The Harsh Realm of “Gentle Parenting”

Not far into her new book, “Brain-Body Parenting” (Harper Wave), the child psychologist Mona Delahooke makes a confession. She recalls a time when her three daughters were young and she often felt overwhelmed. “When my body budget was in a deficit,” she writes, “I’d sometimes say things I later regretted, projecting my own lack of internal resources onto my kids: ‘Hurry up! You’re making us late!’ ” Stress and exhaustion, she goes on, “turned me into an authoritarian and controlling mom.”

I paused over this. I went back and reread the paragraph from the beginning. I skimmed ahead for further disclosures of Delahooke’s authoritarian tendencies. But that was it: “Hurry up! You’re making us late!” As someone whose morning exercise takes the form of a power struggle over when and under what circumstances my five-year-old will put down his trains, put on his shoes, and leave for school, I knew, reading Delahooke, that I had entered a reality-distortion field, but I wasn’t sure which one of us was the agent of distortion.

Delahooke’s recommendations in “Brain-Body Parenting” hew closely to the child-rearing philosophy commonly known as “gentle parenting,” which has been the vogue among vigilant, trend-aware P.M.C. parents for some time. It has no official doctrine: writing in the Times, Jessica Grose called the approach “a sort of open-source mélange, interpreted and remixed by moms across the country.” It doesn’t even have an official name—“gentle parenting” is a catchall for variations that include “respectful parenting,” “mindful parenting,” and “intentional parenting.” In its broadest outlines, gentle parenting centers on acknowledging a child’s feelings and the motivations behind challenging behavior, as opposed to correcting the behavior itself. The gentle parent holds firm boundaries, gives a child choices instead of orders, and eschews rewards, punishments, and threats—no sticker charts, no time-outs, no “I will turn this car around right now.” Instead of issuing commands (“Put on your shoes!”), the parent strives to understand why a child is acting out in the first place (“What’s up, honey? You don’t want to put your shoes on?”) or, perhaps, narrates the problem (“You’re playing with your trains because putting on shoes doesn’t feel good”).

The gently parented child, the theory goes, learns to recognize and control her emotions because a caregiver is consistently affirming those emotions as real and important. The parent provides a model for keeping one’s cool, but no overt incentives for doing so—the kid becomes a person who is self-regulating, kind, and conscientious because she wants to be, not because it will result in ice cream. Gentle parenting represents a turn away from a still dominant progressive approach known as “authoritative parenting,” which likewise privileges emotional attunement but allows for positive and negative reinforcement. Authoritative parents may use time-outs and groundings, for example, which are discouraged by their gentle counterparts.

There is a lot to like about gentle parenting. Delahooke’s book is particularly strong when it illustrates the rudimentary rigging of children’s physiology: kids aren’t (yet) wired for compliance and self-control, so it’s only fair for adults with fully developed brains to show them patience and empathy. Inhaling the expertise on the subject—books by Delahooke and Sarah Ockwell-Smith (the author of “How to Be a Calm Parent” and “The Gentle Parenting Book”), the RIE-descended philosophy of Janet Lansbury’s “Unruffled” podcast, Robin Einzig’s “Visible Child” Facebook discussion group, Destiny Bennett’s TikToks, and the enormously popular Instagram tutorials of Becky Kennedy, a.k.a. Dr. Becky—has made me a more mindful, less reactive parent. It has changed how I speak to my children and how I attempt to negotiate tough moments with them, and for that I am grateful.

Still, across the parenting boards and the group texts, one can detect a certain restlessness. A fatigue is setting in: about the deference to a child’s every mood, the strict maintenance of emotional affect, the notion that trying to keep to a schedule could be “authoritarian.” Sometimes, the people are saying, a tantrum isn’t worthy of being placed upon a pedestal. Sometimes, they plead, their voices rising past a gentle threshold, you just need to put your freaking shoes on.

Because so much of parenting is a practical matter, the how-to aspects of the gentle-parenting industry hold the most appeal. Kennedy, whose book “Good Inside” will be published in September, offers adaptable scripts for typical conflicts. (When a kid lies about knocking down his brother’s block tower: “Well, if someone, not you, but someone did push down a tower . . . I think I’d understand. Having a brother is hard. Sharing is hard.”) Bennett, a Black voice in a field crowded with white women, often draws on interactions with her own children: in a TikTok video labelled “The most emotionally invalidating things I stopped saying to my kids,” she rattles off the verboten phrases—“I don’t care,” “You don’t listen”—while a sleepy toddler nestles against her. Her videos collectively garner millions of views, and, in part because she often seems to be working through her approaches in real time, her advice feels friendlier and less doctrinaire than that of some of her gentle-parenting peers.

Elsewhere, the prohibitions on certain words and phrases can feel paralyzing. The parenting coach Einzig warns against “The Dreaded and Dangerous WE,” as in “We don’t hit people” and “We don’t throw food.” “It’s condescending,” she explains. “Children notice that we don’t speak this way to adults, and they figure out that we think that children don’t deserve the same respect that we give adults.” Gentle-parenting advocates are near-unanimous in the view that a child should never be told that she “made Mommy sad”—she should focus on her internal weather rather than peering out the window. “Good job!” is usually not O.K., even if you corroborate why the job is good. “Because I said so” is never O.K., no matter how many times a child asks why she has to go to bed.

One of the major themes in “Brain-Body Parenting,” and in gentle-parenting discourse generally, is that children don’t defy for the sake of defiance, but that their challenging behavior is a physiological response to stress and should be seen as essentially adaptive. The assumption unto itself is questionable: if little Timmy is on the front lawn tossing gardening implements at traffic, his motivations are probably obscurer than stress. This is one of the most confounding dilemmas of parenting, especially as kids exit the toddler stage: that sometimes a child tests or destroys boundaries for the thrill of it. Under the gentle-parenting schema, a child’s every act must be seen through a lens of anxiety and threat-detection—which heightens the parent’s dual role of child psychologist and emotional-security guard.

And why does this child feel so threatened, so stressed? The answer might be found on an episode of “Unruffled,” in which Lansbury addresses a mother whose five-year-old keeps hitting and pinching his younger sister. “He doesn’t feel safe to open up and share himself,” Lansbury explains. “He feels attacked. He feels judged. He feels misunderstood. . . . He feels he has to defend himself rather than having his mother or father or both of them being really curious about what’s going on.” In a post from 2012, Lansbury adopts the perspective of a toddler with aggression issues. “If I keep repeating the behavior,” the imaginary toddler declares, “it’s because it doesn’t feel resolved for me. Either you aren’t being convincing enough, or you’re being too intense and emotional.” If, toddler-Lansbury goes on, “there’s anger in your voice when you say ‘Don’t hit!,’ it unnerves me and I’m compelled to keep behaving that way until you can give me a calmer response.” These scripts are an inversion of the look what you made me do school of authoritarian discipline: the child gets to be the one who will turn this car around right now.

For the most part, though, “Unruffled” is digital-audio Xanax; bingeing a few episodes always adds some levity, even serenity, to the day-to-day parenting project. To witness the true blame-Mom wing of gentle parenting, look to Einzig’s heavily moderated Facebook group, “Visible Child: Respectful/Mindful Parenting,” where the tone toward the parent-supplicants is one of weary passive-aggression edging into contemptuous disbelief. (Disclosure: I was blocked from “Visible Child” after objecting to a post in which Einzig expressed disdain for members of the group whose partners have authoritarian parenting styles.) Once, a mother asked about her young son, who hit and kicked her after she told him that she would be taking a break from playing with him to do some cleaning. “He’s telling you very clearly that right now he needs your presence,” Einzig replied—the housework should wait. (So much for setting firm boundaries.) She went on, “If you don’t want him to hit you (perfectly reasonable), look at your part in the things that result in that.”

What is bewildering about some tenets of gentle parenting is their presentation of a validated child as a solitary child, and a mother as only Mother. When Lansbury counsels the mother of a child who hits, there is no acknowledgment of the little sister’s experience being hit, even though she may also feel “attacked”; there is no expectation of her mother “being really curious about what’s going on” inside the girl after she’s been hit, no recognition that the girl may wonder why her brother hitting her should not be “judged,” no thought given to the social consequences of being known as a hitter or of how those consequences might adversely shape a child’s self-perception. The housework that Einzig says to put off is a synecdoche for everything that the gentle parent—and, perhaps, the gently parented child’s invisible siblings—must push aside in order to complete a transformation into a self-renouncing, perpetually present humanoid who has nothing but time and who is programmed for nothing but calm.

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