Having a relationship with your child based on empathy and mutual respect, also known as “gentle parenting,” can make them more confident, according to one popular childcare author.
Sarah Ockwell-Smith, who wrote “The Gentle Parenting Book,” told CNBC via telephone that “gentle” parents have a good understanding of their child’s capabilities, so the expectations around their behavior are “age appropriate.”
In other words, she said that “gentle” parents don’t expect their child to act like an adult but empathize with their behavior. For instance, if they misbehave, she said that a “gentle” parent would seek to teach their child a better way to express their emotions, rather than to punish them.
Ockwell-Smith explained that if children grow up in a house with less shouting and punishment it has a “massive impact on their self-esteem.”
She also said that calmer, more empathetic parenting also had a positive effect neurologically, in terms of the development of a child’s amygdala, which is the part of the brain responsible for emotional regulation. Ockwell-Smith said that research had shown that if children grow up in a more “supportive and nurturing” environment then that part of their brain grows larger.
“So you’ve literally grown the part of their brain that’s responsible for their emotions and being calm when they’re older,” Ockwell-Smith said.
For instance, a study conducted by a researcher at the University of Montreal, published in March, indicated that “harsh parenting practices” could actually stunt the growth of a child’s brain. A 2012 study on preschool children by academics from Washington University indicated a “positive effect of early supportive parenting on healthy hippocampal development,” which is a brain region key for memory, learning and stress modulation.
‘Architects’ of a child’s life
Ockwell-Smith said that research had shown that how children are raised, particularly in the first five years of their life, was key to the development of their self-esteem and future relationships with those around them.
A 2016 paper from Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child cited research which found more than a million new synapses, or connections between neurons in the brain, form every second in the first few years of a child’s life. Later on, these connections are reduced, which is a process called pruning, keeping those links which are “reinforced” by what they experience and learn. The authors of the paper, therefore, argued that positive experiences in those first few years are key to creating a strong foundation for a child’s development.
Indeed, Ockwell-Smith said that parents acted as the “architects” of a child’s life, so there was “nothing more important” than how they were raised in those early years.
She explained that there were three main styles of parenting: Authoritarian, authoritative (also known as “gentle parenting”) and permissive.
In contrast to “gentle parenting,” the authoritarian approach could be classed as “old school” parenting, she said. Parents following this approach typically demand respect from their child, she said, with punishment for misbehavior also frequently used.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, “permissive” parents can be classed as those with low expectations of their child, offering a lack of discipline and guidance, according to an explanation on Ockwell-Smith’s website.
However, Ockwell-Smith said it was most important for parents to work through any of their own issues first, before looking to follow advice around “gentle parenting.”
She said that “we have to start on ourselves — so we have to think about ‘what are my stressors? Why do I behave the way I do? Why does it trigger me so much when my child says or does something? And how can I be a good role model?’”
She explained that this was important because a parent could be doing or saying all the right things but if they weren’t calm and were short-tempered, a child will still pick up on that — “it’s not magic, it won’t work unless you’re in a good headspace first.”
This could mean working through their own issues from childhood, or problems in adulthood, like needing to set boundaries with other adults.
This could entail, for example, ensuring that the “mental load” of parenting is shared more equally with a partner, Ockwell-Smith said.
That being said, she stressed that it was also important for parents to express when they are “at capacity” and they need time out.
She said that following this advice wasn’t about “aiming to be perfect all the time” and realizing that it was acceptable to make mistakes as a parent, as this also helped teach children what to do when they made mistakes.