Gentle parenting: The mindfulness alternative to 'time-out'
If 'time-out' isn't working, you could consider 'gentle parenting' which promotes a mindful approach to how your child feels
Before I had children, I knew of just one type of parenting - simply called 'parenting'. It was only after having kids that I realised just how many different parenting styles there are. There's authoritarian, where parents dictate and children obey; there's permissive, where children are allowed free rein; and everything else in between. But one that stands for its focus on empathy and team work is 'gentle parenting'. So what exactly is it, and how do you implement it with your children?
"Gentle parenting is really just a phrase to describe empathic, respectful parenting," explains author of The Gentle Parenting Book, Sarah Ockwell-Smith. "What sets gentle parenting aside from more mainstream parenting methods is that the parent is always mindful of how the child feels. It's about working as a team with your child to resolve issues, rather than viewing parenting as a battleground, pitting parent against child."
As someone who regularly battles with a preschooler over bedtimes, mealtimes, and incorrectly cut toast, this has appeal. But surely if there are no battles, this just means letting kids do anything they want - is it permissive parenting?
"There is no permissiveness in gentle parenting," says Ockwell-Smith. "Discipline and boundaries play a vital component. The difference is, gentle parents understand that discipline is all about teaching the child to be better and do better. Children don't learn anything from smacking, time-out, or punishments; research has shown that these demotivate children."
Sandi, from Co Wicklow, says that gentle parenting suited her from the start. "I found with most parents I spoke to, normal behaviours like night waking, frequent feeding, and baby wanting to sleep on or near parents were seen as 'bad' and something that had to be eliminated. This never sat right with me, and happily the gentle parenting ethos suited our family. Of course I struggle with aspects of it - I have a tendency to raise my voice or tut and sigh - but I try to always be respectful of my daughter as a person and apologise to her if I feel my behaviour was wrong."
Wexford mum Triona has always taken the gentle approach with her two boys. "I never saw it that you're trying to train or domesticate children, but I didn't have a name for it at first. Then when the kids were having tantrums, I'd Google and find an article about gentle parenting. So it was a combination of my own leanings and becoming more aware of it as a movement. I did try other methods on and off - we tried the whole time-out thing but it never worked, it always escalated into something worse."
Indeed, many parents struggle with the idea that punishing a child is not necessary or helpful. Dr Katherine O'Hanlon, a child clinical psychologist from Bray, Co Wicklow, explains. "Most parents resort to a punitive or behavioural style of parenting out of either a belief or fear that this is the only way children will learn to behave 'properly', or out of desperation when they just don't know what else to do.
"However, as psychologists we know that the behavioural strategies often used at these times - including cry-it-out sleep training, naughty steps, smacking, withdrawal of favoured toys and activities - can actually make problems worse, as they raise stress hormones in children's bodies, can undermine the parent-child relationship, and lead to heightened levels of anxiety. Although these strategies can seem attractive as they often seem to 'work' very quickly - which is true if your definition of success is simply an absence of the undesirable behaviour - this is usually achieved as a result of the child feeling anxious of further punishment rather than because they have actually developed a better understanding of their own emotions and behaviours, as they will through a more gentle, emotion-focused approach to tackling the problem."
So how should people approach implementing gentle parenting?
Ockwell-Smith has some key pointers:
"In my Gentle Parenting Book, I talk about 'seven Cs' and I think these seven words really sum up what gentle parenting is and how parents can react to specific situations. There are three Cs that are super important in my opinion and they are:
Connection: Most behavioural problems stem from the child feeling disconnected to their parents, perhaps due to the parent going back to work, a new sibling arriving or stress in the parent's life meaning they're less emotionally available.
Communication: Parents need to understand that all behaviour is communication. What is the child trying to communicate? If parents look for the reason behind the behaviour, rather than just seeing 'naughty behaviour' they will try to solve the problem.
Consistency: Gentle parenting is hard work and it's tempting to let boundaries drop sometimes if you're tired and let kids get away with something you wouldn't ordinarily do, but that's the worst thing you can do. You have to be totally consistent everyday. If you don't, it's confusing to children, and confusion almost always results in negative behaviour."
Sandi, whose daughter is now three, gives a simple example. "I say yes as much as possible - if I know she wants to jump in muddy puddles on the walk to the shops, I plan for wellies and rain gear so that when she wants to jump in the puddles, I can say yes."
Triona finds individual attention helps. "I read something once about tantrums and how you have to fill the child's 'tank', and if they're acting out it's because they're not getting enough one-to-one time. And exhausting as it is, when you're wrecked after work, I just found the behaviour was better if I could sit down for 10 minutes to play Lego with him." She also explains to her children why certain boundaries are in place.
"If there's a rule about something they can't do, like running across the road, I explain why. It helps them to make sense of the world. It's not a perfect science and there are times when I get it wrong, but if I shout, I say I'm sorry."
A brief history of childcare advice:
In the early 20th century, Sir Frederic Truby King advocated an authoritarian parenting style, suggesting babies should be fed every four hours only and should only be cuddled for 10 minutes a day.
In 1928, US psychologist John B. Watson warned mothers not to 'over coddle' their children, advising that they should never hug or kiss them.
In 1946, Dr Benjamin Spock broke the mould, advocating a more baby-led routine, however his advice was criticised as promoting permissive parenting.
In the 1950s, Donald Winnicott introduced the idea of the 'good-enough mother' and suggested that holding babies would help build confidence.
In 1977, Penelope Leach's book Your Baby & Child focused on empathy, trust and connection - a child-led style of parenting.
In 1985, Dr Richard Ferber introduced 'cry-it-out' sleep training, a high-demand, low-responsivity style of parenting.
In 1999, Gina Ford's Contented Little Baby book advocated a return to a more authoritarian, routine-based style of parenting.
Adapted from 'The Gentle Parenting Book' by Sarah Ockwell-Smith
Dr Katherine O'Hanlon's practical tips for implementing a gentle approach:
• When your child is having a tantrum or acting out; before you do anything, stop, take a deep breath, and remind yourself that this is your child's way of letting you know how they feel, in the only way they know how.
• Try to work out what you think your child might be trying to communicate to you, and name this emotion or need for them. This can have immediate positive results as your child feels heard and understood.
• Empathise with what they are feeling, but, if necessary, let them know that they cannot continue with what they were doing - for example, "I know you feel cross because I won't let you play with X, but I don't want it to get broken. Why don't we take down Y instead."
• Remember, all feelings are OK; it's just how we express them at times that might need a bit of tweaking.
• Remember nobody is born with the ability to manage their emotions and resulting behaviours. Children learn from us; set a good example!
Wexford mum Triona sums up gentle parenting. "It makes me more grateful for my children, because I don't see them as adversaries, but as friends who just happen to be little people that I'm raising."