If you have a young child and a social media account, you may have encountered “gentle parenting” gurus and their favorite pedagogical tool: scripts for talking to your children. A prime example appears in Mike Mills’s 2021 film C’mon C’mon, which dramatizes the difficulties of this ascendant and demanding parenting approach. After he’s yelled at the child—his nephew—in his care, Joaquin Phoenix reads haltingly from a script identical to those that have hijacked my Instagram feed: “Then I say,” he grumbles, as though forced by a teacher to read aloud in class, “‘I feel badly about how I behaved. Are you feeling mad at me? It’s okay if you are. I would like to hear whatever you’re feeling and thinking.’” “Your mom does all this?” he asks his nephew, to which the boy replies, “Yeah, but she doesn’t have to read it from a stupid phone.”
This particular script is for what is called a “repair” in the parlance of gentle parenting. A repair is needed when a parent has acted badly toward their child, in order to model healthy relationship dynamics. The theory that anchors gentle parenting is that children deserve respect just like adults do, along with the greatest autonomy of choice and body that we can allow them while still holding firm boundaries. The method, according to a buzzy phrase closely associated with it, seeks to “break generational cycles” of authoritarianism, punishment, guilt, and emotional suppression, viewing the ideal parent-child relationship as one founded in trust and collaboration. The child is in effect considered the last frontier of social justice: Parenting influencers on Instagram sometimes express wonder at the contrast between the widespread recognition of human rights and the continuing practice of spanking and other fear-based strategies used in raising children, and argue that a child learns both healthy release and empathy if their own emotions are validated. The word “discipline” is often rescued from its negative connotations: Etymologically, it refers to a practice of teaching rather than one of punishing.
Neuroscience and parenting research underpin some elements of gentle parenting—Dr. Dan Siegel’s work has been particularly influential—and indeed this research suggests that in the long term, fear is less effective at teaching good behavior than building trusting relationships with children and helping them develop social skills. Gentle parents urge us not to expect too much from young children, whose still-developing brains have not yet grasped cause and effect, learned to consider others, acquired impulse control, and mastered emotional regulation. They urge that a tantrum effectively demonstrates that the child is in fight-or-flight mode, with their rational brain offline—and is therefore not the moment for teaching a lesson, but rather for connection and calmness.
Broadly speaking, this philosophy is hard to argue with. Like many contemporary parents, I have stretched patience and compassion to absurd limits, often telling my child, “You’re angry, it’s okay to be angry, and I’m right here with you,” whether the thing my toddler is angry about is my refusal to let her watch Mary Poppins again or the fact that the banana just won’t go back into the peel. And her tendency to “process” a meltdown after it happens—“I cry a little bit, but applesauce make me feel better”—signals that, indeed, she is learning coping skills. But it’s the scripts that are harder to swallow.
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The scripts are designed to help parents navigate discipline, emotional outbursts, negative self-talk, family grief, or any number of other challenges, and at their best they offer a kind of role-play that demonstrates clever ways to connect in moments when parent and child are poised to be at odds. But parenting influencers like “Big Little Feelings”—an account run by two moms, one of whom is a child therapist, and, with 3 million followers, perhaps the most popular gentle parenting account on Instagram—often agonize over every word in the scripts, devoting inordinate attention to explaining the particulars of these choices. In their six-module online course, Big Little Feelings urges you to call it “potty learning” rather than “potty training.” To say “you’re OK” when a child is scared is to effectively gaslight the child (only the child knows if they feel “OK,” after all) and therefore “you’re safe” is a better option for reassuring them. Labeling a child, Big Little Feelings says, is always bad, even if the label is ostensibly good. Telling a child they are smart or a “good kid” not only imparts a “fixed mindset” over a “growth mindset,” but also becomes part of the child’s identity, which will cause great strife when the child inevitably fails to live up to these standards.
Dr. Becky Kennedy, a psychologist and gentle parenting author, podcaster, and influencer, typically paints a less anxiety-provoking picture of how our words are harming our children, though she too compares common knee-jerk responses with more ideal hypothetical reactions to parenting challenges. On her social media pages, she acts out these scenes for the camera while walking around New York, or posts minimally designed Instagram carousels with an “Instead of… Try this…” format. On occasion, Kennedy posts slides like one from May 2022 that orders parents to “Stop Saying: ‘That hurts Mommy’s feelings,’” cautioning that the result will be codependence rather than empathy.
The stakes of precise speech are presented as being extremely high, which seems to collide in sentiment with the affirmations these accounts love to post, about how we’re all “the best possible parent for our child” and should release the anxiety we feel about scarring them forever. The subtext of the overly precious language is the grave consequence of misspeaking: There is an almost superstitious reverence for the power of words, which perhaps reflects a broader cultural anxiety about saying the wrong thing.
The gentle parenting phenomenon has proceeded in lockstep with the mass reach of therapy through apps, in-person sessions, and, yes, Instagram and TikTok, which seems to have educated people in the proper empathic etiquette for any given conversation, whittling down the acceptable responses to a handful of stock phrases. (Big Little Feelings has some suggestions for adults, too, in the form of videos outlining a half-dozen things you should never say to a person who’s experienced miscarriage or even to a person who’s just brought a baby home from the hospital. How about “soak up every minute, because it goes by so fast”? Wrong! This presumes that they should be in a state of newborn euphoria, when they may in reality be struggling and feeling guilty for struggling.) Advice, sarcasm, or the gentle suggestion to get some perspective are not permitted any longer—only, as Katy Waldman put it in her investigation of “therapy speak,” “a theatrical deference to norms of kindness.” The lone sanctioned reply to a friend’s woes is a robotically issued “that sounds really hard.” Increasingly, people lazily reach for this risk-free comment, guaranteed to be inoffensive, instead of engaging as real interlocutors with specific insights informed by the specific rapport.
The parenting scripts informed by this phenomenon seem to attempt a standardization of parenting that fails to leave room for individual personalities or relationship dynamics, much less different cultural practices that parents have been handing down to their children for eons. American parenting has always suffered from a lack of any cohesive, time-worn conventional wisdom, so it makes sense that parents are ravenous for experts with medical credentials, books about French parenting, or ancient cavepeople’s babywearing practices. But the truth is that children are resilient and can thrive under all kinds of parenting approaches. In theory, I’m sure most gentle parenting accounts would agree—to do otherwise would be judgmental and therefore break the rules of inter-adult etiquette—while in practice, the picture they paint of what might happen to children who are told to “be careful” is grim.
It would be easy to chalk all this up to class anxiety: It has certainly occurred to me to accuse gentle parents of actually being motivated by the desire to impress one another with their enlightenment and good manners. But the pervasive fear of doing harm to children is undeniable. Parenting is scary, and the greater access to information that the Internet has afforded contemporary parents makes us more aware than ever of the risks, physical and emotional, that threaten our children. (So much so that information can easily fall into disinformation and conspiracy-based fearmongering.) It’s not uncommon these days for parents to keep extensive data logs of newborn feeds and poops, or place $300 ankle monitors on their babies in order to track their vital signs. The opportunites to “do more” are endless.
The Internet has also encouraged parents to embark, like good students, on neurotic quests for the definitive answer to each of these risks: the one correct response to each parenting quandary. The reflexive position of the gentle parent is to favor science over tradition, which is mostly denigrated as being the cause of great pain rather than the source of useful wisdom; the gentle parent does not call their mother when in doubt, but rather consults Google for the latest research. This makes sense up to a point, but sometimes we have to just trust our guts. A lot of things can benefit from optimization, sure, but human relationships are still hopelessly founded on the unwieldy particularities and inconsistencies of the human.
I’m not the first to complain about parenting scripts. Janet Lansbury, author of No Bad Kids and widely considered responsible for popularizing “respectful parenting,” has spoken on her podcast about her discomfort with the standard of perfection advanced by the use of parenting scripts. In one episode’s introduction, Lansbury says she believes it’s better not to “focus on words that we say with children but more on our perception of the situation” and that “generally, memorized scripts or phrases aren’t going to be as important as our true feelings and intentions.” As is often the case, it’s possible to say all the right words and still fail to grasp the larger project. Scripts may be helpful at first for overwriting the harmful vocabularies and speech patterns that may have narrated our own childhoods, but a parent who is engaged and clear about their values likely doesn’t need the word-for-word instruction.
The scripts encourage an unsettling framework for thinking about parenting, in which there is always an ideal response, and every other option is wrong. You might say this approach infantilizes the parents, by failing to trust them to speak to their own children. But accounts like Big Little Feelings will not rest until parents have memorized lines like customer service robots, all the way down to our conjunction usage. Remember: not “you’re sad, but screen time is over.” It’s “you’re sad, and screen time is over.”