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Parenting with a gentle approach may pose significant challenges for parents, as indicated by recent research findings.

Do you consider yourself a gentle parent? If so, it’s likely that, much like your children, you may find solace in a nap.

The concept of gentle parenting, existing since the 1930s, has gained renewed attention in recent years, particularly on social media, blogs, and in various media outlets. Despite its growing popularity, the precise definition and characteristics of this parenting style remain ambiguous. Parenting author and advocate of “gentle parenting,” Sarah Ockwell-Smith, describes it as “a way of being” and “a mindset” with a focus on a child’s emotions. However, questions persist regarding aspects such as yelling, punishment, and its distinctions from other established parenting approaches. Moreover, its impact on both children and parents is a topic of interest.

To unravel the essence of the gentle parenting movement, my colleague, family studies professor Alice Davidson, and I conducted a study involving over 100 parents nationwide with at least one child aged 2 to 7. Our inquiry delved into their parenting practices, their upbringing, and their responses to child misbehavior, along with their self-identification as “gentle parents.” For those identifying as such, we probed deeper into what that term meant to them. While these preliminary findings, soon to be submitted for publication, offer insights, caution is advised due to the limited diversity within our sample.

Approximately half of our participants identified as “gentle parents,” with a notable demographic skew towards being predominantly white (84%) and highly educated. Despite this, the age range was diverse, spanning from 32 to 51 years, encompassing both Gen Xers and millennials.

When reflecting on their upbringing, participants described their parents in simplistic terms such as “confrontational” and “reactive.” Conversely, when articulating their own parenting approaches, they used a broader vocabulary, incorporating terms like “affectionate,” “conscious,” and, notably, “gentle.” There was a prevailing theme of these parents aspiring to surpass their own parents’ parenting styles, with some explicitly expressing this goal.

While generational shifts in parenting approaches are not new, the gentle parenting movement is distinctive in its lack of scholarly foundation, unlike previous movements rooted in evolving parenting scholarship. To comprehend this approach, we examined participants’ descriptions of what “gentle parenting” meant to them. For many, it primarily involved maintaining composure during challenging moments with their children.

Parents emphasized staying calm, having a moderate reaction, and avoiding extremes, exemplified by a mother who described it as “never getting too alarmed or being too permissive.” Additionally, a secondary theme centered on validating their children’s emotions during distressing situations, often involving labeling emotions, allowing children to express freely, or offering affection.

However, two concerning themes emerged from our findings. Firstly, none of the participants mentioned relying on support from friends, family, or their community in their parenting journey. Secondly, many admitted, unprompted, to struggling with feelings of incompetence and being overwhelmed. Over 40% of the identified “gentle parents” openly shared sentiments of exhaustion, self-doubt, and loneliness.

As we expand our sample to include a more diverse group of parents in terms of race, ethnicity, and education level, our aim is to examine whether the gentle parenting phenomenon is primarily observed among highly educated white parents. Additionally, we plan to follow these families over time to assess the sustainability of the gentle parenting approach and its impact on children.

Until we analyze this data, our message to these parents is straightforward: Be kind to yourselves. And yes, go ahead and take that much-needed nap.

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