How ‘gentle parenting’ became toxic

“I don’t know everything: we never stop learning,” I explain to my children. “What about when we’re dead?” Xavi, my four-year-old asks, quickly correcting me: “We never stop learning … until we’re dead.”

He may well be right. I can’t imagine the pressures of parenting while pretending I know everything and don’t feel the inclination to apologise for mistakes, nor do I believe emotions only became legitimate when someone hits 18. I have no doubt when my children cry they’re experiencing the sensation of crushed dreams, even if those dreams are an infinite Lego-building-session that bedtime is ruining.

So it’s no surprise that I’m a signed-up “gentle parent”. The name was coined by Sarah Ockwell-Smith, author of The Gentle Parenting Book, who writes about the importance of treating babies, toddlers, teenagers with respect, understanding and empathy.

If you’re a parent, chances are that even if you don’t have books, you’ll have heard gentle parenting chat in nurseries, playgrounds or on social media, where it’s gained 5.4bn TikTok views – and an academic study to its name. But now, Ockwell-Smith herself, whose children are 21, 20, 19 and 16, says the term is now “problematic” as it’s led to too many misconceptions.

Over the years, some people have started associating it with guilt-inducing levels of perfectionism and a calm that makes the Dalai Lama look uptight.

The misinterpretations have become so commonplace that Ockwell-Smith told me: “The name is problematic, I don’t think it will last. I never thought, ‘I’m going to name a new style of parenting.’ It’s really poorly defined. It came from me asking: ‘What do I call my sleep-training workshops so people realise it’s not cry-it-out?’ It’s a mindset of understanding kids’ development and being respectful, not a scientific, academic playbook. It would be better if it didn’t have a name.”

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, author of The Gentle Parenting Book (Photo: Rob Hill/ Urban Picnic)

Ockwell-Smith is frequently confused by social media portrayals. “I don’t recognise most TikTok videos as gentle parenting,” she says. “They reduce it to: ‘if your child says this, do this’ or ‘this is the gentle parenting way to handle this’ and I’m thinking: ‘no, it’s not’. It’s not a phrase book. I’ve always been careful to say: ‘I’m not perfect, I mess up, it’s hard and exhausting and you’ve got to put your own needs centre.’”

One misconception is that gentle parents don’t say no. “It drives me mad,” she admits. “I wouldn’t let [my young children] do stuff they wanted because it was dangerous or they’d break things. Of course, they have big feelings and don’t like being stopped. That’s not ungentle. It’s what happens afterwards: you don’t need to hurt, shame and embarrass children.”

She’s right about the confusion. I speak to Ivana Poku, author of Motherhood- The Unspoken, who feels the term is “toxic.” She tells me: “We should aim to be more understanding, but I’m not perfect.” Instead, she parents “with love”. Poku believes gentle parenting means no shouting, punishment or consequences.

Similarly, Lucy Wilson, founder of wellbeing classes Shine Strong Revolution, says: “It puts more pressure onto stressed parents, leading to guilt. I keep as calm as possible, but life throws a lot at you. If I’m unfair, then I apologise and explain.” Both mothers sound close to Ockwell-Smith’s definition of gentle, though they don’t identify with it.

The recent academic study, from Macalester College in the US, concluded it’s exhausting for parents, who are frequently self-critical.

Ockwell-Smith agrees gentle parenting is hard but says that’s because it involves examining your own childhood. “It’s about asking questions about how you were raised, otherwise you’ll repeat cycles and learnt behaviour. It’s exhausting when you’re trying to get through the day and also doing self-therapy,” she says.

“You realise you’re a bit messed up; it throws open your relationship with your partner, parents and in-laws. But what’s the alternative? Ignore it, pretend and damage next generations? Keep perpetuating cycles where everybody masks feelings and is afraid to say how they really are? We talk about mental health but not how it starts in infancy when we put a child on the naughty step during a tantrum.”

There’s no doubt that having children is the best therapy. I experienced how my childhood affects my parenting last summer: in the weeks before my son Xavi started school reception, he seemed angry.

While I’m quick to comfort and celebrate with my children, I felt worried for him and found this anger uncomfortable. I realised my discomfort stemmed from my childhood, not his emotions. I learnt to feel more comfortable so I could offer support and he didn’t learn to suppress a difficult emotion. Understanding myself helped me look after him.

A longer-term academic study is now underway. Ockwell-Smith says gentle parenting is not short term. “With Supernanny, they fix things in three days, but nobody goes back in five years and asks: ‘What’s the impact? Helping children develop emotional maturity, trust and resilience is not a quick fix, you won’t see results for years.”

Genevieve with her children (Photo: Mark North)

But perhaps the truth the researchers might find is that all parenting is stressful and joyful. Unless you’re a surgeon, it’s the most responsibility you’ll ever feel; no one wants to mess up. I suspect most of us feel guilty when we’re not infinitely patient with those we love, however we describe ourselves.

Ockwell-Smith thinks parenting is especially hard now. “The Government is so unsupportive of families,” she says. “Baby banks shouldn’t need to exist. There’s chronic underfunding in schools and teachers have had massive real term pay cuts for the past 12 years.”

As for the future of gentle parenting, she hopes one day it will just be called ‘parenting’. “My aim is that it doesn’t need a label; that all parenting comes from the position of understanding children’s development and treating them with respect.”

The birth of gentle parenting 

Gentle parenting has its roots in the warmth, sensitivity and boundary-setting of authoritative parenting, described by developmental psychologist Diane Baumrind in the 60s. It contrasts with stricter authoritarian parenting, where adults might say “because I said so”, and with permissive parenting where there’s warmth but no boundaries. 

Sarah Ockwell-Smith developed the parenting movement after the birth of her second child, when she realised she had to abandon the sticker charts and rigid sleep routines she’d adhered to with her first, that felt wrong to her. She named it “gentle” when developing sleep workshops. In the US, it’s sometimes called “sturdy” parenting and Dr Becky Kennedy is a chief proponent.