The Problem with Gentle Parenting

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Monday, May 15, 2023
The Problem with Gentle Parenting

The Problem with Gentle Parenting

You may not have heard of it yet, but there’s a new approach to parenting. 

It’s called “gentle” parenting.

The heart of gentle parenting, sometimes known as “attachment parenting” – or “respectful parenting,” or “mindful parenting,” or “intentional parenting” – is parenting that is very child-centric. Meaning parenting that is less about a parent leading their child and more about a parent facilitating things with their child.

Gentle parenting encourages a partnership between the parent and the child that results in choices based on an internal willingness rather than external pressures. The goal is to acknowledge a child’s feelings and the motivations behind their behavior as opposed to correcting the behavior itself.

It emphasizes the emotions of the child. The parent is a coach rather than a disciplinarian. Boundaries are set, but the child is given choices instead of orders. There are no rewards, punishments nor threats. 

So get sticker charts, time-outs, or “I will turn this car around right now!” kinds of statements out of your head. Instead of commands such as “put on your pants,” the parent tries to understand why a child is acting the way they are. So instead of “put on your pants,” it’s “Hey buddy, don’t you want to wear pants today?” Or maybe parents try to supply an answer for the child in a way to bridge things with empathy, such as, “You’re playing with your Legos because putting on pants doesn’t feel good.”

The goal of gentle parenting is for the child to learn to recognize and control their emotions while the parent is consistently affirming those emotions as real and important. The parent models behavior but doesn’t incentivize the child to model that same behavior. All in the hopes that the child becomes self-regulating—that they do the right things because they want to do the right things, not because of punishment or reward. It's often seen as the opposite of authoritative parenting, which also holds to emotional attachment yet also takes advantage of disciplines such as time-outs or groundings.

It’s been spread through such books as Mona Delahooke’s Brain Body Parenting, Sarah Osckwell-Smith’s How to Be a Calm Parent and The Gentle Parenting Book. It’s also being popularized through the podcasts of Janet Lansbury, Robin Einzig’s “Visible Child” Facebook group, Destiny Bennett’s TikToks, and the very popular Instagram tutorials of Becky Kennedy (“Dr. Becky”).

As you would imagine, it has more than its share of critics and people who have great concerns about its approach. The philosophy behind gentle parenting is that children don’t defy you as a parent for the sake of being defiant. Instead, defiance is a response to stress.

But that is a very questionable assumption.

Anyone who has parented a child (and I have raised four children and am now interacting with 15 grandchildren) knows that children can and will be defiant for the sake of being defiant. They will test you, they will test boundaries, they will challenge you.

Just for the sake of the challenge and the defiance.

As one writer put it in an article on gentle parenting in the New Yorker, under the gentle parenting umbrella, a child’s every act must be seen through a lens of anxiety and threat-detection which reduces the parent to a child psychologist and an emotional security guard. But sometimes little Timmy tests or destroys boundaries for the thrill of it. 

Or for another reason.

The sin of it.

And that’s the other problem with this approach to parenting. It neglects the idea that children are inherently bad, or more theologically put, inherently sinful. There is a willful disobedience that runs rampant in all of us, at every age, and it starts young.

There are two primary goals when it comes to discipline. The first is the establishment of authority.

And authority matters.

According to the research of Dr. Aric Sigman from the Royal Society of Medicine in the U.K., there has been an alarming rise in the rates of child depression, teenage pregnancy, obesity, and violent crimes by adolescents and more. Sigman’s research found even nursery-age children are becoming increasingly violent and disrespectful towards their teachers, with parent battering on the rise and the number of police officers attacked by children soaring.

His research pointed to one primary cause for all of it: a generational lack of respect for authority. He titled the paper, “The Spoilt Generation.” Our attempts to “empower” children coupled with a lack of discipline have led to rising levels of violence at home, at school and in the street.

It reminds me of an interview I once heard on NPR with a juvenile court judge. He said that in his court, he had seen violent juvenile crimes triple over recent years. The reporter asked him why he thought that was happening. This is what he said:

“First, kids lost the admiration of authority.

“Then, they lost respect for authority.

“Now, they’ve lost the fear of authority.”

Establishing authority in the home – by the parent, for the child – is one of the clearest biblical principles there is. In Ephesians 6, we are told that children should obey their parents. They should honor their father and their mother. And then it says that fathers should bring them up with loving but firm discipline.

But that’s not the current vogue of parenting.

I once read an article that quoted a child-development expert who was very into gentle parenting and who was very anti-discipline because discipline suppresses children’s emotions. The goal is to talk things through with your child, to understand them and why they did what they did; to make sure the child feels heard, not that they heard you. It’s all about acknowledging their feelings.

So, of course, don’t spank. That borders on the criminal. But also, don’t put them in time-out, don’t ground, don’t take away privileges and don’t send them to their room. Don’t do anything that would establish your… wait for it… authority over them.

After the establishment of authority, the second goal of discipline is character formation. We think that discipline is what shapes behavior but at its best discipline is what shapes character. And here gentle parenting advocates are, I believe, right—it’s character that we want driving behavior. Where I would differ is by arguing that it’s the presence of effective discipline that creates character.

Good discipline is about directing, leading, forming and molding a child’s inner world. It’s not about punishment as much as it is about life correction. Setting them on the right path.

And here’s the path: raising kids who give honor and respect to authority. And that’s what the Bible focuses on.

When you read Scripture on parenting, it assumes you’re going to love your child. It assumes you’re going to provide for your child. It assumes you’re going to make sure they’re educated. What it doesn’t assume is that they will be raised in a way that they will give honor and respect to you or any other authority.

This is why the Bible continually reminds us to not to drop the discipline ball. You can’t just manage them, handle them, compensate for them, supervise them, or make excuses for them. You have to discipline them. Their inner world is sin-stained and sin-soaked. It needs to be shaped and developed.

Which is why calling gentle parenting “gentle” is disingenuous. It makes any other approach “harsh.” But that isn’t true. You can be gentle and discipline. This is why the Bible says that God is gentle with us as a father to a child, and also says that He disciplines us because He loves us.

The key passage here is from the 12th chapter of Hebrews:

My child, don’t make light of the LORD’s discipline,
and don’t give up when he corrects you.
For the LORD disciplines those he loves,
and he punishes each one he accepts as his child.

As you endure this divine discipline, remember that God is treating you as his own children. Who ever heard of a child who is never disciplined by its father? If God doesn’t discipline you as he does all of his children, it means that you are illegitimate and are not really his children at all. Since we respected our earthly fathers who disciplined us, shouldn’t we submit even more to the discipline of the Father of our spirits, and live forever? For our earthly fathers disciplined us for a few years, doing the best they knew how. But God’s discipline is always good for us, so that we might share in his holiness. No discipline is enjoyable while it is happening—it’s painful! But afterward there will be a peaceful harvest of right living for those who are trained in this way. (Hebrews 12:5-11, NLT)

Two things stand out from that passage that speak to not only our relationship with God, but also our relationship with our children:

First, discipline is always rooted in love and motivated by love.

Second, discipline is inherent within any healthy, loving, good, effective parent-child relationship. Us and God, and us and our children. It’s a responsibility. An obligation. Something that has to be present for there to a parent-child relationship. Discipline is never pleasant. God doesn’t enjoy having to do it, and neither should a parent. 

But it’s always something good.

James Emery White


For a deeper dive into this topic, be sure to listen to CCP60: On Gentle Parenting - a recent Church & Culture Podcast released on Friday, May 5, 2023.


Jessica Winter, “The Harsh Realm of ‘Gentle Parenting,’” The New Yorker, March 23, 2022, read online.

Fiona Macrae and Paul Sims, “The Spoilt Generation: Parents Who Fail to Exert Authority Breeding Youngsters with No Respect for Anyone,” DailyMail, September 14, 2009, read online.

Joe Pinsker, “What ‘Go to Your Room’ Teaches Kids About Dealing With Emotions,” The Atlantic, October 12, 2018, read online.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Hybrid Church: Rethinking the Church for a Post-Christian Digital Age, is now available on Amazon or from your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.

Photo courtesy: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/g-stockstudio

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. 

His latest book, After “I Believe,” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. 

Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.

The Problem with Gentle Parenting