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Gentle parenting is here in India. It’s more for the parents than the kids

Facebook group ‘Gentle Parenting India’ is guiding young parents by using science and psychology to understand the link between a child’s and their own behaviour.

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Like all siblings, Tara and Akshara, three-year-old twins, often fight because they both want the same things. The first time they bitterly fought over a toy, Surabhi Priya, their 39-year-old mother, patiently sat them down and explained how they would have a variety of toys to play with and things to use if they started sharing with each other.

There was no yelling, no spanking, no timeouts, no attempts to adjudicate the sibling tussles — and definitely no ruling in favour of one over the other. Since then, except for occasional soft reminders, Surabhi has just tried to give them a knowing look during all such subsequent fights. She trusts them to resolve their conflicts on their own.

Surabhi, who works in Disney India’s human resources department, practises a method that has over the past decade come to be known as “gentle parenting”. And she is among thousands of young parents in India taking this approach. 

Most of them have grown up with a traditional carrot-and-stick approach where the words “discipline” and “punishment,” even corporal, are commonplace. They started out not knowing what kind of parents they wanted to be, but knew exactly what they didn’t want to be. 

These are mostly those parents who got acquainted with the concept of gentle parenting from other parents on Facebook or WhatsApp groups, where they learned from the experiences of their contemporaries even halfway across the globe.

They loosely describe gentle parenting as an approach that is based on respecting one’s child and letting them know that they and their feelings matter. They must communicate clearly with their kids and earn their compliance through connection rather than punishment. While none of these parents can exactly define gentle parenting, they all agree on one thing  – it is more about working on yourself than your child.

“You cannot control how a child interprets something. What you can control is your reaction to it,” Surabhi said, adding that gentle parenting is hard. “There is a constant conscious effort to be a gentler parent. My default setting is to scream, so this takes a lot of intentional presence and unlearning.”

Simrita Basrur, a Mumbai-based counsellor who primarily works with teenagers, said that authoritarian parenting and resorting to spanking, beating, and yelling always have repercussions. “The consequences are seen later. We bury them in our subconscious mind and eventually they come out where they shouldn’t. We often go into denial. There are instances of projecting on to somebody else, basically scapegoating,” she added. 

Basrur said that authoritarian parenting is harmful and unfortunately it has been there since generations. “This generation can adopt authoritative parenting where you tell the child the boundaries and give them the space to voice what they are feeling,” she added. 

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A bustling Facebook community

Last month, five-year-old Shriya Sawalkar sat languidly at the window of her house in Vancouver, mesmerised, watching the red and orange hues of a glorious sunrise. Her parents Rohit and Prachi, meanwhile, hustled around, trying to get their morning chores done and their daughter ready for school.

In a high-pitched, excited tone, Shriya asked her mother to join her. 

“Sunrises are a breathtaking sight if you are still in the mind, but they can become urgent reminders if you are caught up in the schedule,” said 40-year-old Prachi, sharing the experience on a Facebook group called ‘Gentle Parenting India’. 

Despite racing against time, Shriya’s parents decided to stop and stare at the beautiful moment with their daughter for five minutes. Prachi said she offered to click Shriya’s picture with the bright sunrise strokes in the backdrop and “made a core memory, just like that.”

“Now I am wondering what would have happened if I had crushed her initiative with sore reminders of time and schedules. She’d probably come away with some disappointment and a feeling of being rushed and pushed,” Prachi said in the group where she has risen from being a new, naive, well-intentioned parent to a moderator, guiding other mothers on their gentle parenting journeys.

The group, which was created in August 2014 as per Facebook’s records, is now a bustling community of more than 68,000 Indian parents trying to learn from each other how to parent gently. 

The group, of which the author is a part, is flooded daily with questions on how to gently handle temper tantrums, power struggles, potty training, disinterest in eating, attention deficit, curiosity about sexual organs and so on. Members respond with kind words of solidarity and offer suggestions that may have helped them. The moderators often go a step beyond by delving into the science and psychology behind the child’s and parent’s behaviours. 

For instance, a mother of a toddler asked why her child behaves well with everyone else, but throws tantrums with her. A group moderator, also a fellow mother, reminded her that from the child’s point of view, his primary caregiver with whom he has a connection is his safe space, where he can let go and vent. The mother feels on edge because her cup is empty, either because she hasn’t slept, is overworked, or hasn’t had time to herself, the moderator added. 

The moderators also remind the members that if any time an overtired parent forgets to stay calm, the situation can always be repaired with a simple apology. This will show the children that it is natural to make mistakes, but it’s equally important to own up to them.

“I too make mistakes. They are so silly and obvious. I beat myself up that this is something I knew so how could I do this,” Prachi, who is now studying to be a counsellor, told ThePrint. 

She added that the most challenging part for her is when her needs are not met. “When I have not slept my brain is slower and I have no bandwidth to engage.”

Over the years, the moderators have compiled readings on a list of topics that they call ‘Gentle Parenting Basics’, accessible to anyone in the group. These range from issues such as the difference between gentle parenting, authoritarian parenting, and permissive parenting to potty training, setting limits, consent, how to love your child through a tantrum, and the fallacy of how I turned out to be fine.

The last bit, in particular, explores the latent insecurities in an individual, irrespective of whether they may or may not hold a grudge against their parents.

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“Yellers raise yellers”

To Mridula Sail, 35, mother to two-year-old Ruaan, gentle parenting is all about “growing as a person to be able to be a better parent.” And she says she has grown tremendously as a person during her journey of motherhood so far.

Sail, who works as a UI/UX designer, said she realised early on that her son keenly watches his primary caregiver and influencer, his mother, for how she responds to situations and feelings. He does what he sees.

“I have been used to bossing around with my parents and my husband. All of a sudden, Ruaan picked it up. First I thought, what is this new thing now, but later I looked inwards and realised that it is not new, he has picked it up from me,” Sail said. “I had to reflect. I had to change.”

Instead of telling Ruaan that he is wrong when he shouts and dominates, Sail chose to sit her toddler down and acknowledge her own mistake. “I told him, the next time I yell, please remind me that I shouldn’t be doing that,” Sail said. “He said, ‘ok, next time I will tell you. Aai, aik majha (Mom, listen to me). So now, if he catches me yelling, he says, ‘Aai, aik majha,’ and I immediately keep myself in check. Being Ruaan’s mother has made me a better, calmer person,” she added.

People who are following gentle parenting methods were themselves brought up differently, which at times causes friction with their parents.

Sail, for example, said her parents never involved her in any decision-making, whereas she consults Ruaan on most of the things  – right from which fish to buy to what the family should eat for dinner.

She added that her mother-in-law, who likes to be prim and proper at all times, took some time to adjust to the long rope she gives Ruaan. “We can say no by not using the word ‘no’. For my mother-in-law it was very difficult to fathom. But, now she understands. Ruaan is a very composed child. He knows what he wants,” Sail said.

Sawalkar said the commonality between the parenting she and her husband received was that discipline was “dealt with very differently.”

“We healed better when we realised that it wasn’t about blaming anybody. It is about understanding that they didn’t know better, and that is the script that they had,” Sawalkar said. “We, on the other hand, have a lot of access to information.”

Akshara, one of Surabhi’s twins, cries a lot, which the mother understands is because she is overtired and overstimulated most of the time. “My father wouldn’t have understood something like that. In fact, I was so afraid of him that I would have a sinking feeling right before he came home. I don’t want my daughters to ever feel that kind of fear.”

Surabhi is fairly sure that she is on the right track. Just earlier this month, she had a “gentle parenting win”. She and her twins had bought different-coloured wristbands. “Tara chose blue, and I chose purple. Later, she asked for the purple band and said, ‘Mumma, if we share we will all get to wear different colours.’ I couldn’t help but give her my purple band,” she added.

(Edited by Tarannum Khan)

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