Locking the lavatory door behind her, Natalie Brown breathes deeply and tries to regain her composure.
What, you may wonder, has so tested her that she’s resorted to hiding in the loo? The answer is her three children — Bluebell, seven, Maximilian, four, and Marigold, two. Or, to be more specific, their sometimes unruly behaviour.
On this occasion, a sulk had turned into a tantrum, followed by serious sibling fisticuffs, with the sound of something fragile — and possibly expensive — smashing as a crescendo.
But, whereas many mothers would keep their children in check with a good talking-to or a spell on the ‘naughty step’, Natalie, 38, a writer, is determined not to resort to these age-old parenting tools.
A growing group of British parents are embracing the ‘gentle’ approach, where you explain to your child the consequences of their behaviour, rather than saying ‘no’ or raising your voice (Pictured, Natalie Brown with Bluebell, seven, Maximilian, four, and Marigold, two)
Instead, so that she doesn’t lose her temper and break her own ‘gentle parenting’ golden rules, she’ll retreat to the bathroom when things with her offspring get too much.
A short while later, she will emerge calmer and only then engage the three youngsters in a constructive discussion on the negative impact of hair-pulling, remote control-throwing, or whatever it is they’ve been up to.
Rather than disciplining children as generations before have done, Natalie is among a growing group of parents embracing the so-called ‘gentle’ approach, where you patiently explain to your child the consequences of their behaviour, rather than saying ‘no’ or raising your voice.
‘Gentle parents’ also say you should never call your children ‘naughty’, in case you damage their confidence.
‘Gentle parents’ also say you should never call your children ‘naughty’, in case you damage their confidence (Pictured, Natalie Brown)
Such is the power of the ‘no to no’ movement that a study of British nurseries recently found nine out of ten have banned the word ‘naughty’, for fear it could cause self-perpetuating behaviour.
The argument goes that there is always a reason for a child acting up — whether it’s frustration, boredom or disappointment.
Three in five nurseries have also abandoned the ‘naughty step’ or ‘thinking chair’ as a tool for enforcing discipline.
‘There are times when the kids wear me down and it would be easy to tell them off,’ admits Natalie, who blogs at crummymummy.co.uk.
‘But, instead, I shut myself in the loo for five minutes to get some perspective. Anything to ensure I don’t break my own rules.’
‘There are times when the kids wear me down and it would be easy to tell them off,’ admits Natalie, who blogs at crummymummy.co.uk
‘The word ‘no’ doesn’t teach children anything. If parents lose their tempers and label their kids ‘naughty’, that’s about them not knowing how to channel their own emotions,’ adds Natalie, who lives in Hove, East Sussex, with her journalist husband Rob, 41, and their children.
‘When Bluebell was a toddler, we had a designated naughty corner, because everyone did. But the crestfallen look on her face when we sent her there for unruly behaviour on her second birthday made me feel there must be better ways to parent than branding her badly behaved.
‘Since then, my ethos has been that we resolve things by talking. I rarely say ‘no’ to my children. But it’s a constant bone of contention, because my husband completely disagrees with me. He thinks I’m a pushover, which has led to some heated arguments between us.’
When they started their family, Natalie and husband Rob didn’t discuss how they would discipline their children. Then came the ‘terrible twos’.
‘I didn’t want to be that parent always raising my voice, so I read up on gentle parenting. It made sense,’ says Natalie. ‘Now, instead of saying ‘no’ or ‘that’s very naughty’, I crouch down to their level and try to gently explain why their behaviour isn’t acceptable.’
Neurological and child development therapist Ollwyn Moran concurs that ‘naughty’ isn’t a helpful word — but strongly believes children must learn to deal with the word ‘no’ (Pictured, Biba Tanya with Tabitha, five, and Lola, 18 months)
Forget the ‘Supernanny’ methods of TV’s Jo Frost, who advocated putting kids on the naughty step to make them think about their actions — many of today’s parents and teachers say such methods are outdated.
You’d be forgiven for rolling your eyes at this point. After all, children need boundaries, and negotiating with younger ones is often a lost cause, whereas a stint on the naughty step may do the trick.
Natalie disagrees, even if her approach causes some degree of chaos at home.
‘If they want to watch TV or have extra biscuits, I don’t say no — partly because, with three children and me working from home, I don’t have time to spend negotiating.’
Instead, she explains to them the implications of filling up on biscuits, getting tummy ache and not having room for their dinner later. And, yes, usually they eat the biscuits anyway.
Natalie herself was brought up in a very different way. She remembers her parents being strict, banning sweets and too much television.
‘Mum never explained why we weren’t allowed, but it must have been exhausting for her saying ‘no’ all the time. I’ve never asked her what she thinks of my parenting style, but she’s much stricter with my children.
Biba Tanya won’t even say ‘no’ when her elder daughter, Tabitha, five, ventures into the cutlery drawer to get a knife to cut up fruit
‘Marigold recently threw the remote control in a temper because Mum wouldn’t let her watch TV. Whereas I would have backed down, Mum repeatedly told her ‘no’.
‘I wouldn’t have had the energy for the 20-minute stand-off that apparently ensued.
‘My husband thinks that I’m a pushover — but I think he’s got a short fuse. I discipline them gently, by giving them three warnings and a consequence, such as not being able to stay up on a Saturday night to watch TV.’
Does Natalie think her children are better behaved for her efforts? Not always, she admits: ‘Sometimes, I feel like we’re that family when we’re out. But, other times, people comment on how well-behaved the children are.’
So can banishing the word ‘no’ help children be better behaved? Neurological and child development therapist Ollwyn Moran concurs that ‘naughty’ isn’t a helpful word — but strongly believes children must learn to deal with the word ‘no’ from a very young age.
‘It has to be used strategically, not every five minutes, otherwise it loses its impact,’ she says, ‘whether it’s for the safety of a child or someone else, or if they’re pleading for a toy when you’re out shopping.
‘It’s important we help children manage the feelings of frustration and disappointment that come with being told ‘no’ to the things that are so huge in their world.
‘If you say ‘no’ to a teenager who’s only ever heard ‘yes’, their world is thrown into disarray because they don’t know how to handle it.’
Still, Ollwyn advises that ‘no’ must come with a short explanation. ‘It helps children to build resilience and empathy for how their behaviours affect others,’ she adds. ‘For example, if you’re on a plane and your child starts kicking the seat in front, it’s important to say something like: ‘No, that’s not OK, because it will be uncomfortable for the man in front.’
Graphic designer Emma Bird, 39, has also banned certain words from her Hertfordshire home (Pictured, Emma with Ottilie, four)
‘In order for children to feel secure, they have to know this is the line in the sand and that, if they push against it, then there’s going to be a consequence.’
Graphic designer Emma Bird, 39, has also banned certain words from her Hertfordshire home, which she shares with her project manager husband Simon, also 39, and their daughter Ottilie, aged four-and-a-half.
‘We never say ‘no’, as it doesn’t mean anything, and there’s no such thing as a ‘naughty’ child,’ says Emma. ‘Nor do I use the words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and I don’t believe in reward charts to encourage a child to do something.
‘If you label them as ‘naughty’, it makes other people react to them differently. There’s always a reason why a child is acting up or having a meltdown.’
She adds: ‘If my daughter tells me another child at nursery ‘did something naughty’, I’ll correct her and explain that they just didn’t know how to express what they were feeling.
‘And if Ottilie touches something when I’ve asked her not to, she’s not naughty, she just isn’t developmentally progressed enough to recognise her mistake.
‘I remember once sitting on the floor in Marks & Spencer while she was having a meltdown and gently saying: ‘It’s OK, we can sort this.’ Getting irate wouldn’t have helped. Other shoppers stared in disbelief at what they saw as me indulging her.’
Emma herself had a reasonably strict upbringing — rather different from her daughter, who attends a Montessori pre-school where the emphasis is on gentle parenting.
She acknowledges that there are times when she has to walk away to compose herself if Ottilie is pushing boundaries.
‘If I can feel myself losing it, it’s my own inability to manage my emotions,’ she explains. ‘While we don’t subscribe to ‘time out’ or ‘naughty steps’, we do have rules, such as we don’t hit, kick or hurt others or say horrible things.
‘If she does, I explain that it’s not kind and ask her how we can sort the situation.
‘I’ve learned to empathise with my daughter, recognising that if she lashes out, it’s because she’s tired or overwhelmed.’
Biba Tanya, meanwhile, won’t even say ‘no’ when her elder daughter, Tabitha, five, ventures into the cutlery drawer to get a knife to cut up fruit.
‘I let her get on with it, having explained any danger,’ admits Biba, 38, who is also mum to Lola, 18 months, and Sebastian, 14, from a previous relationship.
Mercifully, there haven’t been any accidents, and Biba says Tabitha is learning valuable life skills.
She and sister Lola are rarely subjected to the words ‘no’ or ‘naughty’. ‘If they’re having a meltdown, or simply not listening, I’ll acknowledge they’re tired, hungry or frustrated and ask them how we can deal with it,’ says Biba, who’s married to Kevin, 59, an engineer.
‘Kids aren’t naughty — they just don’t know how to channel what they’re feeling.’ But her approach has attracted criticism. ‘Everyone thinks I’m a lunatic hippy.
Amelia Kennard, 25, admits her devotion to gentle parenting is, in part, a rebellion against her own childhood — where ‘time out’ was given for ‘naughtiness’ (Pictured, Amelia with AJ, three, and Forest, four months)
‘Even my husband struggles with my parenting ethos at times,’ she says.
‘He thinks I credit children with wisdom beyond their years and that they need to be kept in line. His instinct would be to issue a gentle threat, for example: “If you don’t eat your dinner, then you’re not going out to play,” which is wrong, as the two things aren’t connected.’
Yet Biba concedes there are moments when a loud shout of ‘no!’ would be appropriate — such as if one of her children was in immediate danger.
Child psychiatrist and parent coach Dr Victoria Khromova points out that young children have the capacity for only simple discipline.
‘I often see well-meaning parents trying to explain in lengthy terms why something is not OK,’ says Dr Khromova, founder of Emerging Parent. ‘But all they need to know is what the simple family rule is, such as: ‘Hitting is not acceptable, Mummy and Daddy don’t hit and neither should you.’ ‘
Amelia Kennard, 25, admits her devotion to gentle parenting is, in part, a rebellion against her own childhood — where ‘time out’ was given for ‘naughtiness’.
‘I had a complex childhood with parents who had very different approaches to parenting — my dad was stricter and my mum was passive, so I never knew where I stood because it was inconsistent.
‘I researched parenting techniques, and the gentle approach of treating children like little adults made sense,’ says Amelia, who lives in Bedfordshire with husband Joel, also 25, who works in HR, and their sons, AJ, who’ll be four next month, and Forest, four months.
‘I researched parenting techniques, and the gentle approach of treating children like little adults made sense,’ said Amelia
‘We don’t use the words ‘good’, ‘bad’ or ‘naughty’ to describe AJ or his behaviour, we don’t say ‘no’ to him and we don’t force him to say ‘sorry’ — he has to want to say it himself.
‘If he hits another child, it’s because he’s frustrated and, at this age, children are more likely to react physically.
‘But I’ll explain that he really hurt that person and that they won’t want to play with him.’
Refreshingly, and with wisdom beyond her years, Amelia admits gentle parenting isn’t easy — either to implement or for others to understand.
‘AJ is a stubborn little boy and my natural urge is to shout when he doesn’t listen to me, especially when I’m tired. But I try not to, because he just shouts back.
‘If I take a breath and explain why he’s not allowed to do something, such as venturing into the front garden on his own because there’s a road next to it, then he’s more responsive.
‘I don’t believe any child is naughty. Mostly, they’re just acting their age, and how will they learn what’s right and wrong if we don’t give them the space to make their own choices and mistakes?’
Ollwyn Moran, however, sees trouble ahead: ‘Our job as parents is to create independent, capable children by doing it incrementally from a young age.
‘How are they are going to say ‘no’ to others in the future, for example in risky situations, if they haven’t had it said to them?
‘It’s part of an essential toolkit that all children need to help them make good decisions.’