Should Catholics Implement Gentle Parenting?

by Family

When I was posed this question, I didn’t understand it at first.

Not because I didn’t know what gentle parenting was. Before my baby was even old enough to have a tantrum, I had over-read and over-researched and exhausted myself reading the least scary parenting advice I could find.

This was composed mostly of things called respectful, attachment, intentional, peaceful, no-drama, and by any other name gentle parenting. My baby deserves the perfect parent, right?

I filtered secular gentle parenting trends through my Catholic faith, trying to figure it all out without turning to Catholic parenting sources. Why? Well, the one Christian parenting book I read—from a Protestant Christian who was not gentle—sounded like I needed to slap the sin out of my evil-born children for minor infractions, or I would be failing in my duty to be dictator over my children. And that was terrifying…

I would have been too devastated if any Catholic advice was along the same lines. What if my favorite saints advised switching my kids with a rod for their own sake? Or my friends at church were ready to quote the bible in defense of needing to break my child’s will into submission?

Yet, it seemed so Christ-like to be gentle and unconditionally loving while still holding firm to “rules.” I knew many Catholic families who were this way, their homes full of peace even if a toddler was screaming or a teen was disagreeing (because the adults didn’t scream back and were often unphased by spilled milk).

What people are concerned about with “gentle parenting” is turning into super-chill (a.k.a. neglectful and passive) parents from the movie Church People who never told their child “no” or felt like they had any responsibility to guide him in life. Then, the kid almost shoved a metal knife into a plugged-in toaster (not to mention the whole part about volunteering to be crucified) because he wasn’t ever taught better!

That’s why we’re asking this question.

Can a Catholic in good conscience practice gentle parenting and still raise their children to be good Catholics?

First, what is gentle parenting? Gentle parenting, which is not intended to be passive at all, can be mistaken for a parent simply refusing to discipline. That’s probably true with some parents who claim to be gentle parenting, but it’s not the rule.

Gentle parenting is most broadly described as parenting that doesn’t use fear to discipline, as in no physical punishments, removal of love, or screaming (or ostracizing time-outs). No parent is perfect, so gentle parenting promotes parents to model apologizing when it’s appropriate. A gentle parent would turn to consequences, either natural and revealed beforehand, and seek to help a child within age-appropriate boundaries to grow into a healthy adult.

As Catholics, we aim to parent so that our children have their best chances to also be the holiest they can.

So, let’s look at different parts of gentle parenting and how it suits our Catholic faith.

    It’s about relationships.

Yep! Both gentle parenting and Catholics are called to parent from a good relationship with your children. Building it up, mending it when it’s broken, and enjoying it.

This means having proper boundaries, which is explored in a biblically based book called Boundaries by psychologists Cloud and Townsend. This book isn’t a parenting book specifically, but it is all about relationships: what’s your job versus your parents’ versus your child’s.

Catholics believe that God giving us free will—even if we use it to disobey Him at times—is truly a loving gift that helps us freely love back if we so choose. If we keep healthy relationships with each other and God, we will understand better how to respond to our children. Catholics believe this is a gift to be guided, not a spirit to be broken.

No parenting technique is a “magic trick,” so your child might still scream or have tantrums. Any parenting trend can make it seem like they have some gnostic knowledge that will make your life a breeze, but the reality is that you can do everything “right” and your child might still choose to throw food or scream through bath time.

Gentle parenting would want you not to fight your child. Simply provide consequences for actions, depending on their age, and be consistent and calm. It says that screaming at the child or physical punishment would create the wrong associations and long-term problems with your relationship and possibly even mental health issues in the family, especially for your children.

Catholic parenting goes a step further and makes your battle against evil—not against your child, not each other, not yourself, not your parents, not a parenting book. It requires you practice virtue too, while responding appropriately to your child. All this with prayer, guidance, intercession of saints, kindness, and unconditional love.

Furthermore, Catholics would agree with secular gentle parents that with we don’t own our child, but Catholicism does recognize the parental authority we have given by God. This means not being a dictator, but being a Good Shepherd, responsible for the flock and seeing each child’s needs. They are blessings from Heaven.  

Both perspectives seem to agree that parenting is about relationship.

      It’s about both gentle and firm.

Gentle parenting calls people on to treat children with human respect; Catholicism preaches human dignity from conception until natural death, with the theology of free will, mercy, and grace. Sounds pretty close, huh? At least, not contradictory.

Arguments arise when it comes to physical punishment, like spanking. Some Christians preach it as Gospel. Some avoid it like sin. Gentle parenting puts it in on the “no-no” list for parents, almost categorizing it as abuse sometimes. Catholics would not consider spanking gentle, perhaps, but it isn’t necessarily something listed on examination of conscience for the confessional.

The bible requires parents to discipline their children, and discipline means to disciple, guide, and teach. As Christians, this means everything parents do is to help our children follow Christ—the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The Bible doesn’t require spanking, nor does it mention any specific parenting ideology or condemn anyone to hell for a spanking.

There’s an abundance of literature on the issue, which we won’t have room for here, but L.R. Knost, though not Catholic, is a gentle parenting leader and writes on the Scriptural meanings of discipline extensively. It’s worth exploring this topic if spanking affects you.

Whether or not you agree or disagree with spanking, nothing about her poem below is contrary to the faith. Rather this is an easy summation of parenting, whether Christian or gentle secular:

            Model instead of manipulate.

            Invite instead of intimidate.

            Support instead of shame.

            Encourage instead of enrage.

            Teach instead of threaten.

            Listen instead of lecture.

            Help instead of hurt.

            Parent instead of punish.

So, is it legitimate to say Catholics don’t need to use physical punishment, which is something gentle parenting does without? Yes.

  It’s about how we are designed as humans.

Where a gentle parenting book examines hunger-gatherer societies for their lost secrets of family life, Catholicism knows the Creator Himself.

BOOM. Science is great but often confirms what we already know or do.

Every child is different—one might crumble at a sigh of disappointment; another might not be affected by scolds or consequences until you really find the Spirit-inspired way to get through.

Parents, no matter the preferred parenting style, are called by God to love each child individually and unconditionally, respect their human dignity, and guide them. This might look like gentle parenting, but it is most fully simply parenting like the Good Shepherd parents us.

Secular gentle parenting gives you a list of “no-nos” and the scientific reasons behind it as well as a smattering of interesting alternatives. Their “sins” of parenting would be things like shouting, forced isolation, or physical punishment. It’s all very scientific. And gentle because of the confidence they have in science.

This isn’t contrary to what Catholics believe; it’s just that the science isn’t the reason we’d be motivated. Though first children are jokingly referred to as “Guinea pigs” because parents have never parented before then, Catholic parenting is not a science experiment.

Catholics practice Christian virtues to grow closer to God as a family. This is a very deep, spiritual relationship that secular gentle parenting doesn’t touch. It involves a certain kind of fear: fear of the Lord. This isn’t fear of Him punishing you; it’s fear of losing eternal life in Heaven with Him because of choices you’ve made. That’s a good, healthy kind of fear.  

“It is not enough to love the young; they must know they are loved.”

– St. Don Bosco

It’s about long-term.

Gentle parenting focuses much of its time on the long-term “pay-off” for your family. Where you might be going through a rough phase, it’ll be worth it, in the end, to be gentle with your children. It’s about not adding to the drama, being on your child’s side even if you’re trying to tell your child their behavior is wrong.

Catholicism doesn’t disagree with that, but we look further—at eternity. In very rare and drastic situations, maybe an older child needs extreme disciplinary measures or somehow falls into temptations and becomes someone parents must make stricter boundaries with. But, the question isn’t about if everyone is getting along or and perfectly accepting of choices, like secular parenting might.

Catholics are asking, “How can I best help my child reach eternal life—even if it means they don’t like me or refuse to show up to Christmas or ignore me for years because I tried to help them?” Catholic are grateful for free will and still recognize right and wrong, in a world of relativism.

One day, you might have a real prodigal child situation no matter how much you gently, lovingly, firmly, mercifully parent your child. That’s where gentle parenting advice has no answers and God can hold you, perfectly understanding both you and your child.

Parents, you’re not alone. There’s St. Zelie, who is said to have referred to her children as little imps, and St. Katherine Drexel, who confessed her struggle with children interrupting her prayer time… parents everywhere feel that!

How about St. Monica praying for decades about her son, the future St. Augustine? Now, that’s a case where you can’t judge the parent or child by the other because you would’ve misjudged a saintly mother by her party-boy, arrogant son depending on when you met him!

Your duty is to guide your children to eternal life with God—not to check off the boxes so you fit into someone else’s idea of the perfect gentle parent (or whatever group you think you like best). Don’t go pitching a tent in a specific parenting style camp when we should all just be walking with each other—children and all—towards eternal life.

CONCLUSION: So, Should Catholics Gentle Parent?!

When talking to my friend Rachel about writing this article and how I feel a bit bad to give a “non-answer” because simply saying yes or no was not accurate enough, she brought up that it’s like many things in Catholic theology—a “both-and” answer.

God is reaching out with truth to everyone, so even popular secular things can be enlightening to those with solid foundations for their faith to guide them. With a world of broken people, we have broken families and lots of lost sheep finding light wherever they can.

Where gentle parenting leads you into an ideological camp of discipline, remember whose house you want to be in—God’s. Test things with the Galatians 5 “Litmus Test”: if it’s not fruits-of-the-spirit-fruitful, it’s probably not the right way.  

That being said, I have finally started researching Catholic parenting advice and watching videos—no one there wants me to slap the sin out of my “evil-born” children! They are funny and free from most ideological boxes, dipping in whatever good advice complements the Faith. They set my priorities straight, where gentle parenting trends have great quotes but not really from the Bible or saints or catechesis.

Turns out both my baby (and I) had the perfect parents all along—God the Father and Mother Mary. Ultimately, they are the only ones who can claim to be parenting experts, and yet Mother Mary would humbly still point us to her Son in every way, like we should be doing with our children.

So, should Catholic parents “gentle parent”? In many ways, they already are.

Should Catholics grab secular gentle parenting blogs, books, and podcasts like they are the parenting bible? No… but there’s nothing wrong with reading them for ideas, if you already have a solid faith.

That being said, why go through all that work when there’s already these guys:

Resources And Books On Catholic Parenting

Parenting with Grace by the Popcaks

The Art of Living, Ed Sri (A book about living virtuously, author is husband and father)

Messy Family Project

The Good Shepherd and the Child Podcast

Dr. Ray Guarendi 

Kimberly Hahn

Your Local Pastor and Parish Community

Lives of saints

How to Talk so Kids Will Listen, a secular and popular book loved by any parenting style

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