What is “gentle parenting?” It did not take much investigation for me to conclude that it is merely a rebranding of the same old, same old parenting babble that America’s mental health establishment has been grinding out since the late 1960s.
Mental health professionals began demonizing punishment some 50 years ago, and sure enough, I discovered that so-called “gentle” parents don’t punish. When a child misbehaves — or, to use the currently popular euphemism, makes “bad choices” — gentle parents talk, explain and reason (all of which falls on dry ground when the recipient is a child, as people with common sense don’t need to be told).
But is punishment bad? Not at all. A generation of children who were reliably punished for misbehavior — kids who, like yours truly, were raised in the 1950s and 1960s — enjoyed considerably better mental health than have children raised since. A compelling body of research even finds that children who are occasionally spanked score higher on measures of well-being than children who have never experienced the sound of one hand clapping.
The gentle parenting folks say they believe in boundaries, but they’re being disingenuous. As an example, consider the Midwestern psychologist mom who (a) claims to practice and promote GP and (b) is proud of never telling her child, currently a toddler, “no.” She has even told his preschool teachers that she doesn’t want them saying “no” to him.
She apparently believes there is something about that particular phonetic phenomenon that causes a child psychic distress. In fact, “no” is the first and most important of all boundaries. A child who learns to accept “no” is on his way to emotional resilience and, therefore, good mental health.
As clearly stated on one of their websites, GP is mostly about the supposed need to understand why children feel the way they do: “Unlike permissive parenting, gentle parenting is not based on a lack of discipline for children, which is sometimes misinterpreted. Instead, gentle parenting means understanding a child’s feelings at the moment and responding accordingly in a way that is beneficial to the child’s emotional well-being.”
What, pray tell, is there to understand about a child’s feelings? Children are self-centered, possess an entitlement mentality and have no tolerance for frustration. So, when they don’t get what they think they deserve, they emote in various antisocial ways. Why does that require “understanding?”
Children do not need people who understand their feelings as much as they need people who insist that they control them and get themselves in tune with reality, which is independent of what they want it to be.
Gentle parenting will sell well, mostly because its post-1960s philosophical predecessors managed to turn something that was once done calmly and straightforwardly into the most stressful thing a woman will do in her entire life. As such, moms (the primary consumers of parenting advice) are desperate for “answers” and convinced, oddly enough, that the answers lie in modifications of the very babble that is causing their stress to begin with.
Parents would do well to come to grips with an immutable truth: When it comes to raising children properly, there is nothing new under the sun.
Rosemond is a family psychologist in North Carolina. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.