Putting ‘Gentle Parenting’ into Practice: the Possibilities of Reasoning with the Very Young

When I hear people say “you can’t reason with a very young child”, or “the only way to make a young child change their behaviour is to reward or punish”, I feel deeply saddened.  My experience as a parent, and parent educator, is otherwise.

I wonder if our expectations of small children are inhibited by our developmental knowledge? Might we be, unintentionally, restricting the ability of our very young to reach their full potential?

Small children, when given the chance, can respond impressively to empathy, explanation and reasoning. They can even join us in problem solving.  We may just need to give them the chance, as the examples below illustrate.


My experience

I’ve been practicing ‘gentle parenting’ for 21 years – since my children were babies.  No rewards. No punishment. I don’t think of my children as ‘misbehaving’.  Instead, I think of them as ‘behaving to meet a need’.  I am fortunate to have enjoyed a warm relationship with my children throughout their lives, and they are now respectful and compassionate contributors to society.

My introduction to this style of parenting came through attending a parent education course, Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.).  My whole paradigm on how to be a parent was challenged! I saw such value in the approach that I became a parent educator, and have taught P.E.T. for the past 18 years.

The course teaches respectful relationship skills including active listening, assertiveness (using I-messages), and no-lose conflict resolution.  In my view, these skills help children develop essential life qualities such as resilience, empathy and self-regulation, which I explore further in ‘How the Evidence of Today Supports the Wisdom of Yesterday.

After attending the parenting course, I leapt into implementing the skills on as many occasions as possible. Unimpeded by expectations of what children should or should not be able to understand, I naively put into practice the P.E.T. communication skills. I understood that although babies were people, they were not miniature adults.  They would need to develop in stages, both physically and psychologically.

My communication attempts did not always result in the change of behaviour I’d envisioned, and it was not always immediate. Sometimes I found that other, non-verbal skills, were more appropriate.

What I did discover by implementing the skills, however, was how often I underestimated the abilities of my children.

All I needed to do was trust the power of respectful words, and the potential of a child

I’m not perfect – I learn every day!

I am not a ‘perfect parent’ – just ask my children! I have found, though, that if I parent with respectful intent and see my children as capable, innocent, and acting out of need, my expectations are largely met.

Communication Skills in Action with Very Young Children

Active Listening

This is when I listen to a child, so they can talk about their unhappiness. I try to guess their feelings, and the reason they feel that way. I put these into a statement such as “You’re feeling  . . .  because . . . ”.  For example “Sounds like you’re feeling frustrated because your toy truck’s wheels fell off”.

Careful listening can help children find a solution to their own problem.

Missing Mummy

My daughter, Phoebe* had just turned two.  I had gone away for the weekend, leaving her with her Daddy.  This was the first time I had left her overnight.  We had tried to prepare her, but she had no idea what it would really mean for me to be away.  I flew away on a plane on Saturday morning.

Saturday night was a difficult night for Phoebe’s Daddy.  At four am she woke up, distressed, and demanded to go to the airport. Daddy did a lot of active listening.

Daddy: “You’re really missing Mummy.  You’re sad Mummy’s not here”.

Phoebe settled for a while, and then become upset again, and wanted to go to the airport. She wanted to wear her pink stockings, her pink dress and her orange shoes, because that’s what she’d worn when she took Mummy to the airport.

Eventually, Daddy got her dressed in her pink stockings, her pink dress and her orange shoes.  Then they sat on the bed and had a talk. Daddy realised that she had no idea of what “flying away on a plane” meant.

Daddy: “Mummy’s gone on the plane, and the plane has gone to another place, and that’s where Mummy is.  She’s in another city.  Mummy is going to get into another plane, and fly back.  We’re going to go back to the airport and pick her up today.”

That was all Phoebe needed to know. She lay down on the bed, in her pink stockings, her pink dress and her orange shoes, and went off to sleep.

Phoebe had not understood why I was not there with her, after going in the plane. So, to help her in her upset, firstly Daddy listened to his daughter.  This validated her, and helped her move from her emotions to her cognition.  He was then able to reason with his two-year-old, at 4am in the morning, to the point where she could sleep.


A three part I-message looks something like this:   “when . . .(describe child’s behaviour) I feel . . .(a feeling word) because . . . (describe how you have been affected) “.  For example “When I see the toys on the floor, I feel concerned that I might step on them and hurt myself”.

18 month old and sticky hands, as Mum is about to go to work.

This example came from a participant in one of my classes, who had an 18-month-old daughter. Mum was initially quite sceptical about how much her daughter would understand if she implemented the P.E.T. communication skills, as her daughter was so young.

One morning, her daughter wanted to eat an orange.  Mum was not keen.

Mum:  “I’m worried that if you eat that orange, your hands will get all dirty.  Then you might want to hug Mummy, and my nice clean clothes will get dirty from the orange”

Her daughter initiated her own solution, taking into account Mum’s concerns.  She bent forward, with her hands stuck straight out behind her, and began to eat the orange with only her mouth, straight off the plate!

No-Lose Conflict Resolution

Sometimes, even after my best I-messages (followed by Active Listening), I discover that both of us are still feeling dissatisfied.  This is when I need to try Problem Solving,: “What can we do so that we’re both feeling OK?”

25 month old friends problem solving together

Phoebe was aged two years and one month.  She was playing with a friend of hers, who was one week older.  Holly* sat on a small bottom-sized-box, reading a book.  Phoebe wanted to sit on Holly’s box, and read Holly’s story.  So I ‘modified the environment’ by finding a different box for Phoebe to sit on, with a different book, and she seemed to accept the solution. Then Holly got off her seat, and went out of the room to find some toys.

Phoebe promptly swapped seats, and sat on Holly’s tiny box and read the Holly’s book. Holly returned.  She was very unhappy to see Phoebe on her seat.  She began to talk to Phoebe, asking her to sit on the other seat.

Holly:  “This is Phoebe’s, this is Holly’s.  Sit here”.

Phoebe shook her head, and did not move.

Phoebe: “Mine, mine!” pointing to Molly’s box, on which Phoebe was sitting.

This conversation continued for a little while, with neither child changing their mind.  As I didn’t want the argument to escalate I went over to the girls to act as mediator. I initiated the principles of resolving sibling conflict.

Mum:  “Phoebe, Holly would like to sit on her box, and when she can’t she’s sad. Look how sad Holly is.”

Phoebe looked at the book in her hands instead.

Phoebe: “Mine!”

Mum:  “You like sitting on Holly’s box reading her book”.

Phoebe (nodding): “Mine”

Mum (trying to substitute a behaviour): “How about you sit on the other box?”

Phoebe (shaking her head):            “Mine!”

Mum:    “You like sitting on that box.  I’m concerned that Holly will be sad if she can’t sit on her box”.

Phoebe still would not move.  At this point, I was desperate.  Here was I, an instructor in a parenting approach that did not use rewards or punishment, trying to solve a conflict in front of another child’s mother.  And it was my child’s behaviour that was causing the problem! The pressure was intense.

I’d used the skills I thought would work to resolve the conflict.  The only skill left in my tool-kit was no-lose conflict resolution.  However, I was doubtful that problem solving would work, as the children were too young.  How could they come up with a solution at just 25 months?  I’d already suggested all the solutions I could think of, and they’d been rejected. But I had to give it a go.

I took a deep breath, and trusted in the process and the children.

Mum:  “Phoebe, can you think of anything that would make Holly happy and you happy?”

At this, Phoebe sat up.

Phoebe (in a big, loud voice): “uuummmm, Holly . . .?”  Then she pointed to a miniscule space next to her, on the tiny box on which she sat.

Phoebe: Holly here – next me!”

Mum: “You would like Holly to sit next to you?”

Phoebe nodded.  I looked at Holly

Mum: “Holly, would you like to sit next to Phoebe?”

Holly nodded.  The two toddlers then proceeded to make room for each other on the one very small seat.   After a few seconds, they discovered there wasn’t really any room, and Phoebe then moved happily away from the box.

Holly’s Mum and I were blown away by what had just happened.  These two little girls had just successfully resolved a conflict, where both won! The solution suggested by Phoebe was never on my radar.  At a very young age, these children were learning to: a) consider other people; and b) creatively find a no-lose solution.

My Learning

My children have been my greatest teachers.  Over more than 20 years of being a parent, I have discovered that I continually underestimated the abilities of my children.  The parents I’ve met through my parenting classes have similarly been amazed by the capacities of their young ones, when presented the opportunity.

Becoming aware of developmental expectations, while at the same time avoiding the limitations of strict developmental borders, allowed me to implement a respectful communication skills approach.

I encourage you to open up to the possibilities of communicating with very young children.  Help them discover their full potential!

*Not their real names

This article is has been developed from the following blogs:

Reasoning with a very young child (1): it’s really possible!

Reasoning with a very young child (2): when your child is unhappy

Reasoning with a very young child (3): when parents are unhappy with their child’s behaviour

Reasoning with a very young child (4): when both parent and child are unhappy.

© Larissa Dann. 2015.  All rights reserved

Larissa Dann

Larissa is a parent who, many years ago, attended a parenting course. The skills and approach of that program influenced her life so profoundly that she became a parent educator. She is now an experienced instructor of Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T), having taught over 1000 people, including parents, teachers and practitioners. Larissa uses the skills everyday, endeavouring to ‘practice what she preaches’. She is an accredited P.E.T. facilitator, group leader, and counsellor. She feels privileged each time she teaches, as she observes the communication skills empower children, parents and carers in a relationship of respect. Larissa is now enjoying dabbling in the area of written reflections, otherwise known as blogs.

3 thoughts on “Putting ‘Gentle Parenting’ into Practice: the Possibilities of Reasoning with the Very Young”

    Cielja Kieft says:

    Congrats on this wonderful article! It is a jewel for parents to keep and read more often.
    And all so true, as I can testify from working 23 years with the P.E.T. skills with parents!

    Larissa says:

    Thank you Cielja. I’m pleased you found the article and examples useful, and very happy to hear the positive experiences of others who teach and use P.E.T.

    Liz says:

    I really appreciate what you say for parents – for kinder teachers where we have 2 staff to 22 children in a spacious outside environment, it’s hard to be as aware of the building emotions in a child – do you find that there are times when there have to be non negotiable boundaries in place for when a win – win problem solving approach doesn’t work?

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