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What She Said: Has gentle parenting gone too far?

What She Said: Has gentle parenting gone too far?


by Caroline Foran
15th Nov 2023

IMAGE.ie columnist Caroline Foran on falling into the trap of ‘permissive parenting’.

I’ve entered ‘threenager’ territory with my son. Now, for the most part, things have gotten so much easier for us. He can play a bit by himself. I drink my tea while it’s still hot. He can communicate very effectively, to the point he now says ‘I don’t want to do that, actually’. Passive aggressive? Perhaps, but still cute. He’s affectionate, hilarious and imaginative. I am enjoying parenting now so much more than in those early days. The meltdowns that punctuated his second year are now fewer and farther between; when they do happen I’m pretty adept at handling them (and by ‘handling’ I mean I just do whatever it is that he wants/needs to quell the situation because he is my master). There are less and less tears because I’ve peeled the banana wrong or because I’ve put his cereal in the wrong bowl, but this is mostly because I now know not to make this fatal mistake. My mother was up with us during the week (she lives in Dingle) and she cut his toasted cheese sandwich into triangles. Without even asking him, can you imagine? He prefers squares. SQUARES! His eyes filled with tears (and rage). I froze, as if watching a lion in the wild facing down an innocent gazelle (my mother being the gazelle), about to eat its head off. She swiftly took a bite of each one to make it more square-like. It sufficed. I watched the whole thing unfold, as quiet as a mouse, wondering and waiting for things to go nuclear and how she’d handle the situation.

We didn’t go into our parenting experience with a style in mind, but we’ve wound up going the super gentle route, letting him lead, picking our battles (which means picking ZERO battles ever), letting him experience things like ‘natural consequences’, which we learned from the Big Little Feelings course. This means, for example, that instead of having tears and feet stomping over not wanting to put his coat on before we go out into sub-zero temperatures, we let him decide for himself when the cold air hits his body that actually he would prefer to be wrapped up. Not resisting him seemed to make it far more likely that he’d wind up doing what we wanted or needed him to do. It made our day-to-day that bit easier to manage. But now that he’s three, I fear it’s going to bite us in the ass. He has very little experience in being disappointed and having to just deal with it. Either eat the triangle toast or don’t. And I have very little experience in not quickly rushing to make things okay (the amount of times I have ‘magically’ glued broken biscuits back together when I should maybe take the hit and let him realise that sometimes, things just break).

I sometimes wonder, has the world of gentle parenting – to which I am fully subscribed – gone too far? Or have I just gotten it very wrong? I asked my husband this question last night and he said there’s a world of difference between gentle parenting and permissive parenting and over time, as we’ve walked on eggshells trying not to rock the boat with this tiny all-seeing all-knowing human (seriously, nothing gets passed him), we may have fallen more into the permissive category.

For example, the concept of giving two choices (where you ultimately are in charge but they have some sense of control) no longer works. ‘You can wear this jumper or that jumper’. To which I’m told ‘I don’t want that one (points aggressively towards one jumper) OR that one. I want to see all of the other jumpers.’ And so, as my frustration rises, knowing I need to get us out the door as quickly as possible without adding a 30-minute meltdown delay onto our schedule, I open up the world of jumper options. He spends ages mulling over his choice. He has all the power and he knows it. Just yesterday, we were going into town for an appointment and when I finally got him into the car seat (a full-blown workout), he realised he’d forgotten his most beloved airplane. It wasn’t enough for me to go and get it for him while he waited in his seat. He had to come out, go back inside and fly it from the kitchen out to the car. Blood pressure rising, I said ‘okay, fine’, rushing him out of his seatbelt and back inside. I swear at this age they can now smell when you’re in any kind of hurry. The plane had to fly around the island twice before it could enter the hallway and outside to the car. And in those moments, when I know I’m already late, all the gentle parenting goes out the window and I say ‘Come on! We HAVE to go, no more messing!’ and he looks at me as if to say ‘oh, it’s on’. As soon as the words come out of my mouth, I’ve added more delays to proceedings.

I finally arrive at the appointment, frazzled, stuffing him with lollipops to keep him happy, wondering how and when I lost control of everything. Telling myself I’ll start to put more boundaries in place. I’ll have to just ride out a few storms to put myself back in the driving seat. But no sooner do we hit the next point of potential friction, I decide ‘okay, well not this time, because it’s too close to bedtime and we don’t want a meltdown at bedtime, do we? So maybe next time, I’ll do better next time.’

CURRENTLY OBSESSED WITH…

PRAI Beauty Ageless Throat & Decolletage Day & Night Duo, €64.99. Having read Nora Ephron’s book I Feel Bad About My Neck, I am now taking better care of my neck.

Irish brand Wild and Free’s The Cobe coat, €175.95. It’s a luxury waterproof coat and dryrobe in one, made with recycled materials that looks actually quite chic. Winter walks on the beach? Sorted. Decide to hop in the sea while you’re there? Even better.

The Garden House, Malahide. It’s a garden centre but so much more than just a garden centre. Their home decor offering is next level and their store has transformed into a winter wonderland for Christmas, it’s a treat just to walk through it.

KitKat tiles. I’m about to have my kitchen backsplash redone with white porcelain KitKat tiles, it’s a gorgeous way to add texture to your living space.

For more of Caroline’s writing, find her on carolineforan.substack.com.

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