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3 min read

If you have a new baby on they way, a pet at home, or just want your child to act more gently towards you (or others)... good news - being gentle is a teachable skill.

And you don't have to wait until your child reaches a certain age to teach it.

While it takes time, especially with children under four, you can start as early as six months.

Here's how to teach 'gentle hands' in three steps:

1. Modelling

As with most skills, teaching gentle behaviour starts with modelling. Show your child exactly how to handle a baby, pet, or another person's body with care.

In the early stages you'll want to guide your child during every interaction with small babies and pets, maintaining constant supervision.

You can also practice with stuffed animals or baby dolls and give a lot of praise ("that was very gentle!").

Take extra care to model and practice with children that are in childcare or other programming where they spend a lot of time with children the same age, especially if they're under 4 years old.

This is because young children lack impulse control (more on this in the next point). Getting physical is a normal way for young children to communicate, until they can articulate their thoughts and feelings.

2. Teach Impulse Control

Children are naturally impulsive. This is how they experiment with the world. If they’re curious about something, they’re going to want to explore it.  

They also don’t have the life experience to know what is dangerous
 or the cognitive ability to predict dangerous results.

You can begin to support development of impulse control by introducing stop/go/wait activities as young as 18 months.

These are activities like:

  • Freeze Dance - you can use a freeze dance song (like any of the ones from the Kiboomers album called "Freeze Dance Songs for Learning") or any song your child enjoys that you start and stop. It's a good idea to play along too so that you can role model.
  • The Quiet Game - set a timer or use your hand to count silently and sit without talking for just 5 seconds. Once your child has mastered 5 seconds, you go up to 10 seconds and so on.
  • Red Light/Green Light
  • Simon Says

3. Clear, Consistent Boundaries

One of the most effective ways to teach gentle behaviour is clear, consistent boundaries.

The first step is setting clear boundaries and gentle correction, i.e. "we have to pet the dog gently, like this. If we pet him him too rough then it could hurt him."

If a rough behaviour continues, it’s often best to remove your child from the situation/person/object and try again later.

For example:

  • If they’re pulling the dogs tail, take them away from the dog and redirect their attention to something else
  • If they're being rough/hurting you, let them know that what they're doing is hurting and is not ok. Stop the behaviour immediately and redirect them to something else.
  • If they’re throwing wooden blocks, put the blocks away and replace with soft balls.

Note that a young child might not fully understand why the activity is ending. Their empathy and understanding of others feelings is still limited, i.e. they might not fully understand that pulling a dog's tail is hurting them or might cause the dog to bite them.

Knowing this, you don't have to fixate on ensuring they completely understand. A simple explanation is enough at this age - "when you pull my hair it hurts me and I can't keep letting you do that".

The most important step is to keep clear, consistent boundaries.

Redirection is not meant to minimize or distract from the hurt person's feelings.

It's just that a young child will likely become frustrated that the activity is ending. Redirection helps the situation from becoming even more emotional - when there's little to gain from fixating on the explanation at this age.

Gentle Parenting Versus Permissive Parenting

There's some misinformation in recent years that gentle parenting or a Montessori approach to parenting, is permissive - allowing children to do whatever they want.

But that's simply not true. Instead, Montessori teaches freedom within limits.

This means that children are given as much freedom as possible, as long as what they're doing isn't dangerous, disruptive, or disrespectful (the 3 D's).

"To let the child do as he likes when he has not yet developed any powers of control, is to betray the idea of freedom."
- Dr. Montessori, The Absorbent Mind

In Montessori classrooms, children are given clear, consistent limits. If the child fails to stay within those limits, the activity is ended and they are redirected to something else.

This is the most effective way to promote desirable behaviour (and curb undesirable behaviour).

This article from last year does a really good explaining why consistent reinforcement of behaviour is essential to teaching any new skill:

How Intermittent Reinforcement Reinforces "Bad" Behaviour (and why consistent boundaries are the best way to change behaviour)

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