In the past decade, the concept of “gentle” or “respectful” parenting has gained considerable traction. The foundation of the idea is in being a parent who is emotionally attuned to their child, and tries to understand the reasons behind their behaviour.
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There is great value in this, but it is not the whole story. Children also need their carers to set clear limits.
A common theme of gentle parenting is that parents should not rush in and immediately condemn their children if they don’t like what they’re doing. Instead, they should stop and listen to their child, then validate their feelings. For example, they might say “so you are cross and shouting because you think your brother was being unfair when he took your toy, and that upset you”.
Gentle parenting suggests that when a parent shows understanding of the child’s emotional state, it will help the child to calm down. Only after doing this should the parent decide what to do. This approach also has the longer-term aim of promoting emotional intelligence. The idea is that as children grow older they will learn to identify their own emotions more thoughtfully and act more appropriately.
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But we also know that, when it comes to the parent-child relationship, how the parent responds to their child is crucial. After listening and clarifying what the child is feeling, the parent then needs to build on this to help the child think calmly and positively about the problem and find a good solution.
Responding to children
Parents who do this are, in the language of child development, “responding sensitively” to their children, both when the child is upset and when they are happy. A research study of more than 1,000 pairs of children and mothers showed that children whose mothers responded sensitively in their first three years of life had better social skills at age 15 and also performed better academically.
What’s more, parenting like this can be learnt. I carried out research with colleagues in which groups of parents and children attended a two-hour session each week over three months. In this time, parents were encouraged to get down on the floor to play with the children in a particular way where they make positive comments on the child’s play activity and keep up a positive tone.
They also avoided asking questions, which interrupts the child’s imaginative play and imposes the adult’s agenda. This led to an improvement in sensitively responding from parents. It also resulted in enduring improvements in child adjustment and reading ability, as seen in our follow-up study of the children into adolescence.
However, this is only half the story. In addition to the warm close relationship created by sensitive responses to a child, boundaries need to be set as well. Children need to be able to live in the world with other people and get on with other children and adults. They need to learn how to fit in with externally imposed rules and that there are consequences if they do not. Children need both love and limits.
The trick is to set limits calmly and not be angry or explosive as a parent. A frustrated reaction is often unconscious and related to the way the parents themselves were brought up; they may not know any other way.
The good news is that parents can learn calm, effective discipline. If parents pay lots of attention when children are misbehaving, they are more likely to continue to behave badly. The drive for children to feel connected to their parents is so strong that, especially in a background where there is not much attention to go round, they will prefer negative attention to none. They soon learn that they need to play up to connect, so misbehaving becomes more frequent.
The solution is to briefly withdraw attention when children are misbehaving, followed by engaging with them warmly when they are behaving better. At this point, emotional feelings can be aired and an appropriate response should be set. Such an apparently simple regime takes a bit of learning, but usually has a striking effect on improving behaviour.
Also, crucially, if children are encouraged and paid warm attention when they are behaving well, they will do more of it.
There is good evidence that listening to your child and showing that you have understood them can be helpful, so long as the next step is to respond sensitively and if necessary set a calm limit. All this needs to be in the context of a positive relationship where the parent takes the time to have fun with their child.