I have lived to see it all. First there was Authoritarian Parenting, then Uninvolved Parenting, Permissive Parenting, Train Up a Child Parenting, then along came Free-range, Attachment, Helicopter, and other popular parenting methods. Now the craze is Gentle Parenting.
We parents care deeply for our children and want the best for them, so we continue trying to perfect the art of child rearing. The high failure rate keeps bringing us back to the drawing board, forsaking or refining the former practice for something we hope is better. Sometimes it’s better, sometimes not. But there is nothing new under the sun.
The Gentle Parenting movement has been around long enough that it means different things to different people, but the single unifying characteristic is “no punishment” (as they call it)—not ever, not for any reason. That includes no time outs, no stern rebukes, no authoritative rule, etc. There have always been problems with some parents harshly punishing their children, so I can understand the swing of the social pendulum. In 1979 Sweden outlawed all forms of corporal chastisement, and child abuse skyrocketed. When harshness is in the heart of parents it finds abusive expressions, even under a “no hitting” mandate.
If all we do is read the Gentle Parenting blogs and mom-writers, we find most of their practical suggestions to be a restatement of the things I and other Christian writers have said for hundreds of years. Gentleness is essential. It is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, a Christian virtue. It is unthinkable that one could successfully parent without it. I will let the advocates of Gentle Parenting speak for themselves.
Sarah Ockwell-Smith outlines the concept in her blog “What Is Gentle Parenting?” as having four pillars: empathy, respect, understanding, and boundaries. With regard to respect she says:
“Respecting your child as much as you would respect an adult. For some reason in our society we afford children little respect. We constantly tell them what to do, what they like and dislike and perhaps worst of all the constant ‘be quiet’ commands. We don’t really ‘hear’ them enough. Why did he hit the other child? Why did she bite? Why did he kick? Why doesn’t she want to go to bed? Why doesn’t he want to eat? Why doesn’t she want to go swimming today? Children are real people—just like us. If we want them to respect us, then we need to respect them.”
That sounds great. I think it may be a paraphrase of something I wrote 25 years ago. She goes on:
“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?’”
Smith hit the nail on the head. My daughter Shoshanna has perfected the application of that principle without any inducement. She didn’t know it was called Gentle Parenting. She takes it for granted that parents are gentle. Smith says further:
“Gentle parenting is not just about letting your toddler throw a tantrum—it’s all about digging deeper to find the root as to why they’re unhappy in the first place. It places an emphasis on treating your child as you would want to be treated (you would want someone else to understand you if you were visibly upset or distressed).”
For about 50 years now we have been calling that approach “child training.” Most of the noted Christian writers of ancient and modern times have taught that very thing. Smith states:
“If we respected our children, we would listen when they woke crying in the middle of the night instead of returning them to bed with minimal eye contact or conversation.”
I must have said the very same thing publicly in seminars and in print a thousand times. TheConversation.com adds:
“. . . gentle parenting encourages a conversation between parent and kid.”
Ninety-five percent of the families in America would be helped by following that suggestion. Megabytes should never deprive our children of mega smiles and words.
The five quotes above by Gentle Parenting advocates express wisdom and understanding that is little understood by many parents. It is needful information that has been shared over and over again, but it is always new news to new parents.
So who does not believe in Gentle Parenting? Supposedly, parents who spank their kids occasionally. All the Gentle Parenting literature revolves around one thing—no punishment. The name, Gentle, is camouflage for a hidden agenda. It is an attempt to seize the high ground—suggesting that you either spank or you are gentle; you can’t be both. It is designed to change minds about historical parenting—to shame us. It is a common rhetorical technique in the arena of ideas. It is like calling a pro-death movement “freedom of choice.” Who is against freedom of choice? Supposedly anyone who does not believe a mother should be free to kill her baby. Who is against Gentle Parenting? Disreputable characters you see in Hollywood productions and Bible-thumping preppers trying to beat the devil out of their children and break their wills. Leftist media have become the primary definers of supposed Christian practices. Anderson Cooper and MSNBC are the new popular sources of what it means to be a Christian in America.
Most parents who come across the Gentle Parenting approach are going to quickly see a great improvement, not because they stop smacking, swatting, spanking, and threatening their kids, but rather because for the first time they become conscientious and sensitive, giving more “face time” to their children. In our book To Train Up a Child, we call it “tying strings of fellowship.” As we have said many times, “the Bible says ‘train up a child in the way he should go,’ not beat up or threaten up or nag up, but train up.” And we have said a thousand times, “Training is what you do before the need to discipline arises; you train so you won’t have to discipline.” Gentle Parenting literature has recycled these timeless truths and has in some cases done a very good job of restating them, but they are presented in a mix that will be damaging to the children.
On Sarah Ockwell-Smith’s website is a table with 14 points of contrast between what she calls Mainstream Parenting and Gentle Parenting. I do not agree with a single one of the so-called Mainstream Parenting techniques. The table creates a straw man, meant to cast aspersion upon traditional parenting. On the other hand, I find most (not all) of the 14 Gentle Parenting techniques as written to be very good. But when you know where they are going with some of it, it loses its luster. For instance, the fourth one reads:
“No behavior seen as ‘bad,’ but rather as an unmet need and a way to learn.”
Yes, bad behavior is a learning opportunity if it is handled wisely. But never representing any behavior as bad? What kind of worldview is that? If you don’t know, the answer is . . . leftist. The world is indeed a place of good and bad. Kids can do bad things like strike their baby sister with a weapon, or run into the street, or climb the stairs, etc. And when they do bad things maliciously then they are bad.
The sixth precept in the table reads:
“No behavior is rewarded, particularly not the type expected by the parents. Rewards are seen as superficial and unnecessary.”
They condemn punishment and reward equally. I recognize that the author is addressing a state of excess. Parents can neglect all interpersonal relationship and rely on purchasing good behavior and punishing bad behavior. Proactive is better, but to cast off the time-tested praise and positive reinforcement employed by parents, and even by the business world, is a bridge too far.
The Gentle Parenting suggestions in this table are sound, solid advice but with one major component missing—the concept of top-down authority, commanding obedience with the will and means to reward or chasten. That is the real world, whether spiritually or naturally. Consider the business you work for, your BOSS, the courts, the military, the IRS, child protection services, and traffic cops. Blind obedience to authority out of fear of punishment is the real world, both now and in eternity. “Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, to be ready to every good work” (Titus 3:1). “Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake” (Romans 13:5).
Gentle Parenting, though mostly good in its practical, everyday way of relating to your children, imparts a false impression of the most important reality of life—accountability and judgment. It is bad theology.
Ecclesiastes 12:13–14 Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.
The background advocates of Gentle Parenting do not believe in a day of judgment where some fair well and others do not. There is good and evil in the world and children should be taught to recognize it for what it is—to flee from the evil, repent of it, and do it no more, and to embrace the good.
“Sometimes we expect little ones to act like adults, but we need to educate ourselves as to the developmental abilities at each age they hit. For example, a 5-year-old often throws temper tantrums, but if we had the same problem with a 12-year-old, we should consider that an issue worth working on. Instead, we should focus on treating our kids as we would want to be treated. Children have bad days just like us. Some days the world is overwhelming; some days they are scared, lonely, confused, anxious or angry.”
My children, brought up in the traditional Christian family, did not throw temper tantrums at any age, nor did their parents. “Bad days” were unknown. For “The rod and reproof give wisdom . . . Correct thy son, and he shall give thee rest; yea, he shall give delight unto thy soul” (Proverbs 29:15, 17). And for the record, we were always gentle. We gently spanked the little ones when they needed it. And with a gentle attitude we more forcefully spanked them when they were older. We were all the nice things the Gentle Parenting literature advocates and more. But the children knew we were the supreme authority. We established the rules, enforced them with grace and firmness, handed out consequences without consulting the children on how they felt about it, and they all grew up to be the most stable, productive, creative people you will ever meet. They range in age from mid-thirties to mid-forties, and their children brought up the same way are all beautiful, outstanding examples of the sweet fruit of biblical child training—which includes corporal chastisement when needed. We deliberately placed the children under a rule of law that mimicked the real world—duty, responsibility, and accountability with consequences.
It does not take a very discerning reader to know that the driving passion of all the Gentle Parenting literature is not to promote the great truths of Christian parenting; it is to eliminate—and eventually make illegal—any form of corporal chastisement, which they call corporal punishment. And it is not really spanking that is the issue with them. Rather it is a worldview based on absolutes, a Lawgiver, and a system of accountability. Their definition of Gentle Parenting and the God of the Holy Bible are not compatible.
One of the main books quoted by the many Gentle Parenting advocates is Thy Rod and Thy Staff They Comfort Me by Samuel Martin. In it he states:
“God sent His Son into the world to save the world so they would not have to suffer for their own sins, but parents today punish their children and make them undergo the horrors of punishment for even the most minor of infractions. The idea of mercy is seemingly not applied at all. When parents sin, they ask God to forgive them, repent and know they are forgiven. When children sin, they are judged, tried, condemned and punished (p.11).”
He, too, builds a straw man representing all parents who spank as inflicting “the horrors of punishment for even the most minor infractions.” He is poisoning the well. None of us would condone “horrors of punishment” under any circumstances. Nor would we resort to punishment for the “most minor of infractions.” I think he has been watching too many anti-Christian movies that represent believers as unhinged. Perhaps he watches a lot of Anderson Cooper, or maybe he has spent a good deal of time in the homes of Hollywood elites who do explode with “horrors of punishment,” and then publicly campaign against it.
As is common, those who crusade against spanking project their own feelings, assuming that other parents are as angry and hurtful as they would be if they yielded to their dark natures to “hit” their children. They cannot fathom normal parenting instincts, nor have they ever seen the sweet fruit of a Christ-centered home.
Some young parents had bad experiences as children, and they know themselves to be a bit testy and angry at times. There have been occasions when their children provoked them and they retaliated with words or blows that rightly caused shame and guilt. It is easy for them to believe that all spanking is an act of violence, for they know that if they spanked at the end of their tolerance rope, it would be giving in to violence. When they come across the Gentle Parenting literature, they see a way out. They become proactive instead of reactive, and immediately get better results. That’s good.
But we have observed some of the Gentle Parenting families and found that their children are the least happy and have the least self-control, and they are generally unruly. Gentleness without ultimate accountability gives way to permissiveness. Persuasion loses its power when the flesh of the child becomes more powerful than the so-called gentle approach. Parents have taught, encouraged, and fellowshipped with their children, but the children sometimes turn and walk away from it like Adam and Eve walked away from a loving, gentle God who had trained them right. Likewise the cherub Lucifer could not be contained by the fellowship and grace of God. God established law and penalty before he established grace, and grace rejected still meets with the penalty of the law.
As good as some of their practical teaching may be, the theological underpinning of the Gentle Parenting movement is an abomination. It is alluring to the flesh because it promotes grace over law—grace without law, infractions being met with automatic forgiveness. Compare that to the Word of God:
Hebrews 10:26 For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins,
27 But a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries.
28 He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses:
29 Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?
30 For we know him that hath said, Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord. And again, The Lord shall judge his people.
31 It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Read the following passage and tell me if you think God practices Gentle Parenting:
Hebrews 12:6 For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.
7 If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?
8 But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons.
9 Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live?
10 For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness.
11 Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.
If physical chastisement is ungodly, where does that leave God in the Gentle Parenting worldview? They require something of parents that not even God practices. As Job said, “Shall mortal man be more just than God? shall a man be more pure than his maker?” (Job 4:17). If corporal chastisement wisely applied is ungodly, then God himself is ungodly.
It is sad, but we know that when the small children now being raised on Gentle Parenting precepts reach adulthood, parents will regret their adherence to this unproven approach. Sometimes it takes a generation to discover the fallacy of a trend.