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Gentle Parenting vs. Permissive Parenting: What's the Difference?


Learn transition strategies to help kids foster growth and independence. Explore Slumberkins for more child development insights and tips.

There’s a certain parenting cliche that seems to be cropping up frequently in movies and TV lately: The “conscious” parent. You know the scenario—A caregiver gently asks their child to stop their outburst while onlookers watch the kid scream in a grocery store or flingfood in a restaurant. 


This situation is all too common in real life, too. But what we don’t love are the real-life misconceptions they’re based on about gentle parenting vs. permissive parenting. 


The gentle parenting approach doesn’t mean letting kids run wild. Nor does it mean you give up your authority as your child’s caregiver. In fact, gentle parenting helps to form the kind of strong, dependable parent-child bond that’s vital for your child’s well-being. In this article, we’ll go over what makes gentle parenting different from permissive parenting, along with tips to approach parenting with confidence


Core Principles of Gentle Parenting

The gentle parenting approach begins with empathy—the ability to put yourself in your child’s shoes before reacting to their behavior. This doesn’t mean that you allow any behavior they choose. 


The gentle parenting technique simply means that you accept and allow the feelings that led to the behavior. 


The art of gentle parenting comes down to a few key principles:


  • Understanding the root behavior – Gentle parenting emphasizes the fact that children have reasons for acting out. There’s always a motivating need or emotion behind the behavior. 

  • Welcoming all emotions – Gentle parenting doesn’t categorize feelings like anger, fear, sadness, or jealousy as “bad” or “negative.” When kids express those tough feelings, gentle parents strive to show kindness, understanding, and non-judgment. 

  • Clear communication – Gentle parenting focuses on talking openly and directly with your child. Consequences and boundaries are communicated simply and clearly. When you need to set limits or correct a behavior, you take the time to explain why. 

  • Mutual respect – Gentle parenting emphasizes treating children with respect for their feelings and their personhood. Developmentally speaking, of course, our kids aren’t miniature adults—but they do deserve the same respect we give to adults. By modeling respect towards your child, you teach them how to treat others respectfully as well.

  • What is Permissive Parenting?

    At first glance, permissive parenting may seem a lot like gentle parenting. Permissive parents usually have the goal of treating their children gently. And permissiveness often isn’t intentional. Permissive parents simply want to avoid upsetting their children, and they feel that enforcing rules creates conflict or unhappiness. 


    Wondering if you’re leaning toward a permissive parenting style? Here are a few signs:


    • A permissive parent tries to set boundaries with their kid – But they don’t enforce them consistently, or they give up when their child argues, begs, or cries.

    • Permissive parents confuse independence with lack of structure – They don’t set up a clear structure or daily routine for their child to follow. It may seem like self-direction, but it can leave kids feeling uncertain and anxious.

    • Permissive parents give grace when managing difficult feelingsPermissive parents might believe that their child's actions are reasonable or stem from strong emotions, leading them to think these behaviors should be "forgiven." However, it's crucial for them to recognize that establishing natural consequences and setting limits is essential for children's ongoing learning and development.

    As you assess which parenting style you fall under, just remember that it’s never too late to shift gears towards healthy parenting. Parenthood is an ongoing journey that sees progress and setbacks, which is normal. At Slumberkins, our emotional learning products empower caregivers with the tools and skills needed to reach developmental milestones and gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be human.


    Permissive Parenting vs. Gentle Parenting: 3 Key Differences

    Below, we take a closer examination of the 3 crucial distinctions that set apart gentle parenting from permissive parenting. Here we’ll uncover the intricacies of these parenting styles, shedding light on their diverse approaches to nurturing and guiding children through their developmental journey.


    #1 Approach to Discipline

    How to handle discipline is one of the most thorny questions parents face. In gentle parenting, the solution is to view discipline as a teaching tool, not a punishment. 


    In permissive parenting, discipline is avoided. Parent-child boundaries aren’t clear, or they’re completely absent. Parents clean up after their kids or fix problems for them instead of setting reasonable expectations for children to correct mistakes themselves. 


    For example, imagine your child was running in the house and knocked over a water glass in the process.


  • The gentle parent's response – You begin with a clear direction: “Wow, you are so excited to play, but running is for outside. You knocked over a glass of water. I need you to clean it up.” Finally, you show confidence that they can handle the consequences of their action (with your help and guidance): “Here is a paper towel. Please wipe up the water before you go play.”

  • The permissive parent’s response – A permissive parent might try to set a boundary (“Hey, no running!”), but quickly gives up if their child ignores them or gets upset. To resolve the problem without conflict, they clean up the mess themselves. The permissive parent may think, “Well, I guess they just really needed to get their energy out today.” They typically are trying to understand their child’s feelings without setting limits or having natural consequences. 

  • As you can see, gentle parenting doesn’t avoid discipline, but consequences are always paired with respect and empathy for the feelings behind the behavior. 


    #2 Long-term Impact on Child Development

    Both permissive and gentle parents want to avoid causing their children harm or trauma. As parents, many of us were raised with strict discipline or a lack of empathy in our own childhoods. The last thing we want to do is inflict that on our children.


    But while permissive parenting might seem harmless, it doesn’t help children learn skills like self-reliance, conflict resolution, or self-regulation. 


    As a result, numerous studies have found that permissive parenting is tied to:


    • Lower academic performance
    • Lower self-esteem
    • Higher rates of externalizing behaviors like aggression and substance use
    • Seeking self-worth from others
    • Poor health outcomes 

    Overall, child development research finds that gentle yet authoritative (not authoritarian) parenting leads to the most positive outcomes for children.


    #3 Parent-Child Relationship Dynamics

    The gentle parenting style emphasizes building trust through open communication and understanding. Research on attachment styles has found that loving, secure parent-child bonds are vital for developing key traits like:


    • Self-respect
    • Flexibility
    • Resilience and emotional regulation
    • Curiosity and confidence to try new things
    • Empathy for others

    Permissive parents aim for a laid-back, self-directed atmosphere for their kids. But this lack of structure can actually result in a less secure and trusting bond with their caregiver.  

     

     


    Finding Your Parenting Style

    Your family is unique, and your relationship with your child is, too. This means there’s no cookie-cutter solution for every parenting challenge, and your parenting style won’t fit into a precise box. 


    However, if you’re uncertain whether your parenting lands on the gentle or the permissive end of the spectrum, here are a few questions to reflect on:


    • How do you handle emotional outbursts from your child? 
      1. I let them know I understand their feelings, or I ask questions if I don’t understand what’s going on.
      2. I let them express themselves freely without too much interaction, or I try to provide a quick solution to settle them down—a treat, a toy, or other distraction. 

    • If you’ve set a rule and your child ignores you, what do you do?
      1. I restate and explain the rule, but I don’t change it.
      2. I accept that rules won’t always be followed and let it go.

    • Your child refuses to eat their dinner. What do you do?
      1. I let them know it’s okay not to eat all of it but explain that there isn’t another choice tonight.
      2. I offer to fix them something else they like better.

    • How do you react when your child makes a mistake?
      1. I use it as a learning opportunity, and we talk about what they could try next time.
      2. I tell them they did a good job, or I just ignore the mistake to avoid making them feel bad.

    • How do you approach setting rules? 
      1. I have a list of clear rules with explanations for why they are important.
      2. I prefer to keep rules minimal and allow flexibility.

    Scoring:


    • If your answers were mostly As, you tend toward a gentle parenting style.
    • If your answers were mostly Bs, you lean in the permissive direction.

    Seeing signs of permissive parenting in your approach? Don’t be hard on yourself. Almost every parent takes the permissive approach from time to time, and mistakes and missteps are a given when it comes to raising kids. 


    In the next section, we’ll talk about how to improve your parenting skills, no matter your starting point.


    Adapting and Evolving as a Parent

    Parenting is an ever-changing job. It’s easy for very caring and empathetic parents to lean towards the permissive road sometimes. But it’s also easy to take steps to get back on track. Give yourself permission to be flexible, to make mistakes, and to learn from experience. 


    Ready to incorporate more gentle parenting techniques into your routine? Here are some tips:


    • Consider how you were parented – The pattern we fall into is typically the parenting style we grew up with or the exact opposite. For example, if your parents were strict, you may have become too permissive. How did your parents react to stress? How did they set boundaries? Were your emotions welcome? Being aware of your own experiences and how they affect you is key to parenting consciously.

    • Anticipate stressful situations – When you’re stressed or distracted, your instinctive reaction will be to fall back on the model your parents gave you—for good or bad. Practice scripts for situations where your child’s behavior tends to be challenging.

    • Set aside time for self-reflection – We know parenting is a whirlwind, but try to give yourself quiet time daily or at least once a week to reflect. Consider what’s working well, what could be improved, and how you could apply new insights in the future.

    Build New Parenting Habits With Help From Slumberkins

    Now that you know the difference between permissive parenting vs. gentle parenting, it's time to analyze your own parenting style and see if there’s room for improvement. (Once you begin practicing gentle parenting techniques, we’re sure you’ll find it’s a more peaceful and rewarding path for you and your family. Responding with empathy to your child’s feelings doesn’t mean giving up on discipline or boundaries. It means remembering that there’s a feeling or need being expressed when your child acts out. 


    Learning to express feelings in healthy ways is a learning process for caregivers and children alike. 


    That’s why Slumberkins has created a world of stories, music, and lovable characters that are all about embracing the rainbow of emotions. Check out our library of resources for caregivers for more ways to connect, learn, and grow with your child every day.




    Sources: 


    Korean Journal of Pediatrics. Impact of attachment, temperament and parenting on human development. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3534157/ 


    Michigan State University Extension. Authoritative parenting style. https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/authoritative_parenting_style


    Science Direct. Permissive parenting. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/psychology/permissive-parenting

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