Why People Claim That Gentle Parenting “Doesn’t Work”

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Several recent articles have observed that so-called ‘gentle parenting’ works fine for some children but doesn’t work for children who exhibit aggression. The writers imply that there’s nothing wrong with respecting well-behaved children but children who misbehave need to learn compliance, and they provide scientifically validated ways to gain that compliance.

Compliance seems like it will make our lives easier in the short term — and it may, but it won’t help you to reach your longer-term parenting goals. Your child is ‘misbehaving’ because they have a need that you haven’t found yet and once you find it, they will stop being aggressive, oppositional, and hard to manage. We resist when our needs aren’t met, and so by meeting your child’s needs, your needs will be met as well.

When gentle parenting doesn’t work

A study cited in support of the ineffectiveness of gentle parenting techniques was conducted by Dr. Robert Larzelere; possibly the most outspoken advocate of spanking today. Many parents are surprised to find that Dr. Diana Baumrind, who developed the parenting ‘styles,’ was also a spanking proponent. Drs. Baumrind and Larzelere say, “On average, authoritative parents spanked just as much as the average of all other parents. Undoubtedly, some parents can be authoritative without using spanking, but we have no evidence that all or even most parents can achieve authoritative parenting without an occasional spanking.” This runs counter to many parents’ values today since parents’ use of spanking is declining. Other researchers have found that spanking predicts the deterioration of children’s externalizing behavior (which is what researchers call ‘acting out’) over time: the very thing that parents who spank are trying to change.

The challenge with citing academic research on effective parenting methods is that an idea can be supported by research, but not fit with our values. We don’t have to look far to find other ideas that fit this description: the racist notions that head size is linked to intelligence and that we can selectively breed humans with desirable traits were both supported by scientific research.

I believe that scientific research findings reflect the ideas that are prevalent in society at the time. It isn’t enough to know that an idea is supported by research; we also have to check whether it fits with our values.

Scientific research is not value-free

Even though we may think that science tells us the answers without being influenced by values, researchers do not operate in a cultural vacuum. Researchers make choices about things like:

  • What questions to ask and how to ask them
  • How to recruit study participants
  • What intervention to use
  • What effects to assess
  • How to analyze the data
  • Which aspects of the results to emphasize

Each of these choices is shaped by our values. Our values have led some to see — through scientific research — that a brain disease model explains opioid addiction among White middle-class populations, while people addicted to crack cocaine are considered to be “morally deviant.” Our understanding of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) relies on data collected from White middle-class participants and doesn’t consider the ways that experiencing racism, living in an unsafe neighborhood, or foster care influence people. Researchers often analyze communication with children through a White middle-class lens, so some see Black parent’s communication with their children as “deficient” and “in need of remediation.”

Our values are an inherent part of what it means to be human, and we can’t escape them through scientific research. The research can only help us to understand how to be successful within the context of those values.

The values underneath the alternatives to gentle parenting

What do writers mean when they say gentle parenting doesn’t work? Because parents transmit their values to their children, when a parenting method ‘doesn’t work,’ we can think of it as failing to transmit important parental and cultural values.

According to Dr. Larzelere, in the same study as before, a parenting method that ‘works’ “reduces non-compliance.” Other measures of success in studies cited in these articles include “identifying what parents need to be taught to reduce disruptive child behavior,” a “reduction in their child’s behavioral problems,” and “increased compliance” with parental demands. These terms all point toward obedience as a cultural value.

But when we look at what parents in Eurocentric cultures say about their values and desires for their children, obedience is not at the top of the list.

Obedience is far more important among conservative than liberal parents. A 2014 survey found that 38 percent of consistently liberal parents want their children to learn obedience, compared to 82 percent of consistently conservative parents (who are more likely to lack confidence in the scientific community).

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The importance of obedience has waned over time. One study found a decline in mothers’ desire for strict obedience in children from 64.4 percent in 1924 to 42.8 percent in 1978, while the desire for children’s independence more than tripled from 15.8 percent to 75.8 percent.

Another study found that parents held values related to happiness, learning, and being a good person: “I remember having an interesting conversation with (partner) cos I was saying, ‘Well I want them to be happy.’ And he said, ‘I want them to be good.’ Not good as in well behaved, but good people have a, you know, proper moral sense…” (italics mine).

It is possible that among Psychology Today readers, obedience is not a central cultural value.

Parents want ease, not obedience

In a remarkably forward-thinking 1943 paper, Dr. Harold Saxe Tuttle observes that obedience is “a convenience, a very great convenience, and, at certain stages, an indispensable convenience” as it protects children from harm — a great benefit with a young child about to touch a hot stove.

Obedience may be convenient, but it isn’t our ultimate goal. What we parents need most of all is ease. When our need for ease is met, we have time, energy, and capacity to enjoy our children and to take care of ourselves as well. Our children’s obedience may get us a bit of ease in the short term, but it works against us in the long term in two ways.

Firstly, an obedient child will continue to rely on our judgment to maintain obedience, because they haven’t learned to exercise their judgment. We’ll continue to be the referee: “Don’t do X;” “Hurry up and do Y;” “Why on earth would you do Z to your sister?”, becoming increasingly frustrated as we go — the exact opposite of meeting our need for ease.

Secondly, if our goal is to raise an independent child who cares for others and treats them fairly, requiring obedience is unlikely to help us reach that goal. We can’t tell them to do exactly what we say and expect them to develop and use their moral judgment on their eighteenth birthday.

How to get more ease

The first step in making parenting easier is finding out your and your child’s real needs. The needs I most commonly see in parents are for ease, peace, and collaboration with their children.

Our children are people with needs too; some of the most common needs I see among children are connection, play, and autonomy.

The ‘what to do when gentle parenting isn’t working’ advice offers obedience-based tools: consequences, selectively rewarding or ignoring specific behaviors and time-outs. When we require obedience, we tell our child: “I don’t care why you’re misbehaving; all that matters is that you do what I tell you to do.” When we instead look to understand the child’s needs, we find ways of meeting their needs that help us to meet our needs as well.

Maybe your child is disobeying you because they know that if they do, you’ll pay attention to them as you tell them off (need for connection).

Maybe they are being accidentally aggressive as they try to start or stop playing with a sibling, and we can show them other ways to convey their needs.

Maybe they are resisting you because the thing you’re asking them to do feels deeply wrong for their body, and the most powerful word they know is “No!”

Neither I nor anyone else can tell you how to handle each of these issues because we don’t know why your child is doing these things; we don’t know your child’s needs. In my book, Parenting Beyond Power, I offer some conversation starter questions to help you understand their needs which then provides a path to meeting your needs as well. These include:

  • Can you tell me what you were trying to do when…?
  • Can you share why…wasn’t working for you?
  • Can you tell me why you don’t want to…?

Once you take a step toward meeting their needs, your needs for ease, peace, and collaboration will be met as well. No obedience required!

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