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Spare the rod, spoil the child

Is the trend of gentle parenting — acknowledging challenging behavior rather than just correcting it — a mistake?

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Olivia Waller for Deseret News

Recently a girlfriend told me, “I always pictured having a large family, but motherhood is so much more difficult than I imagined it to be!” I hear variations of this frequently from friends with one or two children; that it’s just too hard, and that adding more children to the mix would break them. The reality is that the style of parenting they’ve adopted, that of “positive,” “gentle” or “responsive” parenting is actually what’s breaking them; and I can see why they find motherhood so crushing. 

Writing for The New Yorker on gentle parenting in March, Jessica Winter explains, “In its broadest outlines, gentle parenting centers on acknowledging a child’s feelings and the motivations behind challenging behavior, as opposed to correcting the behavior itself. The gentle parent holds firm boundaries, gives a child choices instead of orders, and eschews rewards, punishments and threats — no sticker charts, no time-outs, no ‘I will turn this car around right now.’ Instead of issuing commands (‘Put on your shoes!’), the parent strives to understand why a child is acting out in the first place (‘What’s up, honey? You don’t want to put your shoes on?’) or, perhaps, narrates the problem (‘You’re playing with your trains because putting on shoes doesn’t feel good’).” 

John Rosemond, a family psychologist and author of bestselling books on child rearing and family life, told me the philosophy is an offshoot of psychological theories popularized among those in the professional mental health world in the 1960s and ’70s. He explained, “The main theme of it then is the same as the main theme of it now: Essentially, children communicate via their emotions because they lack the sophistication of the language to do otherwise very effectively. And it is of utmost importance that parents properly interpret and properly respond to their children’s emotional communication. … Parents are being scared to death by people with a Ph.D., whom they assume they know what they’re talking about. They’re scared that if they don’t acquiesce to their children’s emotions, they would be causing their children all kinds of psychological disturbance.” 

This acquiescence comes in countless parenting decisions, big and small, but I would argue the three most disruptive come in the areas of food, sleep and technology.

When leaving the house for a quick visit to the park or playground, it’s common to see mothers leaving with half of the kitchen packed in their bulging diaper bags. The result is a steady stream of snacks the entire day, with mom doing the heavy lifting, packing and distributing them. 

“Parents are scared that if they don’t acquiesce to their children’s emotions, they would be causing their children all kinds of psychological disturbance.”

Experts advising parents on how and what to feed kids don’t make the situation any better. One such expert, Jennifer Anderson (known on Instagram as @kids.eat.in.color), a registered pediatric dietician, boasts 1.8 million followers and dispenses advice for “picky eaters.” Most of Anderson’s advice is helpful; like suggestions to make low-sugar yogurts tastier, or the proper protein serving sizes for a toddler (surprisingly small; comforting information if you find yourself wondering how your two-year-old can eat so little and remain alive). Other advice is great, like a suggested schedule of snacks and meals, telling parents “you’re in charge of when food is served.” But she also falls into the gentle parenting trap on occasion, with one such post telling parents, “Serving at least one food your child likes at all meals and snacks isn’t catering, it’s honoring their need for time to learn to like new foods.” 

This is exactly the advice that scares parents off of having more than one or two children at most; because the result is it turns parents into short order cooks. I have five children; I don’t even remember all of my kids’ (ever shifting) likes and dislikes at any given time. We have set meal and snack times, as Anderson recommends, for my sanity, but we also serve one snack or meal, not catered and made-to-order requests. And if they don’t like it? Then they don’t eat it. My pediatrician (himself a father of six) told me something recently at a well-visit for my one-year-old that he said comes as a surprise to most of his patients: a child can go to bed hungry. They can, it’s ok. It also establishes a power dynamic that children need to understand: It’s parents, not children, that are in charge, not the other way around. 

Literally the most exhausting part about being a parent is the associated lack of sleep. As a mother of five, I understand that exhaustion deep, deep in my bones. Which is why I’m such a big believer in setting firm boundaries around sleep. Friends often tell me their sleep woes: Spending an hour or two on the floor of their child’s room, waiting out their children in a battle of wills, trying to get them to go to sleep. Emily Oster, a Brown University economist with expertise in parenting from a data-driven perspective and the author of three data-driven books on parenting, told me, “There is a lot of evidence suggesting that consistency is important in generating behavior change in parenting — in implementing a sleep routine, in enforcing meal-related behaviors, etc. Inherent in consistency is some limit-setting and some parental structure. Doing whatever kids want in a given evening is more or less guaranteed not to be consistent because kids are not consistent. This can be a challenge.”  

And I want to be clear: I am by no means perfect on sleep; last night I climbed into my one-year-old’s crib at five months pregnant and spent an hour there with him during a truly epic and somewhat terrifying thunderstorm. In my conversation with Rosemond, I asked him the difference between honoring children’s emotions and becoming beholden to them, and he gave excellent advice: Parents need to separate emotional needs from impulses. My one-year-old’s middle of the night thunderstorm wakeup wasn’t because he didn’t want to sleep or because he wanted to play; he genuinely needed me out of fear of the storm, our windows rattling with the sound of thunder. 

But on an average night, there is no negotiation. Kids sleep with leak-proof sippy cups, and there are no last-minute requests for books, snacks or other stalling tactics. We have a set routine that everyone understands: Mom puts baby to bed while my older four children (age three to eight) dress in the pajamas I’ve set out, brush their teeth and floss. When I’m done with the baby’s bedtime, the three-year-old is tucked in and kissed, with assurances that I’ll “come and check on her” at some point in the night. If she wanders out of bed, she is met with a stern demand to return, which she is expected to do on her own. The older three children get one chapter of a novel we’re reading, then it’s lights out for them, too. They can read on a Kindle if they want, but I am “done parenting” and they know that while I’m there for an emergency, they are expected to go to sleep. 

There is significant evidence suggesting that sleep training improves infant and child sleep, and improves sleep for parents, lowers depression, improves martial satisfaction.

This strictness around bed makes everyone happy: Kids know what to expect and are getting an adequate amount of sleep to keep their brains developing as they should, and it ensures I stay as rested as I possibly can, ready to handle the next day with a full cup instead of running on empty. 

In “gentle” parenting circles, there is no greater villain than “sleep training.” Parents are told they are ruining their children for life; teaching them that parents cannot be trusted and that letting them “cry it out” is a form of “neglect.” To this, Oster responds, “There is significant evidence suggesting that sleep training (i.e. some form of what people call ‘cry it out’) improves infant and child sleep, and improves sleep for parents, lowers depression, improves marital satisfaction. There is also good randomized evidence refuting the idea that sleep training leads to long-term problems with attachment.”

While parents of younger children are fighting the battles over sleep and food, parents of older children and teens have their own struggle: technology. According to Common Sense Media, in 2019 (the numbers are likely drastically different post-pandemic) the majority of 11-year-olds in America already owned a cellphone. Naomi Schaefer Riley, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of “Be the Parent, Please: Stop Banning Seesaws and Start Banning Snapchat,” literally wrote the book on why and how parents need to be keeping their kids off cellphones and devices as long as possible. Riley sounded a similar note as Rosemond on needs vs. wants, and the imperative of parents to tell the difference. Riley told me, “What you’ll hear typically is that your child will need this device in order to ‘make friends,’ ‘make plans,’ ‘find them’ or ‘for safety.’ There are definitely parents with different circumstances, but parents need to ask themselves is this actually a need? Imagine when you were a child. What did parents do before cellphones?” 

There is a clear connection between rates of cellphone use and the growing rates of anxiety, depression, bullying and access to pornography among teenagers. While unhealthy patterns of eating and sleep, established from a young age, have a deleterious effect on developing bodies and minds, so too does access to smartphones and internet-enabled devices in the preteen and early teenage years. 

Parenting is hard, but in many ways, we’re making it harder on ourselves by trying to be “gentle” and “positive” versions of ourselves. In the short-term, many of us find it easier to capitulate on sleep, food and technology; it’s easier to give in than stand our ground. And we have an entire parenting philosophy and dominant culture encouraging us to do so. But in the long-term, it’s making parents and children alike less happy, worse versions of ourselves, turning family life into misery unnecessarily.   

Bethany Mandel is a homeschooling mother of five, an editor for the children’s book series “Heroes of Liberty” and an editor for Ricochet.com.

This story appears in the November issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.