The Daily Telegraph

Are you a tiger mother or a pussycat parent?

As a softer approach to parenting gains ground, Rosa Silverman tunes into her children’s feelings


“You can only have chocolate if you apologise.” Seeing those words in writing, I realise how odd they look. And yet it’s exactly the sort of threat I issue to my six-year-old. The conversati­on usually continues thus:

Her (grumpily): “Sorry.”

Me: “You have to mean it.”

Her: (Slightly more high-pitched): “Sorry.”

Me: “Fine, here’s the chocolate, but don’t do [whatever you just did] again.”

This is not OK. I should not be forcing my child to apologise, nor offering a bribe. Not according to proponents of gentle parenting, a craze currently sweeping the US and the UK.

The term is a loose, catch-all descriptio­n of a style that rejects authoritar­ian models and the notion we should shape our children’s behaviour via a carrot-and-stick approach. Instead, the new thinking goes, we should consider what’s happening for our children and respond to their emotional needs. Goodbye, tiger mums; hello pussycat mums!

Shouting at them is out (fair enough). There is no longer a naughty step. In its place, there is understand­ing, patience, empathy and respect. Even if it’s 8.45am and your children are putting on their shoes intolerabl­y slowly before school, when you’re about to miss your train to work.

Popular advocates of this gentler approach, also known as respectful parenting, include Dr Becky Kennedy, a New York-based clinical psychologi­st and mother of three. Dr Becky, as she’s known, founded the parenting community Good Inside, and her book of the same name was published this week. She has 1.3 million followers on Instagram, where she posts upbeat videos, with titles like “When your child says ‘I hate you!’” And, yes: “Don’t force your child to apologise”.

I’m curious to know why sorry seems to be the wrongest word, as I’ve always assumed a child must apologise when they’ve been – to invert Dr Becky’s formula – bad outside.

What should I do instead? “Roll with the resistance,” she suggests. “We might say: ‘It’s hard to find your apology voice now. That happens to me sometimes too. I’ll use it for you’. Then we might model the apology for them, saying: ‘I’m sorry. I was frustrated, and it came out as a hit’.”

Her suggested scripts are a huge hit with mothers – and it is mostly mothers – who say she helps them “grow” as parents.

“I wish I could just carry you in my pocket at all times,” comments one, beside her video. “You are a gift to all of us,” writes another.

Time magazine has dubbed 39-yearold Dr Becky “the Millennial Parenting Whisperer”. In her book (subtitled “A guide to becoming the parent you want to be”), she writes: “You will not see me recommend time-outs, sticker charts, punishment­s, rewards, or ignoring as a response to challengin­g behaviours. What do I recommend? An understand­ing that behaviours are only the tip of the iceberg, and that below the surface is a child’s entire internal world, just begging to be understood.”

In essence, the idea is if we believe and validate our children’s emotions, they will learn to recognise and manage them, and we won’t have to lose control ourselves.

Dr Becky is not the first to move away from the styles we heard so much about in recent years: the strict “tiger” parenting method championed by Amy Chua, in which parents were heavily invested in their children’s success; or the much-maligned “helicopter” parenting (overprotec­tive, too involved, hovering over one’s children). If these approaches were popular 10 years ago, many now seek an alternativ­e, with the child’s feelings at the centre.

Janet Lansbury, the Us-based author of No Bad Kids, is another throwing light on how to be “respectful, gentle parents”.

An Instagram post reads: “Punishment­s are inadequate teachers because they don’t teach or model positive behaviour.”

Another states: “When our children resist our eating agendas, it isn’t a sign that they’re ungrateful, cruel or manipulati­ve. Rather it is a reflection of their innate need to test both our leadership and their power.”

That may be true, but the behaviour she describes is also immensely infuriatin­g. I sense that my usual response to resistance to my “eating agenda” – expostulat­ing, begging, bribing, then sulking when all this fails – is not one you’ll find recommende­d in any of these Instagram posts.

In Britain, the psychother­apist Philippa Perry’s 2019 best-seller The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (And Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did) encourages us to understand how our own upbringing may affect our parenting. Because this, surely, is key: almost all of us, as parents, are reacting in some way to how we ourselves were raised.

If Dr Benjamin Spock urged parents in the 1940s and 50s to trust their instincts and reject the rigid discipline­s of an earlier age, a stricter approach has periodical­ly found its way back into parenting manuals, notably in Gina Ford’s uncompromi­sing advice for getting babies to sleep through the night.

Now, the pendulum is swinging back the other way. But not everyone is enamoured of the gentler approach. “I don’t think it helps a child not to set rules and give rewards,” says clinical psychologi­st Linda Blair. “Children need to know when they’ve done well. I’m not keen on punishment – I’m keen on ignoring bad behaviour when it’s safe to do so and paying attention to good behaviour.”

She has no problem with parents wanting to pay a reluctant child to do homework, either: “We work for rewards, why not them?”

Yet it’s tempting to think we could forgo bribery and threats. When my children get home, I try out some gentle parenting. My eight-year-old son is furious because I didn’t pack a snack for him. “Are you angry or hungry?” I ask, trying to understand his feelings. “Hungry,” he seethes. I offer him food but he loses interest and wanders off to watch TV. I’m not sure what’s been achieved, but I did remain calm throughout our exchange. Sometimes, when you’re dealing with children, this feels like enough.

 ?? ?? Animal approach: Experts used to espouse the benefits of strict or ‘tiger’ parenting, but trends now point to softer approaches
Animal approach: Experts used to espouse the benefits of strict or ‘tiger’ parenting, but trends now point to softer approaches

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