the hard part

Gentle Parenting Is Too Gentle

Photo-Illustration: the Cut; Photos Getty Images

Writer Amil Niazi’s monthly meditations on the highs and lows of parenting — and every feeling in-between.

I am a TV baby. A product, in part, of after-school talk shows, soap operas, and prime-time television. My parents, who had three young kids all close in age and full-time jobs that required draining shift work, were practitioners of what I now lovingly call benign neglect. I still often compare real-life scenarios to TV ones; while my memory of where my kids’ overdue library books are is patchy, my ability to recall an old episode of some ’90s sitcom is impeccable. One particular episode of Who’s the Boss? has been replaying in my head ever since I became a parent.

If you’re not familiar, Tony Danza plays a nanny to corporate boss and single mom, Angela, played by Judith Light. In the recurring episode in my head, Tony and Angela take a parenting course when her youngest child starts acting out. The class is called “Positive Parenting” and it encourages parents to avoid negative words like no, can’t, and don’t. It sounds easy in practice, but as soon as they come home, Tony has to stop young Billy from wreaking havoc in the house with a broom. He struggles to figure out how to incorporate positive parenting into this panicked moment and ends up screaming, “Broom elsewhere!” It’s an amusing moment of deeply relatable futility, where theory meets real life and fails miserably.

If it sounds ridiculous, shortly after I had my first child, my mom emailed me an article about the dangers of saying things like don’t and no to little kids and gently (I’m using that word generously) nudged me to take a similar approach with my son. It took everything I had to hold my tongue about how my own parents seemed allergic to the word yes, but I thanked her for the link and moved the email to my “Mom” folder.

To her credit, taking a less authoritative, rigid approach to parenting than in the past has now become ubiquitous. This idea of “gentle parenting” has taken hold among millennial and Gen-Z parents eager to offer our own kids a different model of the parent-child relationship.

Even most non-parents have heard the term and have likely endured a conversation between a harried parent trying to negotiate a peaceful exit out of a grocery store with an unruly, rambunctious child who’s tossing boxes of Fruit Loops and Lucky Charms into the grocery cart with abandon.

The idea behind gentle parenting is to approach kids with respect and empathy, to offer choices rather than make demands, to give space to the child’s feelings and emotions and avoid losing your cool in frustrating situations. It’s not hard to see why it’s become so popular.

Gentle parenting did appeal to me too despite my own active avoidance of parenting style books and theories. Growing up, our house was loud and chaotic, with the overarching decree that kids should do as parents say. As soon as my husband and I started trying for kids, I decided I’d take the opposite approach and make sure our home would remain free from that walking-on-eggshells feeling. I believe fiercely that kids should be treated like human beings and my only goal in raising them is that they be kind, independent people out in the world. Gentle parenting espouses similar goals.

But as Jessica Winter so brilliantly wrote in The New Yorker last spring, it’s not all beautiful moments of sage parenting, where parent and child emerge from a tantrum more evolved and empathetic. In theory, it’s lovely; in practice, most of us are exhausted, confused, and looking for an approach that isn’t quite so hard on us parents.

I’m constantly trying to figure out how to responsibly, kindly, and expertly manage both my kids’ outsize emotions and my own in increasingly trying situations with a kindergartner and a fiercely independent toddler. In many hectic moments throughout the day, it feels like every pot in the house is boiling over, the fire alarm is going off, and both my kids are screaming for my attention, needing wildly different yet urgent (to them) things, RIGHT NOW. And in my desire to be a good, gentle parent, I’m swallowing any semblance of frustration and emotion I might be feeling in order to nurture and respect how they feel and turn these frantic moments into lessons in empathy and growth (lol?).

Every morning as we get ready for school and day-care drop-off, what should be an uneventful half-hour ritual becomes an hour-plus long exercise of careful and precise negotiation, an act of extreme patience and benevolence, as I calmly explain why we have to go to school everyday, even though we just don’t feel like it and why wearing only two pairs of pants but no shirt is not going to cut it during a snowstorm. The sweat drips off my forehead, prickles of anxiety coursing through my body, as I ask my husband if the 5-year-old’s lunch has been made while digging through a mountain of discarded clothes for socks and gloves that match. I feel like I’m muttering “broom elsewhere” to everyone in the house until the minute the kids are safely in their classrooms and in the care of trained professionals.

One of the main tenets of gentle parenting is choice. Rather than saying no, you try and offer alternatives to empower your child to participate in decision making. The other night my son asked for ice cream after dinner and I obliged but he didn’t like the flavor so I let him know there was another one I could get him. He promptly let me know that one wasn’t good either and because he’s so used to options, started asking what else was in stock. I had to laugh, hearing my own mom’s voice in my head bluntly stating that this isn’t a grocery store.

It’s inevitable that this all-in method breeds feelings of resentment, not necessarily against my kids but against this philosophy that more often than not feels designed to constrain and shame parents, moms in particular. It’s normal and healthy to lose it every once in a while. Why shouldn’t my kids understand that some of their behaviors are hurtful, that we can negotiate and navigate our emotions as they come and that yes sometimes mom has to go in the corner of the kitchen and scream into her sleeve?

And it’s not just parents that suffer from rigidly adhering to this approach, though boundaries are supposed to be central to gentle parenting, I often find that the thinking around discipline, both how and when to do it, changes so often that leniency ends up being the default. I see it with my own kids and their peers out in the playground. In our quest to do better by our kids, are we making things worse?

So in the spirit of my promise to myself to fill my tank first, I’m going for an adapted model, a kind of “gentler parenting” that takes into account my humanity as well as my kids’. Just the other day, I was pretty blunt with my kids about getting to school on time, that we needed to work as a team, and I didn’t offer any choices, I didn’t get down on my knees and spend 20 minutes explaining why. They got that I was serious and that was the end of the discussion and we got to school on time.

I want to build a relationship with my kids that centers the health and well-being of the family rather than a more severe approach that places one or the other first. Because there has to be a better way than broom elsewhere.

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