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Gentle Parenting Your Kids and Yourself at the Same Time
How our parenting instincts were written for us years ago, and why it's hard to go off-script
Chances are, if you’re a parent today and spend any time engaging with parenting resources or following social media channels, you’ll have heard the term ‘gentle parenting’, or some variation of it.
Of course, we’re all for it. But what the hell is it exactly?
Writing for Verywell Family, Renee Plant defines it as:
“…an evidence-based approach to raising happy, confident children.”
Comprising of four elements - empathy, respect, understanding, and boundaries - it generally seeks to treat children less like our possessions and more like the people they actually are (a novel concept, I know), and allow children to explore their emotions safely, whilst still enforcing consistent boundaries.
By allowing our children to freely explore and fully process their emotional states - rather than tell kids to stop crying right away or try to fix things for them to revert them back to a happy default as quickly as possible - this research suggests that even naturally shy toddlers show more regulated responses in social contexts. Other research suggests links between gentle parenting and reduced anxiety, and that kids who are gentle-parented “better understand how they should behave while not exposing them to less favorable ways of speaking and acting.”
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For a less dense and more accessible look into gentle parenting in action, the Instagram accounts for Curious Parenting and biglittlefeelings are must-follows for great tips on some gentle parenting techniques.
So all that sounds great…but it’s time to address the elephant in the room.
Gentle parenting - with all the best intentions in the world, and despite us knowing it’s the best thing for our children - is really fucking hard.
Have you ever been in a situation where you’re trying to get things done around the house, and your toddler is just having one of those days where nothing satisfies them, and they can’t go five minutes without complaining about something?
“The water in my cup is too cold.”
“I wanted the blue bowl, not the red one.”
“I asked for toast with jam, and now that you’ve served it to me, I really don’t want toast with jam, at all.”
Each one of these things is accompanied with a full-blown tantrum, that we’re just expected to endure silently like a mountain in a hurricane, then get down on their level, take a deep breath, and calmly explain to them what feelings they’re feeling.
Then, just when you think you’re getting somewhere, they grab the glasses off your face and snap the lease right out of the frame. For the third time this year.
I don’t know about you, but I’d have lost my cool at least a little bit a long time before this point. In fact, I did.
It’s not that we have to be perfect all the time, of course. Sometimes we have bad days, just like our toddlers do. But there’s no denying that even whilst we know gentle parenting techniques are probably considered best practice nowadays, it’s still incredibly testing to implement these techniques consistently.
But why do we find it so hard? How do these tiny little people manage to push our buttons so much when all we’re doing is just trying to remain calm and patient?
I have a theory, and I think it’s to do with how we were parented ourselves.
When our daughter refuses to eat her dinner and starts throwing her food, we try to talk her through her frustration, validate it, and if she really doesn’t want to eat, then we don’t force the issue. If she knocks a cup of water off the kitchen table by accident, we let her feel sad that she made a mess, and reassure her that accidents happen. And if she does her new favourite thing and runs away from me whilst I’m trying to get her into the car, after chasing her down I remind her in a serious but measured tone that I can’t let her do that, and that it’s not safe to run off without daddy.
Now, please don’t think I’m bragging about any of that. Those responses are best-case scenario; half the time I won’t get it right, or I’ll have to leave the room before I lose my shit in front of her. I merely present them as examples to show the contrast with how my parents would have dealt with those situations.
If I was throwing food, my dinner would go straight in the bin. If I made a mess, I’d get called clumsy and berated for it. And if I did something like run off from my mum, once I was back in the car, I’d get smacked.
I don’t hold these things against my parents. They parented in a different time with less resources and even less research into this kind of thing. But therein lies the problem. Over years and years of seeing these styles of parenting modelled to me by being on the receiving end, I think it wrote a mental playbook for me of what parenting should look like. Then, it lay dormant in me for many years until I became a dad. In times of stress and not knowing what to do or how to handle a volatile situation, our minds quickly scan through this book and pick a response that we’ve seen before.
Think about it - how often do you catch yourself saying something to your child, and then thinking “oh shit, I just sounded like my mum/dad”?
The problem with this playbook is as I’ve mentioned - it’s based on outdated evidence, and the problem becomes more pronounced the further you go back. If like me, your parents wrote your mental parenting playbook, who wrote theirs? Their parents. And who wrote theirs? If they weren’t doing gentle parenting in the 1980’s or 1990’s, you can bet they weren’t doing it in the 1960’s, or the 1930’s, or even earlier than that. But no matter how far you go back, those lessons have been passed down generations for centuries, just like that ugly-as-fuck grandfather clock that’s in your parents house, and you know one day will end up in yours.
So why does this make gentle parenting in the present day so difficult for some of us? For me, it’s a mix of things.
Gentle parenting certainly requires patience, which is one thing I was never shown. How am I meant to show patience and understanding of negative emotions or behaviour when I was never shown how to do those things by my parents? I was shown one way, and so my instincts want to go in that direction. Fighting against that nature is inherently hard.
In a way, I guess there’s also some resentment there. I really hated being talked down to or shouted at as a kid, let alone being hit. I remember cowering in the back of the car every time I got in, even if I didn’t know whether I’d done something wrong or not during that day’s outing. I’d purposefully sit in the seat behind the driver, so my mum couldn’t reach me to smack my legs. Contrast that with my three-year-old tearing the place apart because she can’t have another chocolate cookie with her dinner - my brain is reading the mental parenting playbook and saying, You didn’t get to act like this. Are you just gonna let her get away with that?
Part of that resentment is unresolved childhood trauma. When I say childhood trauma, I don’t mean what most people think it means - it doesn’t have to mean domestic violence or sexual abuse. Dr. Gabor Maté defined trauma in this interview as:
“…not what happens to you, it’s what happens inside you as a result of what happened to you. Trauma is that scarring that makes you less flexible, more rigid, less feeling and more defended.”
When you take the stigma away from the word, I’d definitely say my experiences as a child were traumatic. It doesn’t make my parents bad - they did the best with what they knew at the time. But it has shaped the way I’ve instinctively sought to act whenever my three-year-old displays behaviour that I don’t agree with. It’s made me less naturally open to accepting her feelings and emotions in that particular moment, and more rigid in my way of thinking that there’s only one way to deal with the situation: how my parents would have dealt with it.
My emotions were not given the space or time they deserved when I was little. I didn’t feel seen or respected; I felt voiceless. And so now, when I see my child openly disregarding instructions or disobeying the structure that we’ve put in place for her, those same feelings come up once again, and my sub-conscious wants to deal with them the only way I instinctively know how. I wasn’t given patience or understanding; why should she get it?
These inner monologues sound rather childish. But that’s exactly what they are - they are echoes of my inner child. I know I’m sound very new age-y now, but my thoughts speak in that voice because those issues were unresolved in childhood.
For me, this gentle parenting approach that I’m committed to now is not just about being calm and understanding with my children - it’s about being the same way with myself.
I’m trying to tell myself that I did deserve to have my feelings and emotions handled better when I was a child, and that I don’t want my daughters to ever feel the same way when they’re my age. So now I have to pay it forward. I have to do my part in breaking the cycle of that outdated mental playbook being handed down over and over again.
I say do my part, because in truth I might not be able to resolve everything in this generation. I still have plenty of days where I snap and shout, or say things in a tone that I regret later. I sometimes wonder whether my daughter will be writing about me in the same way in thirty years’ time.
But if you have the same worries as me, then take comfort from two things.
Firstly, we don’t have to do it by the book all the time. In fact, renowned parenting expert Sarah Ockwell-Smith advocates for the 70/30 rule, whereby we do our best for seventy percent of the time, and let the other thirty percent slide. So if you’re getting to the end of the day, you’ve had a guts full of doing everything by the book and your kid won’t eat their dinner without the iPad on, this is your permission to go for it. That thirty percent won’t reverse the seventy.
The second? Consider this: we’re the first generation in our entire lineage to be pushing back; trying to turn that generational cycle in a different, better direction. Yes, we might not be the ones to completely rub out everything in that mental playbook, but it’s a fucking start.
And that’s got to count for something.
Over to you
That got way deeper than I intended! But being really into the work of Dr Gabor Maté and others in recent years, I’m convinced all this stuff is linked - everything comes back to childhood. What we’re modelled there is what we carry with us into adulthood, and trying to go against that is a huge mental challenge.
I’m interested to hear from you. Are you pursuing a gentle parenting style with your children, and do you find it a struggle sometimes, even though you know it’s for the best? It can feel so disheartening when we don’t get it right as parents, but I think more of us deserve to know that there’s others who are just the same. None of us are perfect, but we’re trying - and that’s a start.
Some recommended reading
The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness & Healing in a Toxic Culture by Gabor Maté and Daniel Maté - If this article piqued an interest for you in the work of Gabor Maté, start here. In his most recent book, he and his son delve into the connection between emotional trauma and physical ill-health, and how more needs to be done to address the global mental health crisis we’re sleep-walking into in western society.
Sort Your Head Out: Mental Health Without All The Bollocks by Sam Delaney - In this half-memoir, half-self help book that came off the back of, Sam opens up about how his life and work led him down a road of alcohol and drug abuse, and how he turned it all around and got sober. I love how this caters for men who don't generally resonate with the typical mental health-speak speak we tend to see online nowadays. Plus, Sam has some of the most hilarious, spectacular anecdotes I've ever heard.
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Previously on Some Other Dad
Last week got a bit existential - I discussed how the first few weeks of fatherhood really made question who I was now that my old self was no longer there, and how I overcame that.