Around the time our oldest was two years old, my husband and I were introduced to the world of "gentle parenting." Deep in the throws of temper tantrums, financial stress, mental health struggles, and all of the growing pains that come with being first time parents, we were desperate for disciplinary solutions that brought more peace to our family.
Say what you want about social media, but it was an answer to prayer in this regard. Social media introduced us to methods of parenting that were new to us. We met other Christian parents desperate to add more tools to their toolbox, because the methods they thought were "right" simply weren't effective. It forced us to dig deep. To research. To prayerfully make decisions to change our methods. In many ways, social media was the vessel through which the Lord initiated a process of sanctification in our parenting.
Over the last three years or so, I've created dozens of posts regarding our journey through gentle parenting. I've written two extensive articles through a Christian lens on the issue. I've had good days. Bad days. And overall, I've seen an immensely positive change in both my husband's approach to disciplining our son and my own. However, I have also become increasingly more aversive to declaring myself a "gentle parent," and most of this has to do with the ways in which fellow Christians have responded to the conversation.
I have heard all sorts of claims regarding the origins of "gentle parenting." Most Christians who are against this parenting style believe that it's origins are unbiblical and typically reference the works of a single author or teacher on the matter. The reality is, while the term "gentle parenting" was popularized in the 1980's by parenting author Sarah Ockwell-Smith, the idea of parenting children with empathy and respect is not new. For example, many Native American cultures firmly believe that children are autonomous individuals of equal value and respect. Ancient hunter-gatherer communities are recorded to oppose coercion and force and deeply value connection. In fact, as early as the 1st century AD, we see a movement toward parents empathizing with and respecting the needs of their children...in Biblical text. Paul writes in both Colossians and Ephesians that parents should not "exasperate" their children. He contrasts harsh discipline and driving children to exasperation with the "instruction of the Lord." And in Galatians, we are told that gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit - a characteristic which those who walk with the Holy Spirit should demonstrate.
So while the term "gentle parenting" was coined fairly recently, and while many who have coined similar parenting terms, or practiced similar strategies, are not necessarily Christians, the idea of treating children with respect in disciplining them is 1. not new and 2. not unbiblical in the slightest.
A brief Google search on the term "gentle parenting" will likely lead you to a few other parenting terms. Diving far down the rabbit trail on Google, and particularly on social media, can lead to quite a bit of confusion regarding what gentle parenting actually is. In general, the terms "gentle parenting," "positive discipline," "respectful parenting," and others are considered to fall under the umbrella of what is called Authoritative Parenting.
There are four parenting styles that are referenced by experts and compared and contrasted based on the level of connection offered and expectations of the child. These four styles are authoritative, authoritarian, permissive, and neglectful/uninvolved.
Authoritative Parenting (which includes gentle parenting, respectful parenting, etc.) is NOT:
- Permissive: Boundaries are made clear and are held firmly.
- Authoritarian: Authoritative parenting values both connection AND high expectations of the child. Boundaries are held firmly, but connection is emphasized in disciplinary action.
- Uninvolved: Again, there is nurturing AND discipline, neither of which are seen in uninvolved parenting.
Many parents read about these four parenting styles and they assume that they must find a place in one of the four categories. They place an unrealistic expectation on themselves to remain within the box of that category at all times, lest they ruin their children forever. They learn "scripts." They stress about doing all of the "right things." However, the reality is that these styles could more accurately be viewed as a spectrum, or possibly even a wheel, rather than distinct categories. As parents learn how to best implement strategies that are respectful and healthy for their children, and as they work to break cycles of unhealthy parenting patterns from generations before, they'll likely discover that small pieces of other categories come through in the process. While it is important to find consistency in our parenting and while it is true that decades of research have demonstrated the benefits of authoritative parenting in comparison to the other three types, we must be gracious enough to ourselves and to one another to recognize that how this style is implemented will vary from family to family. The "gentle parenting" guru herself, Sarah Ockwell Smith, once said,
"Gentle parenting isn't really about using specific methods. It's about an ethos and completely changing the way you think. It's more a way of being than a way of doing."
By far, the biggest setback in the discussion of parenting strategies and advocating for more respectful disciplinary tactics in Christian circles is poor exegesis of scripture. Many parents religiously quote verses on the rod from Proverbs and yet have little to no knowledge of the aforementioned verses from Ephesians and Colossians. They also quote these verse from Proverbs without consideration for what a true interpretation of these verses implicated...it wasn't a smack on the bottom with an open hand.
To deny that corporal punishment is mentioned in the Bible and encouraged during the time that the scriptures were written would be foolish. Corporal punishment is there. Period. However, Bible verses are never intended to be read and understood in a silo - we are called to consider context, always. We cannot exegete scripture appropriately without consideration for cultural context, writing style, etc. In fact, I would argue that in reading any scripture, we need to consider the Biblical text as a whole - how does this fit into the overarching theme of God's Word?
Are we all sinners in need of a Savior? Yes.
Are we all undeserving of the grace we have been so freely given? Yes.
And did Jesus pay the ultimate price for the forgiveness of our sins? Did he not bear the stripes of that punishment? Did he not endure the nailing to the cross? And did he not rise from the dead in defeat of the grave?
In consideration of the entire Biblical text, we see that in a post-resurrection world, God calls us to responsibly raise our children with an attitude of grace and mercy. He calls us to love them deeply and consider their needs. He calls us to practice fruits of the spirit in all we do - "all" includes raising and disciplining our children. He calls us to teach our children of His love for them and to raise them in His instruction. When we consider Biblical text as a whole, we recognize that contrary to what many might believe, instructions regarding parenting with empathy and respect that are supported through the latest scientific research compliment scripture, not contradict it.
With all of these things in mind, I have come to let go of specific titles or names for our style of parenting and instead refer to it as one that is directed by grace and the peace of Christ. It is gentle. It is one that leans more authoritative rather than authoritarian, permissive, or neglectful. It is one which avoids corporal punishment completely and deeply values connection and understanding. It is one which values methods backed by research and also gives room for our unique personalities and family dynamic. While we might not consider ourselves "gentle parents," we are parents who aim to raise our children in the love and grace of Jesus Christ, and it is an honor and a privilege to do so.