We’ve all seen the memes that say something along the lines of ‘gentle parenting is for gentle kids… my kids are not gentle’ and then it shows a video of a child doing what children do. Gentle parenting is often misunderstood and undermined because it challenges so much of what we know about parenting. Not only that, but well-meaning but misguided parents who haven’t yet grasped what gentle parenting is share their journey in a ten second video confusing the topic even more.
Many people think of gentle parenting as permissive parenting, meaning there is no discipline, no boundaries and the children are in charge–this is not it. On the other hand, traditional parenting places a lot of importance on discipline. However discipline in traditional parenting can also mean power struggles, accusations of disrespect and a general misunderstanding around behavior. That is where gentle parenting differs.
The famous saying goes, if the discipline is reactive it is not discipline it is simply your anger or emotions getting the best of you. Discipline should be mindful, well thought out of and never reactive.
So when I say gentle parenting starts with a regulated parent, that means gentle parenting has nothing to do with your children and everything to do with how well you regulate your emotions. How are you able to calm your anger, your frustration, so that you can understand your child’s behavior and meet their unmet needs. How will you find your calm so you can find and build a connection with your child.
All of us get frustrated, stressed, and angry. Our bodies are designed to help us in these moments of high stress, when we need to survive. If we are not in control–if we are not able to regulate ourselves, then our body turns on its survival mechanism- your sympathetic nervous system is activated. You will then either fight, flight, freeze or fawn depending on what has worked for you in the past and you will be in reactive mode. Meaning if your child is having a tantrum your reaction is to get angry and yell (fight) or leave the room (flight) or shut down (freeze) or give in to what she wants (fawn) and not see what the unmet need is, and that is your body in survival mode.
You may be wondering, okay fine so how do I regulate?
First you need to make sure your basic needs are met– you need to eat, sleep and take care of yourself. It is crucial for you to fill your cup before you pour into others.
Second – practice being mindful. An easy way to do this is to take three deep cleansing breaths, 4 seconds in 6 seconds out – especially when you feel like you are stuck in your head. Use prayer times to be present with God and practice presence.
Third– take three seconds before a reaction. Practice not reacting right away, count three seconds when you feel the emotions rising in your body which is also good to recognize your body’s reaction, is your heartbeat faster, are your palms sweaty and so on.
Fourth– create in your mind reasons or explanations for your family– make it a practice for yourself, especially for your children! In your heart know that their intentions are never wrong.
Imām ʿAlī (ʿa) said it best, “Be slow in getting angry, quick in calming down and ready to accept excuses.” (Ghurar al-Ḥikam, ḥadīth #7648)
Remember above all, your parenting journey is about connection. Connecting with your child is the goal– it is the basis of trust, of safety and of a blossoming relationship. Connection with your child comes from connection with yourself first, As illustrated with this beautiful ḥadīth:
The Prophet (ṣ), when Imām Ḥusayn (ʿa) was a baby, one day took him from me and hugged him, the child wet his clothes. I snatched Ḥusayn (ʿa) away from the Prophet (ṣ) at that moment, when the child started crying. The Prophet told me, ‘Umm al Fazl, Keep your cool. Water can clean my clothes. But who will remove the displeasure and hurt of the child, Ḥusayn’” (Hadiya al ahbab, p. 176)