I have a search alert set up to tell me when anyone blogs about the words “gentle discipline.” So, of course, my interest was piqued when I saw this post: Gentle Discipline, My Foot by Andrea at Rightthinker.
One thing I like right off the bat[1. Always compliment before disagreeing, right?] is that she uses quotes liberally to show sarcasm in her writing. This is one of my favorite writing “tools.” So, she is an interesting read and although I disagree with her on many things I also agree with her on some[2. She describes herself as “I am a Conservative, Bible believing, open to life, homeschooling, cloth diapering, natural medicine using, “old-fashioned” mama, that stays home with our house full of children to “have my hands full” and make a home, that is a house pleasing to the Lord.” Switch Conservative to Liberal and SAHM to WOHM and we have MUCH in common! :)]. For example, check out her article on the differences in Obstretic vs. Midwifery care.
The Opposite of Gentle
Back to the article at hand. She starts out saying,
I believe completely in the autonomous rights of parents to raise, teach and discipline their children in whatever manners they so choose-or not choose.
I feel sure she didn’t really mean this sentence the way it sounds. I certainly believe in autonomy of parents since I don’t want forced schooling, forced vaccinations, forced religious education, etc. However, I don’t believe in complete autonomy. Complete autonomy leads to female genital mutilation and other violations of basic human rights. She continues,
The greatest force against us as disciplinarians in our home is the pervasiveness of guilt that is brewed fresh daily by the “gentle parenting” crowd. The name of their movement alone by default labels any other method as “not gentle”. Thus equating it with roughness.
I’ll talk about guilt in a moment but she is right about the meaning of gentle,
gentle means soft and mild or having or showing a kindly or tender nature
while antonyms of gentle include:
crude, rough, troubled, unkind, violent, wild, harsh, loud, odorous, putrid, rough, sharp, strong
When I choose the word gentle to describe my parenting style I do it quite intentionally based, in part, on these definitions. I also agree that “not gentle” parenting is equated with roughness. This does not mean I can’t see the difference between a violent beating and a harsh or rough swat, smack, pop or whatever term a family uses. You can’t “hit” someone[3. Hit means an impact or collision, as of one thing against another or a stroke that reaches an object; blow. It is an objective term. I’ve had some object to my using it but it is the verb for striking something, anything. Calling it a swat, slap, “pop”, doesn’t chage the fact that it is a hit.] (or something) in a gentle manner. You can hit in a gentler manner when compared to another hit (as I pointed out when I compared Nancy Kerrigan’s assault to Emmett Till’s) but it is never gentle.
I think the guilt that some parents feel at having their parenting style defined as “not gentle” stems from a false assumption that “people” will think they are beating their kids or that they resort at every opportunity to authoritarian discipline (Andrea says as much, “Please do not categorize as evil abusers, us parents who do the opposite[of gentle discipline]”). I often hear “I only swat in certain, rare circumstances.” Andrea, says,
“My issue comes in when the people choosing that method represent that those who see their roles as parents far differently, are abusers, and damaging their children.”
For the record I do not assume that someone who spanks (or punishes at all for that matter) is a horrible parent raging all day long at their kids. I’m glad you only spank rarely and as a last resort. I’m happy that “tempered with love, modeling, forgiveness, prayer, and consistency” describes your discipline. I’m glad that “Breastfeeding, wearing [your] baby, meeting all their needs, loving, reading, cuddling, and teaching” are part of your parenting philosophy. I’m sure you employ many gentle moments – probably even the majority of your moments are gentle.
However, spanking still isn’t gentle. Period. Nor are other forms of punitive or conditional parenting.
Gentle or Permissive?
Andrea also takes a stab at describing gentle discipline,
If you wish to raise your children with a haphazard method of boundaries-you know, “let them explore..let them set their bedtime..let them decide where to go…you are simply along for the ride” (the methodology of grace-based and “gentle” discipline) then so be it.
There is nothing haphazard or simply “being along for the ride” about gentle parenting (and on this Andrea, I have to assume that you have NOT done “much” reading about gentle discipline, may I suggest some?). Below is one of my favorite charts showing parenting styles. I like it because, unlike most quadrant-based charts on parenting styles this skews it on its side so you can see the continuum of effectiveness down the left side and because it shows the shaded blending of the styles. What she is describing is called permissive parenting typified by low levels of expectation and high levels of nurturing responsivness. As you can see in the chart, permissive parenting rates quite low on the effectiveness scale (only slightly higher than being completely disengaged). Authoritarian parenting, where punishment falls, actually has high levels of expectation in common with gentle (nurturing in the chart) parenting.
Gentle parents, like authoritarian parents, care a great deal about the behavior and discipline[4. Discipline in its purest meaning – Discipline comes from the Latin, disciplina meaning instruction and related to discipulus (“pupil”) from discere (“to learn”). I like Wikipedia’s take that “In its most general sense, discipline refers to systematic instruction given to a disciple. To discipline thus means to instruct a person to follow a particular code of conduct.”] of their children. And, as you can see from the chart authoritarian parenting actually has a high level of effectiveness (as measured by child behavior) as it scales with the level of responsiveness/nurturing.
Gentle parents are no more permissive than Authoritarian parents are uninvolved. To assume so ignores the intention and creates an inflammatory divide. I don’t assume you beat your kids. Don’t assume I let mine run wild.
She describes a gentle disciplined child in this way,
[The child] has completely destroyed your home and marriage, marriage bed and life-one that is up from 6 am until 2 am..calling the shots, picking what they want to eat…wear…how they want to act, and then in between you and your husband in your bed, then you do that…If you wish to tiptoe, on eggshells, into the grocery store…just waiting….praying you don’t have a meltdown on your hands…then you do that…One of the fringe benefits of all that hard work, and all the badmouthing of “more enlightened” parents, is that I don’t have to be kicked, bitten, overtired, yelled at or generally embarrassed by savages in public or at home.
What sad acquaintances she has! Savages? Parents quivering in fear in their homes afraid to venture out with their brute children? If that is what she thinks gentle parenting looks like then no wonder she thinks so poorly of it!
My gentle discipline is a very hands-on, intentional choice to nurture, set boundaries, and respect my child with a good dose of “love, modeling, forgiveness, prayer, and consistency.” There is nothing haphazard or “do nothing” about it. If my child were to act like the child she describes it would be obvious that I was failing at nurturing, respecting, meeting the needs of, and setting boundaries for my child.
The way I and Andrea define setting boundaries might differ, however. The boundaries might be the same (e.g. no biting) but the approach may differ. The excerpt to the left is from Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason By Alfie Kohn. It was hard to find just
one quote but this one sums up the goal of boundaries. Do we say no biting because it is important that our kids listen to us? Or do we say no biting because we want our child to develop empathy? Answering this question leads to the discipline method you use. If we perceive that our child didn’t “obey” we will respond one way – and probably decrease biting – but will they learn our ultimate goal?
(I’ve been meaning to write a post (and I’ll get to it eventually) about what I learned from Athiesm about parenting. Now, I’m a Christian but I believe strongly in the way morality is taught to non-religious children. For example, teaching your child that “lying is a sin” can miss the larger point of why lying is a sin. Explaining about trust and truthfulness (and how that is Christ-like) is the larger point. I digress – that is a post for another day.)
If I set the boundary that biting is not allowed and I expect obedience I might punish non-compliance with a “consequence” (time-out, scolding, spanking, etc.). If, on the other hand, biting is not allowed but I expect age-appropriate responses my response will be different. At 18 months? Understanding how the other person feels is not possible. I can help her learn by explaining how that hurts and can make someone sad (giving the emotion a name) and then I can redirect and give her something she CAN bite. At 8 years old? A child of this age normally can understand how others feel so it would be very important to me to determine what is causing the behavior (bullies at school, new sibling, etc.) and work with her to find a solution that meets both our needs – mine not to allow biting and whatever her need is. This is not permissive.
Michelle at The Parent Vortex said it best,
Gentle discipline focuses on helping children work through difficult emotions and frustration in a supportive and empathetic environment and using discipline as a method of teaching children instead of simply punishing them for misbehaviour and rewarding them for good behaviour. Gentle discipline does not primarily aim to control children through external motivators such as rewards, praise or punishment, but rather aims to teach children how to control their own behaviour based on their own judgement and motivation.
Note: I did not tackle the religious questions raised in Andreas post because I feel they require their own discussion. For now, you can read my post on Spare the Rod? Does the Bible Promote Spanking? and Golden Rule Parenting at Novel Mama or Choosing Gentle Discipline at Hybrid Life.