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Gentleness and the Raising of Children

Parenting can sometimes feel like a battleground as we pit our adult wills against those of the little people in our lives who seem to come with full throttle as their default setting. Or so our combative culture would have us believe! Rather than turning bedtime into battleground, I have found myself drawn to the nurturing ideas of gentle parenting by breastfeeding on demand, bringing the baby into the bed, wearing the baby – as the age old habit of carrying one's child is now trendily called. I have found myself curious about the world led by my two-year old's wonder. Not so much the terrible twos as the tremendous, adventurous, questioning exploration of life. I'm making it sound lofty – but the truth is, the nitty gritty of parenting is as hard as any military training. At some point in my journey through family life, I realised I hadn't had a full night's sleep in thirteen years as a consequence of the night-time tending of children. In my estimation the demands of soothing a fretful infant in the moment, are far less onerous than the demands of an older child or young person who has not been tended when they needed comfort, but to infer that gentle parenting is all good sleep and rapture would be a lie. And it's not all gentle either as Fleur Adcock brings into sharp relief in this poem, For a Five Year Old.

For a Five Year Old

A Snail is climbing up the window-sill

Into your room, after a night of rain.

You call me in to see, and I explain

That it would be unkind to leave it there:

It might crawl to the floor; we must take care

That no one squashes it. You understand,

And carry it outside, with careful hand,

To eat a daffodil.

I see, then, that a kind of faith prevails:

Your gentleness is moulded still by words

From me, who have trapped mice and shot wild birds,

From me, who drowned your kittens, who betrayed

Your closest relatives, and who purveyed

The harshest kind of truth to many another.

But that is how things are: I am your mother,

And we are kind to snails.

Fleur Adcock

Ouch! I felt Adcock lacerating my gentle-parenting-mother-ego. I read it to my thirteen year old. She was duly unimpressed by my horror – 'But you haven't drowned any kittens' was her laconic response. 'But what about the things I've said about your father?' She shrugged, 'it's still not kittens, although you have put slugs in bicarbinate of soda.'

Notwithstanding kittens and slugs, this poem has made me ask what it means to be gentle. In relation to the children, I consider gentle to mean responding kindly and quickly to their needs as immature beings; to be firm, good humoured and humble in disciplining them; and to be accommodating and forgiving of their quirks and misdemeanors. When my daughter Magenta was newborn, we encouraged a toddler friend to be 'gentle with Genta', as she called her. Touch the baby lightly, speak softly. I have a lovely friend who often admonishes me to be gentle on myself. He means, go easy on the self-criticism; forgive yourself when you slip up.

For a more comprehensive experience of gentleness, this could be extended to, go easy on the ex-husband, forgive him. Look upon the person who is really annoying you, lightly. Speak softly to and about them, be accommodating of the quirks and misdemeanors of institutions and systems that we are part of, be firm and humble when we call for change.

It seems to me that gentleness is not a sticking plaster we apply to our offspring's childhoods whenever a snail is in danger of being crushed, but an inner orientation to life that demands of us rigor, intention and committment.

My children are long past the breastfeeding on demand stage. What's demanded of me now is not a milky boob but the task of integrating what I have learnt about myself as I navigated their infancy. The realisation that the gentle façade I presented them is not entirely true has brought a wave of self-recrimination and regret. Gently, gently ... Oh yes, this admonition applies here too. The practice of gentleness brings me back to forgiveness – both of the self and others. Gently, gently. Gently does it.

What insights have the children in your life brought you?

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