "respectful" parenting advice online is geared toward children who are neurotypical and don't have more intense emotional or mental health needs. The conversations surrounding these approaches also gloss over the cultural context of how families speak to and set boundaries with their children. Parents of color who use a direct style of communication may be labeled as harsh when, in fact, they're striving to protect their children's physical and emotional safety in a world of highly inequitable stakes.

Against this backdrop, being inundated with potentially guilt-inducing parenting tips that aren't inclusive of a child's reality, or their family's, can carry more risks than benefits. 

"There is so much advice to parents, from experts to influencers, that I think being a parent has gotten much more confusing," says Dr. Tovah P. Klein, director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development and adjunct associate professor of psychology. "Too much information is often not helpful, unfortunately." 

What is "gentle" parenting?

Despite the quick generational rise of gentle parenting discourse, the concept isn't new. Instead, it's rooted in years of psychological research that labeled "authoritative" parenting as the most effective for children. 

This style is often contrasted with two others that emerged in studies as distinct approaches: authoritarian and permissive. Authoritative strikes an ideal balance of warmth and responsiveness, combining nurturance and independence with reasonable limits, whereas the others have been found to tilt too far in one direction, such as harsh (authoritarian) or lenient (permissive).

In newer studies, researchers looked at the important role gentle encouragement can play for children with inhibited temperaments, who may be shy or slow to warm up. Those children need more of a "tuned in parent" to understand them, says Klein, author of How Toddlers Thrive: What Parents Can Do Today for Children Ages 2-5 to Plant the Seeds of Lifelong Success.

She suspects strategies used by parents of those children became the framework for "gentle" parenting, but noted that the concept can be confusing if parents misunderstand what gentleness means in practice. 

"Who doesn't want to be gentle with their child?"
- Dr. Tovah P. Klein, Barnard College

"Who doesn't want to be gentle with their child?" asks Klein. Yet, children also need authority, she adds. "That's where people get confused. Children don't want free rein, and at the same time, they're not supposed to be your friend." 

Klein says that gentle doesn't mean relinquishing control. Parents must still say no and set limits, without adopting a punitive or shaming tone — and also accept their child's anger or despair over those limits. How this plays out in everyday life is where things can get tricky. 

When a preschooler ignores a boundary, such as no jumping on the furniture, his parent may gently but clearly restate the expectations. He may respond to that by breaking another rule, like hitting the family pet. Even as the parent remains calm, the child may escalate his behavior, which requires new boundaries: for instance, using a safe or "inside" voice instead of screaming. But the mom who's more worried about appearing angry or upset, rather than gentle, or isn't sure whether the limit she's set is too severe, can lose control of the situation, and then feel even worse. 

The term "respectful" parenting often references the Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE) approach pioneered by former child therapist Magda Gerber and made popular by the author Janet Lansbury. While RIE emphasizes the importance of setting and keeping boundaries, the generic term can also sow confusion for moms who are concerned that being stern or frustrated, or using reasonable consequences, is fundamentally harmful to their children. 

Adults certainly don't, or shouldn't, assign consequences for their partners for mistakes or transgressions, the thinking goes. Yet, their partners don't, or shouldn't, do things like drop their sibling in a puddle or run into the street after being asked 10 times not to do so. Adherents to respectful parenting often believe that punishments don't reinforce an important moral lesson but, rather, lead to internalized shame. Instead, parents should model the appropriate behavior so their child can observe and willingly adopt it. 

But, as might be expected, this can leave moms feeling exhausted as they try to perfectly calibrate their response so their child behaves appropriately but isn't inadvertently scarred by the interaction. 

Grose says that in the process of writing Screaming on the Inside, she talked to mothers who felt ashamed that popular parenting strategies hadn't worked for them.   

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"There seem to be proper scripts and very specific ways of relating to children that didn't always feel possible, and didn't always feel natural," says Grose. 

This was especially true for parents whose children didn't "quote-unquote fit the mold." Those mothers felt they were doing something wrong "because it's supposed to be a one-size-fits-all and work for everybody," Grose explains.

Klein says some of this tension comes down to how parenting advice is doled out online. It must be both digestible and memorable, which incentivizes commenters, influencers, and some experts to strip the nuance from their guidance. The quest for attention online also can prey upon the vulnerabilities of parents seeking guidance on how to avoid repeating perceived failings during their childhood.

"The problem is children are more complicated than just a soundbite," she says. The approach of "'If your child has this behavior, then do this,' I don't think is helpful most of the time."  

Dr. Emma C. Woodward, a psychologist with the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute, says that when she hears people talk about "gentle" and "respectful" parenting they sound like "amazing ideas." Yet, they also haven't been researched much as concepts independent of authoritative parenting. Woodward says that "gentle" parenting draws on "positive" parenting strategies, which avoid punitive measures like timeouts and loss of privileges and instead focus on praising children for ideal behavior.  

Woodward notes that the research on "positive" parenting tactics is mixed. The inconclusive findings point to the need for more research of new parenting styles, she says. 

When "gentle" parenting doesn't work

Woodward does know that children with conditions like autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and anxiety often need different support than some of their peers. When kids experience challenges with emotion regulation and self-regulation, including impulsivity and decision-making, parents may find that a so-called gentle approach doesn't work. 

Instead, they may find success with more structure and clear behavioral expectations. While sticker charts, for example, are criticized as a form of bribery or manipulation by some parenting influencers and experts, parents of kids with autism, ADHD, and anxiety often find them to be a useful tool for generating positive behavior when other strategies are ineffective. The same parents may also make greater use of consequences for poor choices or unacceptable behavior. 

"They probably wouldn't fall into the gentle parenting paradigm, and that's OK," says Woodward, of negative consequences. 

When loving parents set clearly-drawn boundaries and expectations, kids who struggle with certain behavioral challenges may find it easier to build self-confidence and agency. 

As mainstream "gentle" and "respectful" parenting advice on social media often leaves out the experiences of children with different psychological experiences and conditions, it also isn't typically presented with parents of diverse racial and ethnic identities, or socioeconomic backgrounds, in mind.

Dr. GiShawn Mance, associate professor of psychology at Howard University, studies traumatic stress and coping in Black youth and families. She's a co-author on a forthcoming research paper that examines parenting patterns in Black families, in the context of economic hardship and community violence. Mance believes it's important to expand the way we think about parenting styles to avoid oversimplifying certain behaviors. 

Traditional classifications of authoritative parenting, for example, might not allow for the type of control or boundaries that some Black parents may feel they need to exert over their children, in order to keep them safe, Mance explains. The dynamic is especially prevalent among families living in communities with higher rates of violence. That can mean highly regulating a child's social life instead of letting them choose to spend time with certain friends. 

In another family, this might seem like overly controlling behavior that could be considered authoritarian, but Mance says those distinctions must take into account the environmental, political, and social-economic stressors that families face.

Similarly, when a child is asked to put his toys away, the parent practicing a "gentle" approach might patiently and empathetically restate the desire and do the task with the child, whereas a parent with a direct style of communication that's grown out of generations of frank conversations about the importance of following rules, might not use the same tone or tactic. They might ask the child: "Where do your toys belong?" then follow up by saying, "Thank you for placing it back where it belongs." 

"Either way, there's no right or wrong," says Mance. "Both parents are just setting a boundary and wanting the child to comply and make sure that they take responsibility for their items, but one parent is just more direct with it. It doesn't mean that warmth is not a part of their relationship." 

While guidance from Black parents who practice "gentle" parenting can be found on social media, in overarching conversations there's often little recognition about the important nuances of parenting styles amongst parents of color.

Mance, for example, says that warmth and gentleness may show up in Black families as valuing strong family ties, respect for elders, reciprocal relationships, and the notion that children are naturally good. But that can also be paired with other values that, to outsiders, may seem less tender, like raising children with approaches that emphasize a sense of respect, obedience, responsibility, religion, and morality. 

Mance says that the concept of "gentle" parenting can be helpful, though perhaps easier to implement when families aren't chronically stressed or overburdened. Ultimately, she says it's important for families to find what works best for them.

It's this type of broad perspective and room for individualization that's easily lost when scrolling through social media feeds online, leaving parents uncertain and overwhelmed. Jessica Grose is so wary of social media parenting advice that she avoids it for various personal and philosophical reasons. But she has noticed that "very prescribed" guidelines are often more appealing to parents who feel like they can't trust their own instincts. 

That self-doubt may arise when a mother is frantically searching for ways to spare her children the emotional turmoil she experienced as a child; constantly receiving online advice that undermines her instincts; encountering peer or social pressure to practice a certain parenting style; or internalizing a combination of those and other factors. 

"If you have found something, whatever it is, and it is working for your family, that's amazing, keep doing that," says Grose. "I guess I don't understand the desire for lay people to insist that 'Oh, this thing is a miracle and it will work for everybody else.' You just don't know."

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