‘Gentle parenting’ explainer: no rewards, no punishments, no misbehaving kids

Gentle parenting means no punishments and no rewards: just a partnership with your kids where they want to do the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing. Shutterstock

In a piece in The Conversation, Bernadette Saunders described positive discipline. Parents who practise positive discipline or gentle parenting use neither rewards nor punishments to encourage their children to behave.

By “no rewards” I mean they don’t use charts or “bribes” such as lollies or toys. Many don’t even say “good girl/boy” or “good job”.

And by “no punishments” I mean they don’t use time-outs, smacking, shaming or yelling. Forget the naughty step, forget the sticker chart, let’s take a journey into the world of gentle or positive discipline, which aims to teach children empathy, self-control and calmness.

What is discipline?

Discipline has come to mean many things in our culture. When we are discussing child rearing, we understand it to mean reprimanding a child for “bad behaviour”. The word discipline comes from the word disciple and means to teach.

The discipline advocated by gentle parenting families is internalised. They argue that to offer rewards and punishments overrides a child’s natural inclination to try. It teaches them to behave in certain ways for a reward, or to avoid punishment.

Advocates of gentle parenting say that rewards and punishments do not encourage children to internalise good behaviour for its own sake.

What might this type of approach look like?

There are many websites and groups that can help you to practise this parenting approach. Here are a few steps that parents take to encourage a partnership with their children:

  1. They start from a place of connection and believe that all behaviour stems from how connected the child is with their caregivers.

  2. They give choices not commands (“would you like to brush your teeth before or after you put on your pyjamas?”).

  3. They take a playful approach. They might use playfulness to clean up (“let’s make a game of packing up these toys”) or to diffuse tension (having a playful pillow fight).

  4. They allow feelings to run their course. Rather than saying “shoosh”, or yelling “stop!”, parents actively listen to crying. They may say, “you have a lot of/strong feelings about [situation]”.

  5. They describe the behaviour, not the child. So, rather than labelling a child as naughty or nice, they will explain the way actions make them feel. For example, “I get so frustrated cleaning crumbs off the couch.”

  6. They negotiate limits where possible. If it’s time to leave the park, they might ask, “How many more minutes/swings before we leave?” However, they can be flexible and reserve “no” for situations that can hurt the child (such as running on the road or touching the hot plate) or others (including pets). They might say: “Hitting me/your sister/pulling the dog’s tail hurts, I won’t let you do that.”

  7. They treat their children as partners in the family. A partnership means that the child is invited to help make decisions and to be included in the household tasks. Parents apologise when they get it wrong.

  8. They will not do forced affection. When Uncle Ray wants to hug your child and s/he says no, then the child gets to say what happens to their body. They also don’t force please or thank you.

  9. They trust their children. What you might think of as “bad” behaviour is seen as the sign of an unmet need.

  10. They take parental time-outs when needed. Before they crack, they step away, take a breath and regain their composure.

The most important aspect of positive discipline is the connection you have with your child. Shutterstock

What are the benefits?

There are many sites that claim benefits to this approach. For example, Attachment Parenting International argues that the child is more sensitive to others' needs because they have learnt to expect that their needs will be met, they will be treated with respect and they are equal partners in the family.

Others argue that it may take more effort, but is more effective, because punishment and rewards are only short-term solutions. As Alfie Kohn argues, using rewards and punishments is about doing things to, not with children. Taking a gentle parenting or positive discipline approach invites children to partner with their parents to learn how to live in the community as productive members.

What are the problems?

The problems people may see with this style of parenting generally stem from a problem of definition. Gentle parenting is not permissive parenting. Permissive parenting means never saying no, not provoking tantrums or crying and always wanting to please the child. This style of parenting is the antithesis of gentle parenting.

Sometimes parents who practise gentle parenting are described as sanctimommies. The term is meant to imply they are sanctimonious. However, the issue is generally with that individual parent, not their parenting style.

Gentle parenting also requires parental self-control, because you have to take a step back, think and ask, “What is my child’s behaviour communicating in this moment?” and, “What can I do differently to prevent this behaviour next time?”