by Alyson Schafer, Adlerian Parent Educator

The latest buzz term seems to be “gentle parenting”. It begs the question, what the heck is it? And how does it differ from all the other supposed types of parenting we hear about now, like: child-centred, helicopter, free-range, bubble-wrapped, dolphin, tiger momma and on and on… 
I recommend we strip away the fun titles and look at their foundational principles as a way of understanding the parenting approach they espouse. Diana Baumrind was one of the first psychological researchers to identify and create a taxonomy for three distinct parenting styles as characterized by the traits of “demandingness” and “responsiveness.” She called these:
Authoritarian: Highly demanding parents who are low on responsiveness
Permissive: Low demanding and high responsiveness  
Authoritative: High demanding parents who are highly responsive 
For me personally, the close spelling and sounding of the two words “authoritative” and “authoritarian” just kept tripping me up. So, thank you to the wonderful parenting expert, Barbara Coloroso who created much more user-friendly terms. They are: 
“Brick Wall” (Authoritarian) 
“Jelly Fish” (Permissive)          
“Back Bone”(Authoritative) 
My fellow Adlerian Steve Maybell brings in another element. He looks at the parents’ underlying beliefs and behaviours. Here are his three categories which I refer to all the time with parents:
Coercive: A parent believes “I don’t trust  you to manage… so I will make you do it” 
Pampering: A parent believes “I don’t trust you to manage… so I will do it for you” 
Respectful: A parent believes: “I DO trust you to manage… and you’ll learn from your mistakes”  
Respectful parenting, as Steve calls it, describes the Adlerian approach of being both firm and friendly at the same time.

From what I have come to understand, gentle parenting has an emphasis on empathy, understanding, respect and healthy boundaries. That is fully compatible with Adlerian principles of mutual respect and egalitarian relationships in parenting, so it sounds like it should be classified as Authoritative / Back Bone / Respectful.   

But, perhaps a further distinguishing feature of gentle parenting is the emphasis on the child’s emotions. That means we have to understand emotions and I would say most parents don’t fully. 

Let me give you an example to bring this to life. Let’s say a child gets very emotional because you cut their toast on the diagonal instead of squares so they have a meltdown. (You could find a similar teen example, like not telling them you booked them a dentist appointment when they planned on having lunch with their friends). 

Gentle parenting says we should co-regulate and reduce the emotional stress of the child, and further suggests that they use reflective or active listening. It might sound something like this: “You didn’t know I was cutting it this way, that was a surprise you were not expecting and you clearly want me to know you have a preference”. I think this child would feel very heard and understood. That would help calm them and it’s the friendly part of “firm and friendly”. But what about the firmness? 

A common mistake I see is that parents just keep doing the talking and soothing for way longer than needed and they don’t work as hard on the limit-setting. Or when the talking is ineffective, they feel the pressure and responsibility to soothe their child’s emotions so they resort to re-making the toast and cutting it the way the child wants in order to restore the child’s happy disposition and end the raging. 

Parents contribute to their children’s happiness, but they are not responsible for it. Children are responsible for their choice of emotions. That is the child’s pre-conscious creative choice. Our emotions are the fuel that drive us towards our goal, so a child can quickly learn that big emotions actually help us get our way or keep adults busy with us.

A child watches the various social responses their emotions provoke. They may observe and have learned that if they asked calmly for their toast to be cut in the angle of preference, they likely would be denied. However, if they ask in an agitated state, they’re more likely to get their way, as parents want to stop the howling upset and so they just make another piece of toast. Who wouldn’t repeat a behaviour if it was working for them? Could the child also learn that if they are keeping you busy calming them, you have them to yourself as they have no time to tend to other siblings or tasks? Calm, happy children tend to get ignored to play on their own. Emotional children get a lot of engagement. 

We want children to express all their emotions including the big and upsetting ones. But emotions don’t excuse us from life’s responsibilities. We don’t want to inadvertently provide a secondary gain or value to being emotional. I worry that parents learning about “gentle parenting” might focus on the emotions too much and under value the need for firmness too.


Used with permission from Alyson Schafer.

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