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What Is Gentle Discipline?

Gentle Parenting is a broad parenting philosophy that influences every aspect of the parent/child relationship as well as other relationships in the family.  It can be called positive parenting, peaceful parenting, authentic parenting, and many other terms.  It is an aspect of attachment parenting.  It isn’t “just” about gentle discipline, although that is a big part.  It is about parenting from a place of mutual respect that by its nature spills over into discipline.  It would not be possible to practice gentle parenting and NOT practice gentle discipline.

Gentle discipline is often also narrowly seen as a short-cut for “not spanking” and while that is certainly part of what it means it has so much more to offer.  Let’s look at some of the definitions of Gentle Discipline:


[dis-uh-plin] noun, verb,-plined, -plin·ing

If you read the various definitions at Dictionary.com you’ll find references to punishment, training, rules, behavior, and other terms that, frankly, give me the willies!  I would rather look at the origin of the word –  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.”  At this level I agree with discipline as my job as a parent.  I hope to guide and help Aellyn discern (“to learn”) about the world.

Wikipedia goes on to say “Usually, the phrase ‘to discipline’ carries a negative connotation. This is because enforcement of order – that is, ensuring instructions are carried out – is often regulated through punishment.”  This is a connotation that has been added to the word over years because of its conflation with punishment.  So what is punishment?



–verb (used with object)

1.to subject to pain, loss, confinement, death, etc., as a penalty for some offense, transgression, or fault: to punish a criminal.

2.to inflict a penalty for (an offense, fault, etc.): to punish theft.

Reading this does not inspire me to incorporate punishment into my parenting repertoire.  But, to be fair, maybe this word has also been twisted over the years from its original meaning?  According to Wikipedia, ”The word is the abstract substantivation of the verb to punish, which is recorded in English since 1340, deriving from Old French puniss-, an extended form of the stem of punir “to punish,” from Latin punire “inflict a penalty on, cause pain for some offense,” earlier poenire, from poena “penalty, punishment of great loss”. Latin punire possibly was inspired by the Phoenician method of execution by means of crucifixion. Therefore the Carthagian crosses were called signae poenae “signs of the Phoenicians”.

It is hard for me to get off the word “pain” in there but you know what the more significant term is?  Inflict.  I don’t think that inflicting is something you do to someone you love.  When I get home late from work without calling and my husband is upset at me I don’t want him to inflict anything on me.  I want him to share with me how he feels and work with me to come up with a mutual solution.

Doesn’t my child deserve the same respect and empathy that I want for myself?  This is the heart of Gentle Discipline.  To guide with empathy and respect.

Punitive discipline, which is the use of punishment and rewards to coerce cooperation from kids, is definitely the norm in our society. It can take a profound paradigm shift to move away from that to gentle discipline.  This often leads to the assumption that “gentle discipline” is NO discipline! That kids run wild on their ragged parents and have no boundaries.  These kids grow up to be rude and self centered.  With that fear it almost seems preferable to practice punishment.

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 (eta: this blog has since been made private).

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 (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 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 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?

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.

This post was originally published on BabyDustDiaries.com

How do you define gentle parenting?  Discuss it here!

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