How To Be A Gentle Parent

7 January, 2014

This is a weird old month for us- settling into a new country and trying to get a new website off the ground ( – do have a look!) I’m thankful that some of my ABSOLUTE favourite parenting authors and bloggers will be helping me out over the next few weeks, continuing the How To Be A _______ Parent series.

First up with this second round is Sarah Ockwell-Smith, author of the wonderful Babycalm and Toddlercalm books. Here Sarah gives a beautifully honest and nuanced perspective on gentle parenting.

When Lucy gave me the title of this guest post my first thought was “easy peasy, I should get that written in an hour tops”, but I have to confess, three days in and I’m still pretty stumped. It should be easy right? Especially as she gave me the option of writing a bullet point list, but something is stopping me, it’s hard! (then again isn’t everything in parenting?)

I keep coming back to the idea that ‘being a gentle parent’ is just something that you inherently are. The clue is in the title “how to BE a gentle parent”, not “how to DO gentle parenting”….and I think this is the cause of my difficulty, how to write an article giving advice to people to change who they are? That’s not so easy!

Then again, as soon as I get engrossed in this thought I keep coming back to the good old ‘nature V nurture’ debate. If gentle parenting is all about the being rather than the doing, then nurture theory tells us we can and do change as a result of our environment. Perhaps the key to gentle parenting therefore lies in our own childhoods, in the way that we ourselves we raised, but if we were not raised in a wholly gentle fashion does that mean we cannot break the mould with our own children? I don’t think so.

I do think that perhaps the hardest thing about parenting isn’t the arduous physical demands – the sleepless nights and the like, it’s about coming to terms with our own upbringings and realising that we need to work on fixing our own internal problems before we can even begin to think about working on those of our children (because all too often issues with our child’s behaviour are rooted in our own). Navel gazing is a necessity for all parents in my opinion and if you allow it to, the experience of parenting can be the start of an intensely important, enlightening and often painful period of personal growth. I think this is where ‘being’ a gentle parent kicks in.

It starts with us, the parents, and who we are – it’s not about a set of rules or guidelines to follow or things to ‘do’. I think that’s why I have had so much trouble writing this article, nevertheless here are some points I feel are important:

1. Recognise that in order to be the best parent you can be to your child you need to think about your own childhood. This might take the form of realising how privileged you were and realising how amazing your own parents are and how much you owe to them, or it could take the form of realising that you were treated anything but gently and recognising the importance of not subconsciously using the same techniques on your own children that were used on you. Often it will involve having to forgive your parents and sometimes yourself too.

2. Making a pact with the guilt monster. All parents feel guilty, about pretty much everything, it’s an inherent part of being a parent, but it’s so important that you don’t be so consumed by guilt that you close your mind to information that may make you hurt. What you did three years ago, a month ago – or yesterday – is in the past, leave it there and forgive yourself. When you know better you do better, if you didn’t have the information you have today how could you have done differently? Don’t let your guilt blinker you to learning and growing and ‘doing better’ for your child.

3. Growing up. I’m not really sure how to phrase this point, I know what I mean but I’m not so sure it’s going to come out in the inoffensive manner I mean it to. Making the momentous decision to bring a new life into this world is a big deal. It *will* change things (everything) and you won’t be able to hang onto your old life, not all of it anyway. For me one of the biggest crux’s of gentle parenting is about losing the selfish parts of our personality, life isn’t just about you any more, it’s about a delicate dance of balancing your needs to cope and the needs of your child.

4. Following on from this point is the really crucial idea of mind-mindedness, or in less psycho babble jargon – empathy. Trying to understand how your child feels whenever possible. It’s hard sometimes – boy is it hard, but if you can try to imagine how your screaming baby/tantruming toddler/stroppy teenager feels, everything is easier and your actions will be very different. Quite simply if you treat your children how you would like to be treated in the same position you’ve pretty much got gentle parenting nailed.

5. What do you need to be able to do all of this? Support and nurturing yourself. If you’re struggling to do this all alone and you’re all wrung out, however do you expect to ‘be there’ for someone else? This is the biggest problem with our society today, parenting is so fragmented from the support network we’re supposed to do it in! If you don’t have that lifeline no amount of babywearing, breastfeeding, bedsharing or AP books are going to help, in actual fact – these props (none of which are necessary for gentle parenting in my opinion) might very well contribute to point number 2. the all consuming guilt, if you don’t have support in place. I might have put this last but it is at least as important as my first point if not more-so!

So, there you go – no special recipe or “5 step plan to gentle parenting” to follow, I don’t even really think there is such a thing as “a gentle parent” really, we’re all just people doing the best we can to muddle through and trying to inflict the least amount of damage possible onto our kids!

Sarah Ockwell-Smith is a mother to four, a parenting author and co-founder of GentleParenting UK. A new gentle parenting website launching in Spring 2014 on – until their launch you can find them on Facebook and on Twitter.
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  • Syazwan Faid 7 January, 2014 at 9:43 am

    I’m not married yet, single and unattached but I seriously hope i could be a good father someday..
    I just read, went to seminars, and all that, hoping it would provide enough knowledge to face parenthood


    • Lucy 7 January, 2014 at 10:34 am

      Well, if you’ve read this than I’m sure you’ll nail it! 😀

  • Katie 7 January, 2014 at 1:40 pm

    I would love to be a gentler parent. Some days i think i am getting it all wrong but i do think that both your personality and the personality of your child/ren strongly dictates which parenting ‘style’ you go for. I probably chance tactics a bit too much but usually it’s just about getting things done as painlessly as possible 🙂

  • Mel Wiggins 7 January, 2014 at 8:44 pm

    I love this post. Thanks for hosting this series Lu, really fascinating and encouraging as a mum. My favourite thing is that even though there are specific ‘styles’ of parenting, it’s really true that we are all just muddling along, trying to do it well & bring up really kind and loving children – it’s great to stretch and be challenged. x

  • Leslie Kendall Dye 7 January, 2014 at 9:52 pm

    So funny, I just today wrote a post that deals with many of these issues as they pertain to the process of the slow differentiation that begins to occur at around two years of age. I did everything so differently from my parents, and I have such clear memories of certain aspects of childhood that made me feel vulnerable and powerless. I have happy memories too, so I know I pass down some good culture to my child as I parent her, albeit in a hugely different way from how I was overall! Here is the post, for anyone else feeling the thrills and pangs of a baby becoming a child before their eyes!