How many times have you heard a parent say something like, “If I baby my kids, they’ll never know how the real world works.”
Or maybe they’ve said things like, “How will they learn to keep going if I teach them it’s okay to stop when things get hard?”
Or maybe they talk about people who are “whiney” because they want their feelings to be validated.
Or maybe they think therapy and counseling are both a bunch of crap.
We all know parents (or maybe we ARE those parents) who believe these things. Oftentimes, without even realizing it, we begin to associate gentle parenting with permissive parenting. We withhold tenderness from our children because we think it would do them a disservice and stunt their resilience. We think that gentleness teaches less than firmness.
Here’s the thing, though… your kids don’t need you to teach them how hard life can be. Life will do that for them.
Your job is to help their brains develop in ways that communicate safety, love, confidence, and validation. Your job is not to take away their voice, to harden them, or to put them through an obstacle course of life.
Your job as a parent is to teach them how good life can be if they work toward healthiness.
Here are some important facts to remember when thinking about parenting gently:
1) Gentleness is not the same as permissiveness. You can be gentle while maintaining firm boundaries and saying no.
2) ALL OF THE RESEARCH that’s been done on gentle parenting shows positive outcomes for both parents and children.
3) Mental health IS physical health. The brain is physically altered by the effects of trauma so we must be as careful with it as we are with our bodies. We make our kids wear seatbelts. We don’t let them play with knives. We put sunscreen on them. In the same way, we must vigilantly work to prevent trauma to their brains.
4) Emotional trauma isn’t black and white. Something that seems small to you could cause irreparable trauma to someone else. For example, stress in utero can cause a baby to have an anxiety disorder for the rest of their life because of what it teaches neurotransmitters to do in the brain. A baby can develop an attachment disorder in the first few months of life from not being held enough or being forced to cry it out. (The “cry it out method” is harmful for a lot of reasons, but that’s a topic for another day. Yes, they’re crying to get what they want. That’s the point.)
5) Nearly all levels of stress cause emotional dysregulation in children. Emotional dysregulation is when someone’s emotions get “out of whack” and stop aligning with what is actually appropriate for the situation. When kids are stressed, their brains move into survival mode, and the more rational parts of the brain stop working well. They become dysregulated, they either overreact or underreact, and then they work to get themselves back to a feeling of normalcy. The problem is that they often don’t know how to get back to normal so they try whatever comes to mind. It might look like they’re throwing a fit, but they’re probably just trying to stop feeling bad on the inside. When we offer help and empathy–rather than frustration and consequences–we provide our kids with opportunities to get back to normal more quickly.
6) Every negative consequence can be stated in an objective way. Instead of saying, “GO TO YOUR ROOM,” we can say, “You need to take a break by yourself until you’re safe.” It should always be about safe versus unsafe, or healthy versus unhealthy, instead of bad versus good. Teach them to associate their behaviors with safety and healthiness instead of being inherently good or bad.
Guys, if you never pay attention to anything I write, pay attention to this:
It is COMPLETELY UNNECESSARY for us to teach our children what the bad parts of life are like. We worry so much that once they get to those hard parts, they won’t know what to do because they’ve never experienced it before.
But let me ask you this. When you lost a loved one for the first time, did you need to have experience in that area in order to know how to get through it? No.
In fact, the less experience, the better.
We survive miserable things in life by using one of two methods. Either we have a firm foundation of love and peace to fall back on when we’re hurting, which allows us to recuperate in a place of safety until we can move forward again… OR… our foundation isn’t as solid as it should be (or completely missing) so we learn that life is an endless cycle of pain and chaos, which we can only survive by fighting. We learn to fight even when there is nothing threatening us because life has shown us that fighting is ALWAYS necessary.
Because, remember, it started with parents who wanted to prepare us for the fight.
This isn’t the Hunger Games, guys. We don’t need to prepare our children for pain. We need to give them safety, peace, kindness, and validation.
No toughening required.