- A parenting approach that helps us be more attuned with our kids is great.
- However, gentle parenting seems to ignore the parents' feelings completely.
- Parents talking about their feelings should be met with the same compassion we have for kids.
Shortly before the birth of my third baby, I flew to the West Coast to attend a parenting conference. I was willing to do anything to get it right for my older children as we welcomed another baby. Our family's transition from one child to two was, to put it succinctly, disastrous.
I trudged through the weekend of workshops, my bulging belly attracting smiles and pleasant small talk from the other attendees. Midway through the conference, I settled into a seat for the keynote address given by the lead psychologist I'd come to hear. As suspected, his talk was moving, and I was feeling inspired. Then he opened the floor for questions.
A mild-mannered mother in the audience raised her hand and asked for practical advice about how to handle dinnertime when her two children descended into silliness, rude behavior, and refusal to eat, causing her recurring feelings of anger, annoyance, and frustration. I appreciated her candor in describing the whole dynamic, not just her children's behavior but her own feelings about the unpleasant nightly ritual. Give or take a few details: this mother had basically described dinnertime at my house. I awaited the answer on the edge of my seat.
With great aplomb and zero hesitation, the psychologist responded, "Well, it's not about you," which garnered laughter and light applause from the audience. He then proceeded to discuss the ways in which she was failing to meet her children's emotional needs and how she could create more favorable conditions by strengthening her attachment to them prior to sitting at the dinner table.
While something about this response stung, another part of me bought into the idea of emotional self-erasure in favor of my children's well-being. The psychologist's certitude was evidence that I had the power to successfully cultivate calm behavior in my children if I could simply uncover the ways in which I was failing to attune to their unconstructively expressed emotional needs. And I could do all of this while cooking dinner. After all, I was a mother now, and it was no longer about me.
That was straight-up parent shaming
Nearly six years out from this experience, I now see what I witnessed that day as a public shaming of a mother who was expressing relatable feelings about a ubiquitously challenging time of day for parents. I've also come to realize that the psychologist delivering the keynote was at the forefront of a child-centric approach, which could be interchangeably termed as gentle parenting, conscious parenting, intentional parenting, respectful parenting, sensitive parenting, and so on.
At face value, any parenting approach that helps us become more attuned to children and accept their full range of feelings and expressions is wonderful. No one is arguing that these parenting approaches are likely best practices as far as the child is concerned. But as some die-hard parenting groups form their own culture of "gentle parenting," there is a surprising level of intolerance toward parents who express run-of-the-mill frustration and annoyance with their children.
As the messaging of these parenting approaches becomes more extreme, we seem to be setting the stage for a new wave of parent shaming under the guise of advocacy for a child's right to a shame-free existence.
Parents are allowed to have feelings too
While it's understandable that the empathetic tilt leans toward children in the context of the parent-child relationship, it might be time to question if the pendulum has swung so far that perhaps we should come back to a more sustainable balance — one in which mothers can speak to other adults, or experts, candidly and honestly about their feelings and be met with the same compassion and understanding we expect that mother to extend to her child.
And if we want to take a truly holistic view, we might question whether it's necessary to split the parent-child relationship into diametrically opposed halves where, in order for one to be seen, the other must be eclipsed. Instead, perhaps we could treat the relationship as a whole and all the feelings contained in it as having a seat at the table, as long as there is no potty humor.