The style of parenting I promote has many names – gentle parenting, peaceful parenting, and positive parenting.
Semantics aside, what these styles have in common is responsiveness – to ourselves as well as our children.
Responsive parenting reflects not only our own practices, but also the type of relationship we wish to have with our kids. It means that we respond to our kids thoughtfully, rather than react impulsively.
Consider the typical tantrum. It might start with our kids’ wishes being denied – perhaps it’s something blatantly unsafe like wanting to play with a lighter, or perhaps something that’s inappropriate at that time, like wanting to go to the park at 3am. Perhaps it’s simply something that we don’t want them to have, like our phone.
We say no. And they lash out.
Tantrums and meltdowns are best met with kindness, empathy, and understanding.
But critics of responsive parenting tend to favour more authoritarian approaches, with tactics like “time-out”, spanking, or punitive punishment (e.g. the classic “because you did that, no dessert tonight”).
The critics of responsive parenting view empathy and kindness as “giving in” to the child.
This is false.
In fact, “giving in” to our kids would be allowing them the very thing that they were denied in the first place.
Like allowing them to have the lighter, or the phone, or to go to the park at 3am.
Showing kindness isn’t “giving in”.
Responsive parenting is being willing to support our kids while they experience the uncomfortable emotion of disappointment (or frustration, or rage, or sadness, etc).
It’s a bit like giving them crutches if they’ve twisted their ankle.
When kids are disappointed, they experience it in a very obvious way. As adults, we’ve learned to fake a smile, swallow our feelings, and just “suck it up”.
But kids aren’t always able to do that.
When they experience intensely uncomfortable emotions, they feel lost and alone. They feel like someone has pulled the rug out from under them. They feel afraid. They feel disconnected.
And what they need most of all is kindness and empathy from a trustworthy caregiver.
Just as crutches provide support with a twisted ankle, responsive parenting provides kids with emotional support at the time when they are feeling overwhelmingly uncomfortable.
As parents, we know that it’s not our job to take away the disappointment, just as it’s not our job to take away the twisted ankle. So we hold firm with our boundaries and limits. No lighter. No phone. No park at 3am.
Our job is to help our kids navigate the minefield of complex emotions that arise from daily life – and develop healthy ways of coping with them – so that they become emotionally intelligent and resilient adults who can deal with uncomfortable feelings in a healthy way.
If we’re willing to give our kids crutches to help ease the physical discomfort of a twisted ankle, then surely we must give our kids the support they need, to ease the emotional discomfort of unpleasant feelings.
Showing kindness, empathy, and understanding towards our kids isn’t “rewarding” their inappropriate behaviour, nor is it “giving in” to their requests. It’s helping, supporting, and nurturing their development – and treating them as individuals who are worthy of our respect.
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