Gentle Parenting Is All the Rage on Social Media…but Here’s Where It Gets Dangerous

If you’ve spent any time on social media, you know that gentle parenting (also dubbed authoritative parenting) is the gold standard when it comes to raising happy and healthy children who are well-equipped to handle future challenges. A bit like Goldilocks, this style of child-rearing is considered to be the perfect middle ground between authoritarian parenting (where the focus is on obedience and punishment) and permissive parenting (a style with a lot of warmth but few rules).

Here’s how gentle parenting might play out in practice: Your oldest child hits their sibling. Instead of shouting at them or asking them why they did that, a gentle parenting approach would be to say something like: “It’s OK to be frustrated with Timmy. It’s not OK to hit. I’m going to move you over here to keep your brother safe.” The parent might then think about​ identifying the underlying feelings and unmet needs relating to this behavior (maybe your kid is jealous because you’ve been giving Timmy more attention today) and act accordingly (like spending more quality time with your eldest). Proponents of this philosophy swear that by teaching children rather than punishing, you are fostering positive growth and development—all while minimizing tantrums.

With a promise like that, is it any wonder that the technique is trending on social media? Just a quick search on TikTok reveals thousands of videos with 1.2 billion views offering advice, tips and real-life examples of this seemingly sensical parenting method.

And it’s not just influencers and vloggers touting its benefits; research confirms that this style of parenting works. Per this study in the European Online Journal of Natural and Social Sciences, for example, scientists found that authoritative parents help foster independence, while also teaching responsibility and good choice-making.

But it’s not all good news. As Dr. Kristyn Sommer, a mom with a PhD in child development, points out, gentle parenting has the potential to be dangerous—particularly in the way it’s portrayed on social media.

“Social media portrays gentle parenting as this thing where if your child has any kind of tantrums or behavior, it’s an unmet need that is your fault for not meeting and that puts unrealistic pressure on mothers and fathers, especially in the pandemic,” she says. She continues to explain that decades of research has concluded that you don’t need to respond correctly all the time to your child (phew). In fact, she puts the figure at only about 30 to 40 percent. (We couldn’t find a study to confirm this number, but we did find one on babies published in Child Development that found that caregivers need only “get it right” 50 percent of the time in order to have a positive impact on the infant.)

“So that counts for things like discipline,” she says. “We need to be pretty consistent and establish a pattern of responding that is the same. We need to establish boundaries and we need to follow through on consequences and things like that, and we also need to keep in mind the child’s mental state and their development and analyze why they’re falling apart and why they’re frustrated, but we don’t need to be perfect all the time, despite what gentle parenting reports is the case.”

In other words, if your kid is throwing their yogurt on the floor again, you might wrack your brain for your offspring’s unmet need or you might lose your cool and snatch their snack away…and that’s OK. Because it’s simply not possible to tune into your kid’s emotional needs all the freakin’ time. (Hence that age-old adage, “it takes a village to raise a child.”)

“One person cannot physically—without losing their mind and without losing their sense of self in their ability to care for themselves—care for another human being so wholly and completely be turned on all the time, ready to jump in at every emotional need. It’s not possible,” says Sommer.

And yeah, I get it. Because while I agree with many principles of gentle parenting, I know that it’s an aspirational philosophy more so than a realistic one. (Flashback to last week when I needed to get my son out the door and to our doctor’s appointment on time, and I ended up forcefully strapping his shoes on and dragging him to the car. Did it result in a major tantrum? Yep. Do I regret it? Nope.)

Let’s go back to that study on infants. When Science Daily reported on the research, they ran the story with the title: ‘Good enough’ parenting is good enough, study finds. And maybe that’s the parenting philosophy we need to be focusing on—embracing the techniques and data behind gentle parenting as a general guide to help us connect with our kids and teach them the rules of society in a loving and nurturing manner. And if you find yourself spiraling to unearth the unmet need behind that yogurt toss—or beating yourself up for losing your cool when you took it away—remember this: Your kid wouldn’t want you to lose yourself in caring for them. You’re trying your best, and modeling that is, well, probably the best thing you can do.

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Executive Editor

Alexia Dellner is an executive editor at PureWow who has over ten years of experience covering a broad range of topics including health, wellness, travel, family, culture and...