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Gentle Parenting Matters, Says Science

Helicopter parenting and “Tiger Mom” philosophy still make headlines, and the “I Was Spanked and Turned Out Fine” memes pop up on our feeds, for sure. But if you look at the mainstream parenting landscape as a whole, modern parents are decidedly embracing kinder, gentler philosophies about raising kids than past generations.

What was once seen as “spoiling” is now known as “responsiveness.” What was once called “discipline” is now labeled “abuse.” And then there’s the rise of modern parenting techniques like Positive Parenting Solutions, Peaceful Parenting, Conscious Parenting and Mindful Parenting. (And of course there’s Attachment Parenting, practitioners of which will feel wholly validated by the end of this article.)

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All of these philosophies, in one way or another, encourage parents to be sensitive to their children’s needs and to meet them with respect, compassion and presence (rather than seeing their needs as being “manipulative” or unimportant.) And according to a recent study published in Child Development, insensitive caregiving during a child’s first three years can affect a child socially and academically all the way into that child’s early thirties.

But how exactly do researchers define sensitive caregiving? It’s “the extent to which a parent responds to a child’s signals appropriately and promptly, is positively involved during interactions with the child and provides a secure base for the child’s exploration of the environment.”

The interesting thing about this research is that sensitive parenting affects a child’s life just as much at 32 as it did during the toddler years. So the way we respond to our babies can have far-reaching implications into their future.

Luckily there are resources out there for parents who gravitate toward a more compassionate, respectful approach to our tiniest humans, despite the warnings of coddling and spoiling. Despite the eye rolls of mother-in-laws. Despite the stresses and difficulties of being a human that make it hard to stay tuned in.

I get a lot of slack for being an ‘attachment parent,’ but I don’t do it to fit into a club or something.

For instance, gentle parenting is a UK-based movement with advice and resources for new and veteran parents alike, whether you have a newborn or a teenager.

According to the site, gentle parenting focuses on “empathetic, compassionate parenting because we know how important childhood is and the far-reaching and lasting effects of the way that we raise our children.” But unlike other parenting movements that tend to have a laundry list of criteria in order to “belong,” gentle parenting is open to anyone, no matter how you feed or diaper or sleep at night.

“I initially gravitated toward [gentle parenting] as a young mom. I felt under-prepared, and the idea that mothering was natural resonated with me,” said Ellisse Tracy, an active member of the gentle parenting community. “I think gentle parenting was kind of an extension of attachment parenting, starting out mainly as a decision to not use CIO [Cry It Out] and then turned into … respecting my daughter as a person.”

In many ways, all of this certainly does echo the attachment parenting movement, as well. While mainstream ideas of AP philosophy tend to hone in on the more sensational aspects (like breastfeeding 6-year-olds and sharing a bed for life), that’s not the point. Those who follow an attachment parenting lifestyle, even very loosely, are simply responding to their babies’ needs and developing a close emotional and physical bond.

So when you look at the recent behavioral and neurological research (including the Child Development study cited above), practicing attachment parenting doesn’t seem like the most damaging thing you can do. In fact, it just might be the opposite of damaging.

“I get a lot of flack for being an ‘attachment parent,’ but I don’t do it to fit into a club or something,” said Jessica Lovitt, a stay-at-home mom of three. “It’s what feels right in my gut.”

Lovitt says that many family members criticize her for not only baby-wearing and co-sleeping, but for quickly responding to her baby’s needs.

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“With my first kid, everyone told me that she was crying and acting up because she knew I was wrapped around her finger, as if my infant was playing me for a fool,” she continued. “She is wrapped around my finger, and my heart! Now that I’ve been a parent for almost seven years, I know that my gut instincts are right. When my baby needs me, I’ll be there. Period.”

Science seems to agree with her, too. Maybe we all need to shed the philosophies and fear-based warnings, and just show up when our babies need us—but with sensitivity, gentleness and compassion. That’s the key.

Their lives just might depend on it.

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