Longform: 'Gentle parenting' draws a different, better kind of house


The much-maligned parenting style requires a long game but the fruits of its labour can be beautiful.

"Oh, you’ve arrived at a perfect time," Joanne calls out from the dining room. "We’re right in the middle of a meltdown. Come in, I’ll just be a minute."

It is a crisp October morning and I have arranged to meet Joanne Piccinin, Assistant Principal of Woodberry Learning Centre, at her home, two hours north of Sydney. At first glance, there is nothing particularly unusual about her house; stick-figure drawings are smiling from the walls, toys are scattered haphazardly across the lounge room floor, and vibrant polyester dress-up costumes are peeking out of the wardrobe. Upon closer inspection, however, it becomes apparent that the atmosphere in this humble home in the Newcastle suburb of Waratah West is pulsing with something different. There is a large, framed poster on the wall directly above the children’s play area with a cartoon-style infographic of feelings and coping strategies; in the bathroom, laminated printouts of quotes, detailing "how to be brave" and "how to be kind"; and in the corner, soothing words are being uttered to a child in the midst of meltdown.

As I enter the dining room, I see five-year-old Aubrey draped on Joanne’s body, whimpering softly into her mother’s neck. Joanne’s husband, Aaron, sidles up alongside me and leans in to quietly explain: "Ok, so, I started this. Aubrey wanted butter on her pancakes, but she basically demanded it, and I was having none of that."

In the background, I can hear Joanne speaking tenderly with Aubrey as she slowly begins to settle. "I understand," Joanne says, "I would be frustrated too. Are you ready to sort it out with Dad, or not just yet?"

"Not yet," says Aubrey.

"Ok, should we sit together for a bit longer?"Joanne asks. Aubrey nods and clings tighter to Joanne. Together, they remain still for a few minutes, and only when Aubrey has returned to a neutral state do they begin their investigation. They discuss what happened using simple and concise terms, they acknowledge Aubrey’s feelings, they talk about how to speak to others with kindness, and they explore strategies that can be used next time to help with remaining calm. It is a masterclass in what child psychologist Jane Nelsen calls "positive discipline", as articulated in her seminal book of the same name, and is as good an introduction as any into the world of gentle parenting. The idea with this approach is not to avoid boundaries and discipline; on the contrary, clear boundaries are seen to be an integral part of this parenting style. Where it differs from traditional and conservative parenting approaches is the way in which it is implemented: with empathy, respect, and "connection before correction".

Gentle parenting, as it has been popularly characterised, is a child-rearing style based on the idea that, when parents empathise with children while they’re in an emotionally heightened state – often through naming and acknowledging their feelings – it supports the child to regulate their emotions and reach a state of calm. It has its foundations in developmental science, and it stands in distinct contrast to other widely practiced parenting styles, particularly authoritarian parenting, which focuses primarily on obedience and punishment, with little to no emphasis on emotional support and responsiveness. Though the gentle approach has only recently taken hold in a major way, the ideas are not new; they have been slowly weaving their way through society for over a hundred years and have support from a range of fields including medical, legal, and psychotherapeutic fields of study. But it is not without criticism; for every proponent of gentle parenting, there are just as many in fervent opposition. And the condemnation is wide-ranging, with vocal opponents arguing that it is ineffectual, lacking in boundaries, and an "affront to the barest notion of commonsense."

'As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. What is soft is strong.'

The mountain of scientifically-backed evidence is how Joanne was first catapulted into the world of parenting with respect. She is a person of infinite warmth, with fine hazelnut hair, soft brown eyes, and fair skin that has been enveloped by a constellation of freckles. She is quick to laugh, hug, and apologise, often for things that don’t require an apology, but in her presence, there is an almost immediate sense of comfort. For the past seven years, she has been working at Woodberry Learning Centre, a school for children with behavioural needs, and, in her efforts to support her students in the best possible way, she began researching youth and adolescent development. It wasn’t long before her studies trickled into her home life.

Aaron jokingly refers to her child-rearing style as "Joanne’s Theory of Parentivity". When I ask what this entails, he turns to Joanne for a brief moment. "What is it that we do when they get angry?" he begins, before tentatively proceeding, "you’ve got to reflect, regulate…" When he falters at the last two, Joanne prompts: "Relate, reason."

"That’s it," agrees Aaron. "All I know is that I’ve got to connect emotionally with the child and then when they’re calm, we can talk through it, and then we’ve got to fix the relationship, and then we can move on. That’s what I know."

Aaron is a quick-witted man. Fiercely intelligent. And, from my observations, almost wholly unaware of the exceptional way he interacts with his children. At 1.82 m tall with a thick auburn beard obscuring most of his face and 10 years of military service behind him, his is a presence that could easily intimidate a grown adult, let alone a tiny two-year-old. He grew up in a conservative, close-knit family, "pretty much Everybody Loves Raymond", he says, where wooden spoons would be bought in bulk because they were used – and broken – on him and his brother so frequently. Though his upbringing was vastly different to the way in which he and Joanne are raising their daughters – two-year-old Mackenzie and five-year-old Aubrey – I’ve been regaled with story after story exemplifying Aaron’s warm and patient approach with the girls during the trickiest of moments. I’m told this wasn’t always the case.

"Remember?" Joanne asks. "In the early days you would question everything. 'Why are we hugging her? Why are we teaching her about emotions?' Absolutely everything you would question."

"But wait," he says, "I’m also learning, so I’m questioning because I don’t understand, and I’m trying to reason. I don’t understand it, I don’t see it working straight away, right, so I need to know more. But you’re not supposed to see results until later, so in the beginning, I would question everything, and then Joanne would be like, 'see this, this is a reptile brain, this is a something-brain, I can't remember,'" he motions a closed-fist and an open-fist to represent a reptile brain and a something-brain, and continues, “when they’re like this, you can’t get them to listen, we need them to be like this."

"It's the other way around, honey."

"Yeah, whatever it is. So, anyway, now I describe my parenting style as Joanne’s parenting style. I’ve done no research. I’ve done no looking into this. I don’t want to. Joanne has. So whatever Joanne says, I’m just going to follow the path. Without Joanne, well, I wouldn’t hit them with a wooden spoon, I wouldn’t spank them, I wouldn’t do any of that, but I’d probably yell more, that’s for sure."

"I’m pretty sure when we first had a conversation about this you said you’d hit them on the bum," Joanne says.

"Well, I didn’t know any better, did I? I thought that’s what people did."

So, you would have naturally been inclined to raise your children in the same style as your parents raised you? I ask.

"Correct," he says, "because I turned out just fine."


SOME years ago, a program aired on Australian television showcasing a variety of different parenting styles, with the view to discover the most effective way to raise children. Under the watchful eye of Australian parenting expert, Dr Justin Coulson, the families on Parental Guidance were tasked with various challenges, including navigating online safety, dealing with bullying, and confronting their fears. There were, among others, helicopter parents, who hovered closely to their children whenever possible to keep them out of harm’s way; tiger parents, who believed in pushing their children to excel; strict parents, who used smacking as a form of punishment; and attachment parents, who favoured an empathetic, gentle approach with their children. The program returned in 2023 for a second season, and while there have been some changes in the styles being showcased (strict and disciplinarian parents are out; outback and spiritual parents are in), one aspect has remained consistent across both seasons: people have a lot to say about gentle parenting — and a lot of what they have to say is not good.

'For parents who raise their children with a heavy hand, seeing someone raising their children with empathy and respect can be a confronting reality.'

In an attempt to understand the contempt surrounding this much-maligned parenting style, I spoke to Coulson himself, and he reported four key reasons why such attitudes prevail in the community. The first, he says, is an overall conservative approach to child-rearing, and the idea that "whatever was done to us should be done to the next generation … These things happened to me when I was a kid and I turned out just fine” and that approach completely disregards decades of research evidence that suggests there are better ways to do parenting. Next is the perspective that we have to rein children in so they don’t "go wild", that by controlling them, we ensure their morality and therefore their moral compass remains intact. Third is an element of self-justification; for parents who do raise their children with a harsh and heavy hand, seeing someone raising their children with empathy and respect can be a confronting reality, and rather than questioning whether they themselves could have done any better, "it’s easier to just spew vitriol towards other people". The final reason comes down to a surprisingly simple aspect of the human condition: how we draw houses.

"There’s an activity I do in a lot of my workshops," Coulson says, "where I ask people to draw a picture of a house, and as you can imagine, with very little effort, 99.9 per cent of people who sit in my sessions draw the same house they drew when they were six years old, and when I ask them why, they laugh, and then they give me answers like: because it’s easy, because it’s simple, because it’s quick, because I don’t have the skill to draw a better house, because that’s how I was taught to draw a house … then I turn the topic to a totally different place, and I ask them to talk about standard Australian discipline practices for parents, and they talk about time-out, smacking, yelling, threats, bribes, and withdrawing privileges. Then I draw a link between the house activity and the way we discipline and I’ll ask: “Do you see any similarities between the way we draw houses and the way we discipline?” And I pretty much go through the list, where every reason they’ve given me for why they draw crappy houses also applies to why we do discipline in a crappy way, as a society. My argument is that with the appropriate skills training, and with the inner work that we do on ourselves, we can learn what discipline is and how to discipline in a way that will make us all look like architects, rather than six-year-olds scribbling on a scratch pad."

It’s a lesson hard-learned, and one that many of us may never actually get to without sufficient time for self-reflection and introspection. But before any of that is possible, it is perhaps first necessary to reach a state of awareness: awareness of our own shortcomings, awareness of our flaws and awareness of the fact that, sometimes, just fine isn’t just fine.


JAMES Woodfield (not his real name) is a softly-spoken man, except when he is in an argument, and then he can be heard three houses down the street. That’s what his neighbours from three houses down the street tell me, anyway. He is polite, almost to a fault, unless he is being talked down to, or being lied to, or being made to wait during a drug drop-off. His body is freckled with tattoos from his neck to his ankles, many of which he’s done himself or had friends complete for him. His green eyes swim on skin that is soaking with dirt and too much sun, and his hands are almost permanently drenched with welding grime and engine grease. He’s in his early thirties and he has two young children with two different women; the first was removed as an infant and put into foster care, but she has since been returned to the care of her mother, and the second has remained with his on-again, off-again partner, Jacinta.

We first meet on a humid spring afternoon. There is no air-conditioning inside his house, so we sit outside on the back verandah, where the air is sticky and the clouds overhead are swollen with the promise of rain.

"Obviously it wasn’t a good childhood," he begins. "There wasn't much physical abuse stuff, I think when I was 18 or 19 me and my dad had a punch-up when I was working with him, but not much towards us when we were kids. He dragged my sister off the lounge by her hair one time, I remember that. She was watching cartoons and he wanted to watch the stocks. He didn't really seem to do much to my other sister. Mum did her best but she was broken too from all his crap. But yeah, the mental stuff was the worst, that’s the stuff you remember … you get tired of being put down all the time. Every little thing, just attack, attack, attack. I had to see him a lot for sport because he would drive me to tournaments. I started getting anxious and stopped one of the sports. When I told him, he patted me on the leg and had this sarcastic smile on his face and said 'Ah, my little quitter'. It’s the sarcasm that killed me, know what I mean? You just always felt like a failure around him."

It’s no surprise that the mental stuff has had a lasting impact. Dr Barbara Nosal, Chief Clinical Officer at the Newport Institute, a treatment centre for young adult mental health and substance abuse, notes that relational trauma, the same kind of trauma that James is talking about, "doesn’t necessarily involve abusive or neglectful parenting. It can be just a few moments in which a child hears a criticism, or feels disappointed or unheard, and internalises the idea that they can’t rely on their parents. It doesn’t really matter whether that experience of disconnection was objectively significant or not. What matters is how it was internalised by the child." The scientific evidence behind this is astounding; a 2003 UCLA study on relational pain using brain imaging showed that our experience of relational trauma and isolation – think, being sent to your room by an angry parent, or being made to feel like you are not good enough – triggers the same part of the brain as physical pain in terms of brain activity. The abridged version: emotional pain actually hurts.

James’ friend, Mo, arrives and James excuses himself for a cigarette break to work off some of his anxiety. Mo tells me that James wasn’t always like this, and when I mention the sports tournaments that James referred to, Mo is quick to sing his praises.

"He played everything, man; tennis, baseball, soccer, everything. He was properly good too, like national rankings for tennis, went all over the country for tournaments. He didn’t finish school but he’s smart, you know, and good at everything. Always helping us boys and trying to keep us off drugs. But he has his demons," Mo says.

James’ mental health history is almost as long as his criminal history, much of which is filled with fines, arrests, and multiple incarcerations for repeatedly driving whilst disqualified. He still doesn’t have a licence, but that doesn’t stop him from driving. His childhood trauma and all the incidents that followed have left him with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. He’s tried to work, but it’s hard if you can’t get around; all the tradie jobs start at 6am, and when your commute takes over an hour by public transport and you’ve been up all night ruminating, holding down a job can be a challenge. But that doesn’t stop him from trying.

"I email jobs to my sister for her to look at. Usually at three o’clock in the morning, so she tells me what she thinks when she wakes up and then she helps me apply if it looks good."

And when all else fails and things are starting to feel a little hopeless, there’s always his torch collection: "It’s a little bit of a thing for me, kind of like light at the end of the tunnel, a bit of hope … we didn’t grow up talking about feelings and whatever, or how to handle things. I don’t know what else to do, so I have torches."

A call comes through on one of his three mobile phones, and what starts as a quiet, robotic conversation, quickly escalates into something more. Now I understand what his neighbours from three doors down meant, and I prepare to take my leave. As I close the gate behind me, I hear the familiar jangle of car keys being handled. I can only hope that he is putting them down, not picking them up.


I'M BACK in Newcastle where the sun is shining, the air is sweet, and Joanne is talking about her hopes for her girls. "Of course, we have some boundaries that are non-negotiables, but I’m not going to be harder on them than I am on myself; as adults we have hard days where we’re feeling off, why can’t kids? So, I want them to understand their wants and needs, and to be able to vocalise that in a healthy way, to understand that it’s their choice how they respond to situations, and for them to take ownership over that. But we can’t do any of those things without having love and connection as the foundation, that’s what I got from my parents and what I hope to give to my girls."

Aaron concurs, but he also wants people to know that parenting isn’t as easy as people think it is.

"You know what, write this down," he says. "There should be a university class for people who think they want to have children, and then they come and see me, and I will tell them what it is like in the most honest terms possible. Most people sugar coat things, but no no, I'm going to give you the rawest of raw information."

"Go on, give us a snippet," Joanne interjects. "Parenting 101 with Aaron. Go!"

"It would just be scenario-based, like, have you ever cleaned up human urine or faeces from a Fantastic Furniture floor in Glendale? Have you ever ..."

Joanne jumps in: "Scratched dried poo off a wall after realising it had been there for three months?"

Aaron nods in silent acknowledgement before he continues. "Have you slept for more than six hours? Have you ever had a child have a night terror in your bed and kick you in the scrotum? Do you enjoy your free time? Do you like watching movies in full? All of these are relevant, keep writing." And so, I do. He laments about the copious loads of washing, of "trotting around as a horsey" with a 20-something kilogram child on his back, and trying to remain calm during countless more toileting stories and meltdowns, and all the while, the message I hear loudest is that which he does not say: he’s learning how to draw a different kind of house.


FOR all the criticism leveraged against gentle parenting, there’s one glaringly obvious question – what is the alternative? At the age of three, the toddler brain is about 80 per cent of the size of an adult brain; by five years, it’s at 90 per cent. And it is now well-established in the field of neuroscience that the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for decision-making, logic, and self-regulation – doesn’t finish developing until approximately 25 years of age. If, during these formative developmental years, we are not teaching children about their feelings, and not modelling self-regulation, when and how do we hope they will learn these skills?

It seems that part of the criticism relates to two fundamental misunderstandings, both of which have their origins in semantics. The first is our understanding of the word "discipline". It comes from the Latin, disciplina, meaning "instruction given, teaching, learning, knowledge", and yet, the words discipline and punishment are often used interchangeably. On discipline, the experts agree that, contrary to popular opinion, gentle parenting – done correctly – is laden with boundaries, rules and expectations. However, in our feverish attempts to rein children in and prepare them for the "real world", we seem to have forgotten that the role of discipline is not to punish punitively, but to teach through the provision of knowledge. The second misunderstanding can be found within the very title itself: in common usage, we have come to understand "gentle" as "soft", and "soft" as "weak". But soft is not synonymous with weak; as Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu proffered: "Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid, and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. What is soft is strong."

During the final minutes of my discussion with parenting expert Coulson, I asked if there had ever been moments where he questioned his own parenting style with his six children. He paused for a long time before answering "yes". He went on to explain that, when things haven’t gone well, they had questioned whether they should have been more controlling, or more power-assertive, but, like Joanne and Aaron, he is playing the long game. Over time, he says, you see the beautiful fruits of this parenting style.

Perhaps in the face of it all, a first and necessary step in undertaking the colossal task of child-rearing, is to take a step back and reflect on ourselves, to challenge our pre-conceived notions, and to scrutinise all that we hold to be true. In many ways, this means returning to the very essence of being a child. It is a truism that from the moment children start to string words together, the inevitable question of "Why?" will greet you at every waking moment. In our quest to become the best parents and people we can be, perhaps we must come full circle and recapture some of the greatest gifts of childhood: an insatiable desire to learn, an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, and an uncontrollable urge to ask "Why?" Maybe if we do, we might all stand a chance at drawing better houses.


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