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Is Gentle Parenting Permissive Parenting?

When I first became interested in gentle parenting, I admit, I wondered to myself, “Is gentle parenting permissive parenting?” Because I was brought up in a strict, authoritarian household I worried about the effectiveness of gentle discipline and if I was being too soft and loving with my little ones.

Of course, now it seems silly that I worried about such things. However, I had no examples of gentle parenting and it was a legitimate concern.

Maybe you’re reading this because you have the same concern. Maybe a well-meaning loved one is concerned that gentle parenting is just another name for lazy parenting or permissive parenting and you’re looking for a way to calm their fears. Either way, you’ve come to the right place today.

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The quick answer to the question is a resounding No! Gentle parenting isn’t permissive parenting. Let’s talk about how gentle parenting and permissive parenting differ.

Types of Parenting: Authoritarian, Authoritative, Permissive and Neglectful

You’ve probably heard of the four main types of parenting. If you haven’t, here’s a must-read article on the four parenting types.

Authoritarian Parents

Authoritarian parents are no fun to grow up with. They can be cold and emotionally and physically abusive. These types of parents usually value submission to authority, devalue those they feel are inferior and have rigid ideas about what’s right and what’s wrong.

Authoritarian parents seek control of their children and have fear-based values. Authoritarian parenting is hard on children and doesn’t promote proper emotional growth or healthy self-esteem.

Authoritative Parents

Authoritative parents set up rules, expectations, routines and consistency for their children, but they also provide a warm, loving environment in which children can share their ideas, opinions, and objections without fear of punishment.

Authoritative parents are generally emotionally intelligent and open-minded. While every parent experiences anxieties about parenting, authoritative parents don’t parent or discipline from a place of fear or frustration.

Gentle parenting done correctly is authoritative parenting.

Permissive Parents

Permissive parents tend to be loving and warm, but don’t provide adequate expectations, structure or consistency for their children. In my experience, permissive parents tend to be emotionally immature.

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Permissive parenting stems from fear-based ideas just like authoritarian parenting does. Permissive parents may hesitate to establish healthy boundaries and structure for their children for several reasons. They may fear losing their children’s love, seeing their children upset or having to deal with their children’s big emotions.

Another type of permissive parent is the lazy parent who doesn’t want to deal with the work involved with creating routine, structure, and consistency in their children’s lives. Maybe, they don’t know how to create those things because no one did it for them as children. Maybe they have low-impact mental health issues, low-grade addictions, or conditions, such as ADHD or health problems, that make it difficult-to-impossible to parent in a consistently healthy way.

Some parents swing from authoritarian to permissive and back again. This is especially confusing for children.

Neglectful Parents

Neglectful parenting is exactly as it sounds. Neglectful parents fail to provide a loving or structured environment for their children. Often neglectful parents are plagued with extreme limitations such as poverty, psychotic or neurotic mental health issues, chronic, debilitating health issues or all-encompassing addictions. Some neglectful parents come from generations of abusive, neglectful parents and know no other way of parenting.

Gentle Parenting Done Right is Authoritative Parenting

No parent is perfect, but when gentle parenting done well most closely resembles authoritative parenting. I believe there are many naturally authoritative parents who don’t consciously or intentionally practice gentle parenting but their parenting style looks very similar to gentle parenting in the first five years of their children’s life.

When parents leave behind the “baby b’s” years of attachment parenting and children move into the elementary-age years a focus on gentle discipline with natural or logical consequences merges the attachment parenting and authoritative parenting styles.

When Gentle Parenting Gets Confused With Permissive Parenting

As I’ve already said, gentle parenting done correctly isn’t permissive parenting. However, some attachment-parenting-minded parents aren’t emotionally healthy and when the time comes for more deliberate discipline (teaching our children socially appropriate behaviors) some parents may swing more to the authoritarian or permissive side of parenting.

Again, these parents usually make their discipline decisions out of fear. They think, for example, if I don’t spank my children, they’ll be out of control or if I give my children expectations and structure, they’ll hate me/be sad. Neither is true, of course.

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Sometimes people confuse gentle parenting with permissive parenting because the practice of gentle discipline tends to naturally follow the practice of attachment parenting with babies and toddlers. Gentle discipline forgoes the use of harsh punishment, especially physical punishment. And our society tends to equate not spanking a child with being a permissive parent.

However, gentle discipline is not permissive. Gentle discipline requires a lot of intuition, intention, and proactivity. It requires far more from parents than a reactive swat or frustrated yelling.

Gentle parenting includes setting healthy boundaries, creating structure and routine, laying out attainable expectations for behavior and following through with consequences that help a child to learn appropriate behavior and achieve success. (Check out my article Is Gentle Discipline Always Gentle?)

Gentle parenting doesn’t focus on controlling or stifling children and they don’t allow for inadequate supervision, teaching, or correcting.

Gentle Parenting v. Permissive Parenting – A Practical Example

Let’s talk about toddler tantrums for a minute. When a toddler has a tantrum the authoritarian parent might respond by “giving them something to cry about”. The neglectful parent might not respond at all. Truly, a toddler raised in an authoritarian or neglectful environment might not express big feelings at all due to attachment issues.

When a toddler in a permissive home has a tantrum the permissive parent does whatever it takes to stop the tantrum. The parent wants to avoid conflict and have peace no matter the cost. They feel overwhelmed by the child’s emotions or afraid that the child will be harmed by experiencing bad feelings.

Authoritative and attachment-minded parents know that a toddler having a tantrum doesn’t threaten their authority. They aren’t easily overwhelmed by their children’s big feelings. They allow their children the space to express themselves and help their children find more socially appropriate and effective ways to do so.

Set a Good Example for Gentle Parenting

That mom you saw in the park breastfeeding and babywearing her 8-month-old but yelling from the park bench at her preschooler to stop throwing sand at your child without ever getting up to actually physically stop her child is not a good example of perfect gentle parenting.

She’s an example of a good mother, possibly overwhelmed in the moment while trying to manage the needs of two (or more!) children. She’s an example of real life parenting of any type. No one has the right in that moment to scoff and say, “Those gentle-parenting moms are so permissive!”

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As well, you can’t judge a mom who loses her cool with her children in public as being strictly authoritarian. Maybe she practices gentle parenting but is having a hard day.

As a gentle parent focus on setting the best example you’re able to set. If you know you aren’t a permissive parent, but people who care about you are concerned that gentle parenting is permissive simply live your life and show them differently. Don’t waste time arguing the merits of gentle parenting – just set a good example.

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