Getting It Wrong: What Gentle Discipline Is Not

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 discipleTo 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.

Defining Boundaries

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

Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason By Alfie Kohn

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.


16 thoughts on “Getting It Wrong: What Gentle Discipline Is Not

  1. We don’t spank our kids, fed them on a baby-led basis, and have co-slept, although for varying times and reasons for each child. But that doesn’t mean I don’t *ever* discipline my kids or that they call all the shots and do whatever the hell they like. In fact, we live a life led a lot by routines and several no-budge family rules. I’m not quite sure how someone makes the jump from “gentle discipline” to “no discipline.”


  2. The thing that I find most backward about her thinking about gentle parenting is her comments about the gentle-parented child that is described as being ‘nightmarish’. My husband and I find that by gently parenting our son, we are experiencing quite a contrast to her imaginings. We are deeply tuned into our child and he with us – allowing for lovely shopping trips, family travels and boundaries that work for him (though he is still quite tiny). A marriage bed…holy moly, family is about being together….our son is a part of our lives, why wouldn’t we want him in our bed. It has only enhanced our relationship. Great post, thanks so much for sharing.


    • Yeah I didn’t even tackle her point about the “marriage bed.” I’m not sure why people think cosleepers have no sex life or intimacy in marriage. I agree it has enhanced our relationship. My favorite moments in my life are waking up with my hubby and baby (all too rare since they are sleeping when I leave for work!).
      .-= Paige´s last blog ..Getting It Wrong: What Gentle Discipline Is Not =-.


    • Re Marriage bed – We have co-slept and my Mother seems to have the same idea..that it can break up marriages. What is going to do more damage? Staying up all night with my baby becuase he doesn’t want to sleep in a cot (at 8 weeks old) or having him sleeping peacefully next to me? HE is now very happily at 17 weeks sleeping in the cot next to me without tears.
      With children our bed it is yup, a family bed! Like we have time or the energy for the rest of things?! They will happen in their own time and I am certain that there are other areas in the house …..:P
      The line that really got me in her article was –
      ” It just so happens that I believe they are born sinners, and the only thing holding them back from disobedience, is their physical inability to do, as they grow in their capability to physically sin, their need for discipline tempered with love and patience grows! ”
      I find that very sad. To see that of something so beautiful. Something that is a miracle in itself.


  3. Paige, kudos to you for being so nice to her here! I went to read her full post and was surprised by her vitriol, because you present her post so respectfully! So, I guess I’m just trying to say thanks for being so cool and even, when all I want to do is yell at someone who wants to talk about me like that! 🙂
    .-= Jessie´s last blog ..Sandra’s Congri =-.


  4. I’m so disappointed that Andrea has closed comments on her blog. I thought for a minute we were having a meaningful dialog. She closed comments because she said she was being “attacked” and “flamed” – perhaps she had some comments that were deleted, and if so, that is horrible. Being grace-based to our kids extends to adults too.

    However the comments I read were very respectful. I’m pasting them here since I don’t know if she’ll delete them and I want everyone to see. She says that her post was just in response to people attacking her about being an abuser but she never seems to concede that she is attacking US as permissive and raising little monsters.

    Did I not say I don’t see her as an abuser? I think that was my attempt to get a concession from her. Perhaps she blogs in a vacuum and wants only sycophantic comments? Ah, well, I tried.

    Rightthinker-Andrea said…

    **Sorry, I deleted my above comment because I had posted it under my husband’s Google acct name, which was signed in..I apologize, but don’t want to speak for him, LOL!


    I appreciate your thoughtful and respectful comment!

    I don’t desire to do any further research on gentle parenting. I’ve done quite a bit, known personally people who choose that method, and can read at any given time (go to, discussions, and then the “gentle discipline’ thread) the issues with behavior that parents let go in order to accomplish their goal of “hands are not for hitting.”

    As I stated in this post, parents are free to do whatever they want with their kids-as long as they don’t abuse them. My post is about how old-fashioned Christian parents; those using the biblical model of parenting (God the Father chastising His beloved out of ultimate agape love, etc) are being attacked as abusers.

    The media, (not the friend of the Christian in most cases) and the modern parenting movement are all demonizing strong biblical parenting.

    So, as long as parents choose to allow their children to grow up under the gentle discipline model, I’d appreciate not being labeled “an abuser” for how I raise mine.

    Thanks for the visit, and God Bless!
    7:43 AM
    VeganCowGirl said…

    I have to say, with respect, as it appears that you are a very involved and experienced parent, that I disagree strongly with your approach to parenting. I am a gentle parent and I do not in anyway relate to how you have described gentle parenting. My son is not a tyrant in our house. Rather, he is an equal and cared for member of our family who has a voice and is allowed to share it. He is given the boundaries that he needs, while at the same time being honoured for having his own throughts, approaches and opinions.
    I think that you are unfair and go so far as to condescend parents that opt for the gentle parent path, which, to be honest, I don’t find in keeping wtih your christian approach to your blog. You are just wrong about your points regarding a family bed, experiences in the grocery stores and bed times. I am sorry, but I think you are being unfair and are most certainly misguided. So, for as much as you wish to be left alone by the media, etc in your parenting choices, I think you should show the same amount of respect to us – rather then your off-handed, condescending “go aheads” that you make repeatedly in this post.
    12:36 PM
    Alison Morrow said…

    Hi there–just read your post and have to say I’m confused. None of the examples you list are of gentle discipline or grace-based discipline, but of permissive or even non-parenting. (And some of them, like the comment about letting them choose what to wear, aren’t even discipline issues, so I’m not sure I understand what you were getting at when you included them.) You said you’ve researched, but from the comment you posted it sounds like your research was based solely on what you’ve seen others do who claim they are using gentle discipline, or what you’ve read on the internet message boards–in other words, no actual authorities on what grace-based or gentle discipline is, but instead the attempts of others to live it out. I practice grace-based discipline with my children and I can tell you it looks NOTHING like what you’ve posted. I encourage you to read Tim Kimmel’s “Grace Based Parenting” or “Families Where Grace is in Place” by Jeffrey VanVonderen or “Biblical Parenting” by Crystal Lutton. (Her website,, is an excellent resource for understanding what true Biblical discipline is.)

    I also think you’re misunderstanding the Biblical model of parenting. Nowhere in the Bible does God punitively discipline his children. Nations and peoples who are NOT his children–yes, but his children he treats with grace and disciplines with natural consequences. ( has a number of articles that explain this.)

    Just as we Christians get frustrated when our faith is lambasted by unbelievers based solely on the poor way in which some people live it out, I fear you’re doing the same with grace-based discipline. You’ve judged it based on how you’ve seen flawed people try to execute it, and unfortunately it sounds like all the examples you’ve read and witnessed were from people who don’t really understand the tenets and practices of the method. Like I said at the beginning, not a single one of your examples was a true example of gentle discipline, so before you write off the whole thing as unscriptural and ineffective, please read the authorities who promote the method and study how God, through both the OT and the NT, disciplines his children with grace.
    12:47 PM
    Rightthinker-Andrea said…

    I do thank you for your comments. As I have tried to address in my post, and my follow up comments, I do not have time to parent other people’s children. This post, and the follow up comments are a response to accusations to old-fashioned and traditional parenting styles being labeled as abusive, archaic, ignorant, angry, mis-informed, un-enlightened, etc.

    As I said, I respect the rights of parents to parent their children While I will not argue with you over YOUR choices, the choices of others routinely attack traditional parenting styles.

    I’m sorry you do not find this keeping with Christianity. I ask that you do not read or comment any further, if you feel my blog is hypocritical in that way. I wouldn’t want anyone to compromise their personal beliefs because of words I’ve written.

    Please remember, old-fashioned parents are the ones being attacked, and I was responding to these accusations-one that have come from “studies” and from the gentle discipline crowd.

    I agree that God through the OT and NT disciplines with grace, but I must argue He also disciplines with chastisement-and most certainly will at Judgement. Grace is forgiveness, something that is always a part of loving parenting.

    Thank you and God bless!
    12:54 PM
    Rightthinker-Andrea said…

    As a follow up, I’d like to point out that I have read “Grace Based Parenting” by Kimmel. I disagree with him. Sometimes, even when you read “experts”, you may still disagree, and I would say that reading all the books today can be source of confusion. As I’ve said with many other topics, I trust only the Bible, not the take of an expert on the Bible.

    I’d point you to the mothering site again. While I don’t categorize ALL people participating in gentle discipline or grace led parenting in this group, this is a large and very diverse group of parents advocating those approaches and condemning any form of chastisement.

    My comments on the family bed are reflective of issues others bring up with advanced ages of children causing sleep deprivation and issues between parents. Clearly, when adults are forced out of their beds by children who are old enough to be taught the confidence to sleep in their own bed, a marriage can suffer-whether or not that is “feely” enough, doesn’t matter. Again, it doesn’t matter to me what age (if at all) you sleep with your kids…I sleep with all mine while they are’s natural.

    Please respect that this is a response to being called abusive, and having ones children “felt sorry for” by “expert” studies, and modern parenting advocates.

    My “go ahead” comments are because of discussions I’ve had where I’ve been basically challenged to see “how my kids turn out” because they are “abused”, so I would encourage all people to go ahead with the method you have chosen. I am sure (as I have one child who has rarely been a challenge to boundaries at all) that many parents will raise their children successfully with a different approach than what we utilize in our home.

    We all have our parenting challenges-I just don’t see them the same way as others may. That is still my right, and the one I was speaking to on this post.

    Blessings to you!
    1:06 PM
    Jessie said…

    Oh, Andrea. I’m so sorry that your experience with gentle parenting looks the way you’ve described. Your descriptions of the children, families, and marriages of gentle discipline households are so angry and passionate, that although you keep saying that the post is about Christian parents being badmouthed by others, it is clear that you are indeed angry about the way others raise their children. I hope that someday you can recognize that gentle discipline can glorify God.
    2:50 PM
    Rightthinker-Andrea said…

    Thank you for your perspective, Jessie. However, your tone is very condescending, and you are on my blog. 🙂 I didn’t take this discussion to your blog, as the very discussions elsewhere led me to do a blog post where I could share my being attacked without being attacked.

    The comments now are becoming personally attacking. I don’t know anyone who has recently posted here, nor have I ever visited their blogs, yet I’ve maintained an open discussion with them.

    Unfortunately, many see Christians today as being prohibited from voicing an opinion, or having any passion about anything at all. As if being meek and humble means we have no thoughts on important subjects-How sad!

    It is also sad that those against Biblical chastisement (and, again, if you do not think they exist, please understand that they do-and that they DO call us abusers, (and many others like Above Rubies), ignorant, mean, uneducated, neglectful and bad parents) can proselytize for their cause, and against all others without fear. Yet, when a Christian parent mourns the loss of a nation that respects strong discipline advocates, we are patronized and talked down to as angry and in need of enlightenment and assistance from “those who know”.

    I’d be interested in emails from people with children older than mine, that have successfully raised their kids biblically without chastisement ever being used. I’m always up for real discussion.

    Otherwise, due to the personal attacks and flaming (as a violation of my commenting rules) comments are closed.

    Thanks and God bless!
    3:55 PM
    .-= Paige´s last blog ..Getting It Wrong: What Gentle Discipline Is Not =-.


  5. It is a shame that many people assume that gentle discipline is summed up by simply not spanking, when there is so much more to it than that.

    It’s also a shame that it is so easy to judge a really huge, complex parenting philosophy by the things people post on message boards. When I was pregnant with my first baby I spent HOURS every day combing the MDC boards and I was convinced that everyone who co-slept woke up every hour and had their child in bed with them until the kid was 6. When my daughter was born and we tried out co-sleeping, I was surprised at how easy it was. Sure, we had our share of difficult nights, but it was generally good for us all. Message boards are a great place to blow off some frustration or ask for suggestions, but it’s usually some of the least positive aspects of any parenting philosophy that are on display there.

    Great post, Paige. 🙂


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  7. It is perplexing that people don’t get it. Gentle parenting doesn’t mean *not* parenting! I am not completely sure how we become characterized in this manner.

    I will say that before I had kids (and before I was committed to gentle discipline) I would sometimes read the gentle discipline forum on Mothering and think “no way! I will be completely AP except when it comes to discipline!” I can’t recall the specific topics that led to that thought, but I am sure that it was a combination of 1) parents who weren’t disciplining much at all (not uncommon on MDC, in my limited experience), 2) reading about difficult situations, and 3) my own ignorance of children in general.
    .-= Liz´s last blog ..Baby Steps to Green: Ditching the Shampoo =-.


  8. I really appreciate your response, Paige. I’d comment on Andrea’s blog, but I see she doesn’t want any more response (or at least, nothing that disagrees with her view). She didn’t actually turn off comments, however. Maybe I should do a tutorial on that, lol.

    I think the root of the problem is that people become black-and-white about these issues and demonize the other side — and I mean that both sides do that. I don’t see you doing that, however, Paige. You wrote with compassion and reasonableness and showed well the calm thinking of “our” side. Thanks for that!

    By the way, I also do not have a “savage” child. He’s a delight.
    .-= Lauren @ Hobo Mama´s last blog ..Wordless Wednesday: Reusable shopping bag =-.


  9. So, I read the article and even left a comment before I realized she meant to close them (don’t know if she’ll let it through). Honestly, I think she was just trying to blow off some steam. I know there are times when I have really wanted to do that (but I don’t, at least not in public domain). I do wish she hadn’t represented gentle discipline in such a negative and inaccurate way, but I totally get why she was upset. It doesn’t matter what our parenting style is, someone is going to badmouth it. I think we should all just work toward uplifting one another, and share what works for us without bringing someone else down. Sometimes we do this accidentally. I can only imagine what she would be feeling if she read all these comments about her post. If it were me, I’d be crying.


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