Meet The Gentle Parenting Dropouts

Instagram parenting accounts have a script for every situation. But do we mean it?

by Evie Ebert
Originally Published: 

When my son was a toddler, he sometimes wanted to treat my body as his personal rage room. He had all the equipment he needed built right in, no sledgehammer required. In response, I would fold my hands over his and calmly recite a script I’d learned from other moms: I won’t let you hit me. Hitting hurts! It’s OK to be mad, but it’s never OK to hit.

I thought these line readings exuded wise, respectable Gaia energy. But this kid had my number. One time, after I’d lovingly restrained his little fists in my giant adult palms, he reared back the gorgeous bowling ball of his skull and head-butted me right in the nose. I was stunned. I did not have a script for that.

I had encountered the limit of gentle parenting scripts, namely that the recipients of these soothing and emotionally validating life lessons are not, themselves, gentle. Before she had children, Erin, 41, says, “I thought that gentleness would come easy to me because that was my experience of myself. Of course I would be able to sit with my child’s feelings! I also had no actual children.” The summer that Erin’s son was 2 years old, he had developed a strong preference for staying indoors and a developmentally typical aversion to activity transitions. He refused, forcefully, to leave their Long Island house, but, amid the pandemic, getting herself and her kid to the playground or the beach was critical for Erin’s flagging mental health.

She tried every script on him that she had cribbed from popular gentle parenting Instagram accounts. She gamified. (Let’s see if you can get your shoes on faster than me!) She empathized. (You’re frustrated. You want to stay home and make block towers. It’s hard to stop playing.) She collaborated. (You don’t want to do this but we need to leave the house. How can we solve this together? What are your ideas?) Yet the toddler could not be cajoled.

Gentle parenting means not rushing a child through the firestorm of emotions that trigger a tantrum in order to, say, convince them that an unfamiliar pasta shape will not harm them.

“He wanted to be home and play at home and do what he wanted to do. I realized that there were no tools in what I knew of gentle parenting that would help me get him to agree with me so that we could leave the house.” She felt strongly that it would be wrong to force him out the door by picking him up and wrestling him into a car seat without his consent. There was a narrative, she felt, that he would hold that trauma in his body forever. The stakes felt high and yet she was a hostage in her home. Eventually, she couldn’t take it any more and carried him outside.

Gentle parenting, aka intentional, mindful, or respectful parenting, is a set of principles and practices that might be more clearly defined by what it is not than what it is. Gentle parenting is not shouting, bribing, or threatening. It is not being heated or reactive in response to a child’s behavior. It’s not rushing a child through the firestorm of emotions that trigger a tantrum in order to, say, convince them that an unfamiliar pasta shape will not harm them.

Over the last five years, gentle parenting tenets loosely pulled from books and podcasts by therapists and child educators have percolated into mass culture through terra cotta-colored Instagram educational posts by self-styled experts and circulated by day cares and school systems to overwhelmed parents hungry for resources. Those parents became even hungrier during the pandemic, and that’s when “gentle parenting” started to feel more like dogma than mere toolbox.

The posts tell us that the gentle parent finds their center and models the self-control and empathy they hope to see their child embody — well, probably not today, but eventually. The gentle parent is supposed to be more curious about the motivations and emotions underpinning an obnoxious behavior than in only curbing the behavior. Simply tearing the forbidden iPad from their little hands will not help the child learn to tolerate the uncomfortable feelings surrounding the end of screen time.

In 2022, New Yorker writer Jessica Winter described gentle parenting as being “the vogue among vigilant, trend-aware P.M.C. [professional-managerial class] parents for some time.” It requires resources — wellsprings of time and patience and forbearance that you might only have if you aren’t worried about missing work or simultaneously dealing with unpleasant or stressful tasks. Gentle parenting can also be very, very tiring. Add a rigorous layer of self-regulation to the task of nudging a kid toward socially acceptable behavior and now the work never ends. When the tantrum ends, you play back the tape, see how you did. The mental browser tab never closes.

Ellie, 38, was enthusiastic about gentle parenting at first because she believed she had benefited from it during her own upbringing. “In elementary school, my sister and I sat my parents down and explained how much we hated our after care situation and why.” They were heard and validated — and her dad rearranged his work schedule to be home with them in the afternoons. “I wanted to be the kind of parent that respected my kid because I knew it was important and I knew it would pay off.”

Living up to these ideals in practice was far more challenging. Her first child was willful as a toddler, and Ellie was seldom able to maintain an even keel. “I kept thinking that if I could only be more unruffled… but I could not picture how to be more unruffled!”

Unruffled is the title of the podcast hosted by Janet Lansbury, author and titan of the respectful parenting movement. On Unruffled, Lansbury provides warm, soothing reassurance and correction to weary parents (almost always moms) who write in asking for her wisdom. In the closed laboratory setting of the podcast, case by case, gentle parenting feels very doable.

But to Ellie, it felt like if she wasn’t moving semi-harmoniously through life with her toddler then she must not be doing it right. It reminded her of her experience participating in Whole30, the restrictive fad elimination diet popular in the 2010s and around which a vocal, active community formed. Participants who did not achieve the promised results must not have dieted in perfect compliance, the community seemed to agree. Only true believers could reap the rewards.

When her daughter sprinted away from her in a busy parking lot near their home in Maryland, Ellie flew into a rage. She found herself incapable of intervening calmly when her daughter mouthed a wad of toilet paper found on the floor of a public restroom. Eventually, she took her concerns to her personal therapist. Together, they developed a more behaviorist approach to situations involving her kids: fewer strained conversations about feelings, more tangible rewards and consequences. This is generally a big no-no to gentle parents because it incentivizes external motivation for the child. Ellie says she has mostly given up on parenting literature now, focusing on herself. “I stopped reading books about how to parent her and switched to books about how to improve my self-regulation.”

One of the biggest stars of the gentle parenting ecosystem is Becky Kennedy, Ph.D., known to her followers as Dr. Becky. Her content (mostly on Instagram for free, though parenting courses and a private online community are available paying members) advocates being in stillness with children through difficult emotions rather than trying to fix the unpleasantness for them or minimize the weight of it. She is perhaps best known for key phrases she offers up for parents trying to ride out a tantrum. They involve naming and validating the kid’s emotions by saying things like “It can be hard to share your toys” and “I get sad when my turn is over, too.” “Two things can be true,” she says to coach kids through the discomfort of an ambiguous or paradoxical situation, like a canceled vacation or a limit on screen use.

Dr. Becky herself acknowledges the scripts cannot be one-size-fits-all. “Anytime someone’s provided script does not align with your own values, I would tell a parent definitely not to use it,” she tells Romper. But, to the strung-out parent, a new gentle parenting script can feel like a cheat code to a better, more patient you, One Weird Trick to becoming the parent of your dreams.

“When we use these scripts to say ‘Your feelings are important and valid,’ do we mean it? Or are we B.S.-ing our kids?”

For some, though, relying on such scripts to get through the dizzying labyrinth of conflicts with small children has begun to chafe. The more April, 39, tried to relate to her kid using the words of others, the more he seemed to feel condescended to. “Often when I tried to validate his experience this way, it escalated things when I wanted to deescalate. He didn’t believe me.” We’re not all convincing line-readers when it comes to validating the emotional discomfort of having your sandwich cut the wrong way, and our kids are excellent lie detectors.

Or else, it might just take longer than advertised to feel at home in the language of self-regulation. Max and his wife have had a tough year with their 6-year-old, who has been diagnosed with anxiety and lashes out angrily, sometimes physically. “You’re not going to help a kid like mine by going nuclear,” says Max. “You do need to lower the temperature, which is what these scripts promise to do. But they’re not going to do that immediately. When my daughter is seeing red, you can’t reason with her. But hopefully, over time, you give her language to understand what’s going on once she’s calmed down. It’s a long, slow process.

“You don’t get a sense, from a 30 second Instagram reel, that it’s an iterative process. You’re going to repeat yourself over and over and over before you see an effect.”

There’s also the possibility that, once the fog of conflict has lifted, you might wish that you’d dared to be more authentic with your kid. “Why am I operating my life with someone else’s words?” Erin found herself asking. “I spent my whole life looking forward to being an adult, looking forward to having my own kids, my own family on my own terms. Why would I do it by someone else’s norms?” She wanted the words she spoke during her kids’ childhood (the good ones, anyway) to serve as helpful touchpoints to her children throughout their life. But she didn’t want to cheat her kids out of receiving words that were actually hers — and she didn’t want to manipulate him.

She was telling her son that his feelings mattered, but really, she just wanted him to go along with getting his shoes on and leaving the house for the sake of their mutual well-being. What she meant was “I already decided we are going to do this, and I need to make you think that complying is your idea.” “When we use these scripts to say ‘Your feelings are important and valid,’ do we mean it? Or are we BS-ing our kids?” Erin laughs. When it comes to how we raise kids, two things can be true: Gentle parenting is a tender, thoughtful way to parent, and it’s just not for everyone.

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