parent opinion

Gentle parenting is all over Instagram. But it's not always gentle on parents.

It's 8:37am and if I don't leave my driveway in 30 seconds, I'll miss the cut-off for drop-and-go at my seven-year-old's school. This will mean circling the block for 15 minutes to find a park, extracting my (by then, almost definitely shoeless) two-year-old from the car and convincing the three-year-old to let go of the Jesus handle she will try to swing from as soon as I unbuckle her car seat, in order to walk the aforementioned seven-year-old to his classroom.

This will set in motion a chain of events that will cause us to then arrive late at daycare drop-off, rush the handover at which now, probably, there'll be tears, before eventually getting to my desk back home just in time to miss the 9:30am meeting I've scheduled with a 15 minute buffer for precisely this type of derailment. 

But, prerequisite as it may be for the smooth unfolding of my morning, the likelihood of me leaving my driveway in 30 seconds is slim-to-none, because that three-year-old I mentioned is already swinging from that Jesus handle I mentioned, refusing to sit in that car seat I mentioned and let me buckle her in.

I can feel the panic rising like an unscratchable itch as I weigh up my options.

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I know just what the soothing-voiced women whose pretty, advice-filled grids I scroll through at 3am would urge me to do. 

"Hey mate, it seems like you really don't want to get in the car seat, huh?" I venture, my Weetbix-encrusted overlord swinging perilously in and out of the open door by her hands.

"Why don't we make a game of it? I'll time you to see how long it takes to sit with your bottom in the seat!"

If you're a millennial parent with an Instagram account, the above script - or some version of it at least - might be familiar to you. 

It's part of a larger set of strategies that fall under the philosophy known as 'gentle parenting', or sometimes 'mindful' or 'intentional' parenting. 

There's no 'forcing' your kids to do things - instead gentle parenting runs on the assumption that by reasoning, increasing 'scaffolding' for the behaviour and a clever reframing of your requests, you can achieve what needs to be done in calm collaboration with your offspring.

In a nutshell, the ethos is a catchall term for parenting that centres the relationship with the child, and validation of that child's feelings, over all else. Proponents of the theory champion compassion and communication in all scenarios; time-outs, punishments and forcing kids to say sorry are out, while 'OK-ing the emotion' and 'holding space' are in. 


It's a parenting style co opted in large part by a generation of parents who seek to heal aspects of their own upbringing. It turns out that despite the many highlights of a 90s childhood (Agro's Cartoon Connection, Mambo shirts and all-you-can-eat Sizzler salad bar dinners), most people my age have managed to collect some level of trauma they attribute, fairly or not, to the parenting choices made by their own mums and dads.

What's remarkable is just how quickly the ideology has lodged itself in the zeitgeist - particularly within the subset of privileged, mostly white and highly educated mothers who extoll its virtues online.

The term 'gentle parenting' has 4.5 billion views on TikTok. There are 850,000 posts under the hashtag on Instagram. Accounts like the wildly popular @BigLittleFeelings share techniques with over 3.2 million followers each day, while TikToker Laura Love has amassed 8 million followers spreading her brand of 'respectful parenting' across the world. 

It's no coincidence that the pandemic provided a tinderbox for the subsequent explosion of this type of content. The pendulum swing back from Cocomelon being the proxy caregiver in households where parents were juggling working from home and raising kids in a support vacuum has seen most of us keen to strengthen emotional bonds with our kids moving forward. We weren't our best selves during lockdown, and the guilt had turbo-charged our resolve to do better.


And of course, where there are audiences of guilty millions, there is serious money to be made - money that is flowing quickly and abundantly into the pockets of many of the self-styled parenting experts whose scripts, courses, books and workshops we turn to in order to diffuse a tantrum or turn a playground tiff into a teachable moment. 

And if it sounds like I'm poo-poohing the entire concept, I'm really not. Gentle parenting techniques are woven through the fabric of my family nearly as thoroughly as the sultanas that have been stomped into the floor mats of our Kia Carnival. Having a 'no thank you bowl' on the table for my kids to discard their unwanted food from dinner has cut mealtime battles in half for my picky eater. The "gentle hands make gentle friends" song I learnt from psychologist and attachment expert Eli Harwood's Instagram account @AttachmentNerd gets a run daily to break up physical altercations between my kids. And I wholeheartedly subscribe to the practice of offering my children respect, compassion and validation every day.

But where exactly did the term 'gentle parenting' originate? Most sources consider British author Sarah Ockwell-Smith, whose book The Gentle Parenting Book: How to raise Calmer, happier children from birth to seven was released in 2016, to be the founder of the movement. Defining what exactly is and is not gentle parenting, however, is a murkier point on which experts find it harder to agree. The long-term evidence for the strategy simply isn't there, due to the fact that it's only been around for as long as many of the children who now find themselves on its receiving end.


There is, however, a great deal of evidence to suggest authoritative parenting - that is, parenting that is warm, compassionate and relationship-centred, while still enforcing firm and healthy boundaries - creates the best outcomes for children. Not to be confused with authoritarian parenting (firm boundaries minus the warmth), this is generally considered to be best practice for raising resilient, emotionally secure kids. 

In many ways, gentle parenting is a modern rebranding of these proven scientific principles. But, just like the first generation of mumfluencers - with their perfectly styled Montessori playrooms and linen-clad, hipster-named children - drew our ire for presenting unrealistic versions of motherhood, so to do many of the 'gentle parentfluencers' of today.

Missing from the endless 'scripts' for co-regulating with your toddler, or the admonitions not to say "good job" or "because I said so" or "be careful" or even "don't hit," is any acknowledgement of the nightly ruminations of an exhausted mother (and let's face it, often both the planning and implementation of parenting tools falls to mothers) who 'failed' to do gentle parenting right. 

"The problem with gentle parenting," laughs a fellow mum-of-three and teacher, "is that it only works on gentle kids!"


"I know I'm supposed to see challenging behaviour as communication, and respond with compassion," admits a psychologist friend with two kids under four, "but sometimes I wonder what message I'm sending my daughter when I plaster a false smile on my face to suggest we have a chat about why she upended the dog's bowl again for the 8th time. Surely it's OK for them to see us authentically express frustration?"

Apparently not, according to some gentle parenting 'experts'. In an interaction with a commenter on Instagram who questioned whether it was OK to tell your child that their actions upset you, one 'parent coach' (a dangerously undefined and unregulated term) warned that saying "you made me upset when you hit me just now," could unfurl the beginnings of a mother-wound that would see love inextricably tied with guilt in her child's emotional future. "It's a good opportunity to model forgiving, compassionate behaviour," explained the parent coach, suggesting the parent avoid inadvertently creating shame in her tiny kickboxer.

It begs the question though, of when, if ever, parents are allowed to lower the mask.

Not only are Millennial mums working more hours outside of the home than ever, but according to research, we're also spending more time with our kids than our mothers and grandmothers before us. On top of that, we've somehow convinced ourselves that in order to do it right, we also have to approach every interaction like a child psychologist: poised, attentive and never once flipping the bird to a sullen child's back as they walk away. Hypothetically, of course.


No wonder they call us the burnout generation.

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"Labels are often restrictive and can carry judgement," explains clinical psychotherapist Julie Sweet from Sydney's Seaway Counselling, when I raise the topic of gentle parenting with her.

"When we look at parenting styles, sometimes we do so through a polarising lens and tunnel vision does very little to provide emotional agility, which is what's required with parenting."

Sweet says that instead, broad, open conversations that capture different and varied styles are needed - crucially, styles that support the family system.  

"Compromised mental health, depression and anxiety can arise though rigid thinking around parenting styles," she continues. "Perfectionism, burnout and postnatal depression can all be underpinned by comparison, overwhelm and emotional flooding."

When the saturation of one parenting message is so algorithmically absolute, however, the compulsion to override your intuition can be irresistible. That little voice inside every parent's head that whispers "you're doing it wrong. You're f*cking this up"can - intentionally or not - be amplified every time you discover that a phrase as innocuous as "be careful" could be interfering with your child's development.


Three kids in, I'm learning my parenting style is less 'gentle parent' and more 'smorgasbord parent'. Just like that much-beloved beacon in every Millennial's childhood, the Sizzler salad bar, I take my favourite morsels from each philosophy, and leave the rest. 

There are times when I successfully talk my toddler down from a heightened emotional state, or negotiate a sharing truce through calm reasoning. There are also times - like this morning, with 30 seconds on the clock, where I bundle my daughter into her car seat, limbs flailing like a coked-up octopus, despite her angry protestations. 

Two replays of 'the poop song' - my kids' current Spotify fave - later, and we're all smiles in the car again. I tell her how much I love her before we get out at daycare, and she beams back at me from her five-point Britax prison. 

Sometimes, I've discovered, the most useful parenting hack of all is just to be gentle with yourself.

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Feature Image: Supplied.

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