Is Gentle Discipline Always Gentle?
Here’s a fact about gentle discipline: Gentle discipline doesn’t always look gentle.
Sometimes when people imagine what gentle parenting or gentle discipline looks like they picture an earth-mother type saying sweetly to her child, “Now, Willow, hitting your brother isn’t kind.” and that’s that. Little Willow faces no consequences for her wrongdoing.
While I’ve written about the fact that gentle discipline isn’t permissive, I’ve also talked about how I don’t punish my children. However, I do discipline my children and teach them that every action has a consequence. Sometimes consequences are tough to swallow. Sometimes it hurts our mama hearts to see our children face consequences.
As gentle parents, we might not parent by inventing arbitrary rules and punishments, but we still have to set boundaries with our kids. While we always strive to treat our children with respect we must be firm and steady while teaching them. This means sometimes gentle discipline doesn’t look or feel like a syrupy-sweet experience.
Throughout my nearly two decades of parenting I’ve encountered situations where I knew the way I disciplined my kids didn’t look so gentle from the outside. My discipline was firm and not sugar-coated when the situation called for such.
Being an authoritative parent who taught (read: disciplined) my children how to behave in socially appropriate ways without resorting to punishment took a huge paradigm shift. Unless you’re raised with gentle discipline it, you won’t get it perfect every time as a parent. Trust me.
The truth is gentle discipline doesn’t always look gentle.
When Gentle Discipline Doesn’t Seem Gentle
One day my middle son and I sat in the parking lot while my oldest son and youngest son had soccer practice. The parking lot is a pretty busy place. As we sat quietly reading or playing on our phones we heard the sounds of parents and young children all around us.
The various parent/child interactions went something like this: Seven out of ten families got out of their vehicles in some state of unhappiness. The children were usually crying or, at the least, whining. The parents were frustrated and were either yelling at their children to knock it off or growling threats through gritted teeth. (Here’s why kids make everything a struggle and what to do about it.)
Two out of ten families seemed to have hit the happy-kid-jackpot at that moment and their child bounced easily out of their car seat, into their shin guards, and off to practice. (I’m suspicious that these “easy” children have been promised a treat if they pull it together and get on with the rest of the day. I’m only half kidding.)
And the other one child/family out of the ten? Well, often they’d show up with grandparents or a favorite uncle that their little soccer player is eager to please. These kiddos rolled out of the car talking excitedly to Pop or Uncle Cool. It really takes a village to keep a kid happy. (Even though we’re not responsible for our kids’ happiness, mind you.)
Every once in a great while, however, an unhappy kiddo arrived but the scenario looked and sounded very different. Here is an example of one such occurrence that took me, a dedicated gentle mom, by surprise.
Here’s the scene:
A dad pulled up with his son, who was under the age of six. His son was crying and didn’t want to put on his shin guards and cleats. The father spoke quietly and patiently, but firmly, to his son.
“It’s time for soccer practice. You must wear your cleats and shin guards to be safe. Those are the rules.”
His son protested with a half-cry, half-yell.
The father repeated the rule, reminding his son that they’d already discussed what needed to be done in order to get to practice. He continued to speak quietly and patiently to his son, but after several minutes his son hadn’t cooperated.
Finally the father said, “Okay. We can’t do practice tonight if you won’t put on your cleats and shin guards. You know the rules; you know the consequences.” The child protested louder, but the dad buckled the child in and drove away.
Wait, WHAT?! I was frozen for a minute while I processed what I’d witnessed.
It’s so rare to see parents refuse to engage in a battle of wills with their children.
It’s so uncommon to see parents stay calm when their child ramps up the drama.
Of course, both of those tendencies are natural – again, unless you’ve been raised with gentle parenting.
Sometimes Gentle Parenting Looks Harsh
Here’s the thing – many parents would say what the dad did was harsh. He didn’t yell at or hit his child, but he laid down the hammer and took away the child’s power altogether, right? No shoes, no shinguards? No practice!
Most parents would threaten, yell, or hit their children into submission in that scenario. I’ve seen it play out in those ways over and over in that very same parking lot. The children lose control and the parents follow them down the crazy path.
Those children know who’s in control – they are! They get to convince mommy to feel as rotten as they do. When mommy starts yelling, threatening, and hitting the child knows she feels as miserable as they do. (And she behaves as miserably, as well!)
Ideally, gentle discipline requires very little talking to a child who is in the midst of a meltdown. It may require using your physical strength to remove an out-of-control child from a situation where he could hurt himself or others, but it doesn’t require causing your child physical pain to teach them a lesson.
It may require you to leave a store, a party, a play date, or other place where people will witness your departure. It all depends on the expectations and consequences you laid out for your child beforehand. When your child is misbehaving in a public setting it can seem abrupt to leave, but removing your child is often the gentlest and most effective way to discipline in those settings.
When my boys were young and I was at family gatherings or events where leaving to go home wasn’t an option, I’d leave the immediate area for a quiet place away from other people if they became fussy or needed discipline.
I might take them outside or to the car or even into a bathroom where we wouldn’t be bothered. The assumption was made more than once that I was taking my child away to spank or threaten them. Eyebrows would raise. Conversations would stop. I even heard the occasional (sickening) “Get ’em, mama!”
Of course, I was removing my child either because our preset consequences called for it or because I knew my child needed a moment away from the chaos.
Gentle discipline done right can look pretty cold in comparison to the fiery parenting norms of threatening, shaming, yelling at, and hitting children.
Gentle Discipline Gets to the Heart of the Matter
There are many reasons why young children show up at the soccer complex in a foul mood. They could be hungry, tired, or overstimulated. Frankly, they might hate playing soccer but are being pushed into by a parent. They may have had a bad day at school or have just witnessed an intense argument between their parents or siblings. They may be coming down with a cold or have eaten a junky diet that day.
Who knows? I can only assure you that my children were never in a bad mood because they wanted to show me how bratty they could be. There was always a reason for their inappropriate behavior.
Gentle discipline seeks to understand the cause of undesirable behavior. Getting to the heart of a child’s upset will lead you to a solution that will prevent undesirable behavior in the future. Isn’t that the goal?
Sometimes you have to remove your child from the situation to get to the bottom of the solution. Yelling, threatening, shaming, and hitting don’t help you or your child figure out what’s really going on.
Tenderhearted Mamas, Fear Not
While I eventually got the reputation as a mom who took discipline seriously because I refused to do my disciplining in front of others, the truth is that I was once a tenderhearted mom who was worried that setting strong boundaries and behavior expectations would hurt my child psychologically.
If you’re an attachment parenting mama who has trained herself to always consider her child’s point of view, you may struggle to avoid permissive parenting. It took time for me to overcome the authoritarian/permissive discipline swing and get on a even keel of gentle discipline. (Gentle parenting is not permissive parenting.)
Rest assured that discipline is not a dirty word. Gentle discipline gives your child clear guidelines for how to get her needs met and for how to handle big emotions. Gentle discipline doesn’t seek to simply turn off bad behavior instantly without bothering to go deeper for solutions to that behavior in the future.
How to be Sure You’re Using Gentle Discipline
Make no mistake – gentle discipline is hard work. Gentle discipline requires a lot from parents. Gentle discipline is not some airy-fairy, earth mama, non-coercive discipline thing.
The ‘gentle’ in gentle discipline refers to the way you keep your cool under pressure, respond to your child with patience, and see their misbehavior as an expression of unmet needs and not their evil plan to take you down one tantrum at a time.
If your intention while disciplining your child is to help them learn to properly express their emotions, help you and others understand their needs, and come up with solutions to prevent bad behavior in the future then you’re on the right track.
When you choose to use discipline methods that shut down your children, temporarily stop misbehavior, shame your children, or give you an outlet to express your big feelings about their behavior in a violent way (yelling, hitting, etc) then you’re not on the gentle discipline path.
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