stack of respectful parenting books on counter next to diffuser and plant

Inside: A round-up of the best respectful parenting books I’ve come across in the past five years. This is the stack of books I wish I’d been handed when I was expecting my first child.

During my first pregnancy, I was handed a stack of parenting books. They are night and day different than the ones I’m about to share with you.

And to be frank, if I came across any of those books at a thrift store today, I would buy them just to save another parent from them.

They were just that bad.

What did those authoritarian parenting books teach me? Here’s a quick snapshot…

  • Teaching children to obey “completely, quickly and cheerfully” is your highest parenting priority. Punishing disobedience with physical pain is our unfortunate duty as parents.
  • Children cannot make choices for themselves (maybe in the teen years they can earn that right? maybe?). Your job as the parent is to “be the boss” and make all the decisions for them.

Thankfully, my oldest two children were very strong-willed. Yes, I said “thankfully” because they literally saved us all.

After three years of utter exhaustion and honestly hating parenting, I started questioning all those books I was given. Maybe parenting wasn’t supposed to be this way…

  • What if my job wasn’t to control my children, but to partner with them?
  • What if learning to make choices could start from a young age? What if we trusted children?
  • What if parenting could be about connection, support and collaboration?

So many questions. So much to unlearn.

That’s why I’m so excited to share these respectful parenting books with you! If I can help just one parent discover respectful parenting early on (or when you’re at your lowest, like I was), this post will be well worth writing.

Related: What Is Respectful Parenting? A (Sadly) Radical Philosophy

5 Respectful Parenting Books I Wish I’d Read Sooner

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Once I decided I was done with authoritarian parenting, I didn’t wake up the next day a respectful parent. How I wish that was what happened!

What actually happened is I read SO many books searching for what to do instead. I had to read a lot of “in between” books (like Love & Logic) to get to the books I’m about to share with you.

Those books were my “stepping stones”, and I couldn’t have gotten where I am today without them. Respectful parenting is quite the radical paradigm shift when you come from authoritarian parenting.

So if you come from a background that is the opposite of respectful parenting, some of these books might sound absolutely insane to you at first. But don’t give up!

Remember, the heart of respectful parenting is this: your child is a whole, unique human being who deserves to be treated with the same respect and dignity that you deserve and (hopefully) expect as an adult.

When you prioritize connection and collaboration with your child, the power struggles fade away, and parenting can start to be a joy, instead of a never-ending battle.

1. Jesus, The Gentle Parent by L.R. Knost

If you don’t come from a Christian background, skip to the next book.

But if you were raised in or started parenting in the evangelical Christian world like I did, in a world where James Dobson and John Piper tried to tell you that sure, Jesus would absolutely spank a child (um, no), then you definitely need Jesus, The Gentle Parent.

Trust me on this one.

L.R. Knost was a breath of fresh air in my early days walking away from authoritarian parenting. I didn’t know how to reconcile my newfound convictions with the parenting teachings of the church.

Knost argues (with a LOT of Scripture, I might add) that Jesus would, in fact, be a gentle, respectful parent. She also offers practical help for almost every stage of childhood.

As an added bonus, she takes to task every teacher in the Christian world who says otherwise. She definitely gives “turning over the tables in the temple” vibes throughout the entire book.

If you are looking for the why’s and the how’s of being a respectful parent as a Christian, this book is the place to start.

2. Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn

Alfie Kohn is well-known in the respectful parenting (gentle parenting) community. He has long been an advocate of treating children with the kindness and respect adults automatically expect.

Unconditional Parenting focuses on seeing all behavior – especially the so-called “bad behavior” – as expressions of unmet needs/wants and big/raw feelings.

Our job as parents is to love our children unconditionally and to figure out how to meet the unmet needs/wants our child is trying to express in the only ways they know how. As they grow, we also need to off them better tools to express themselves and help them respect the boundaries of others.

Kohn advocates for moving away from rewards and punishments in our parenting – anything that tries to manipulate children’s outward behavior to meet arbitrary adult expectations.

(Some parents use screen time as a reward and punishment – we don’t have arbitrary screen time limits.)

He encourages parents to focus, instead, on what children truly need: connection, love and attention from the most important adults in their lives.

Related: 17 Life-Changing Non-Fiction Books (It’s Subjective, I Know)

3. Hunt, Gather, Parent by Michaeleen Doucleff

This book was only recently released in 2021, but I so wish I would have had this book from the beginning! Instead, I fumbled my way in the dark, wondering if I was doing the right thing about chores or bedtimes or stories.

Hunt, Gather, Parent explores just how much wisdom we’ve lost from ancient cultures, and how much colonization and stomping out of these cultures has affected modern parenting in developed nations.

Doucleff and her young daughter spent several months living with three different people groups:

  • Mayans
  • Inuits
  • Hadzabes

When speaking to what is different about these cultures compared to the way we parent in the West, the book’s cover says it best:

“Most strikingly, parents build a relationship with young children that is vastly different from the one many Western parents develop – it’s built on cooperation instead of control, trust instead of fear, and personalized needs instead of standardized development milestones.”

While I haven’t adopted everything the book suggests, there is a wealth of practical advice based on the author’s observations and interviews. She implements many of them with her daughter and shares how it changes their relationship for the better.

4. Untigering by Iris Chen

Untigering is written not necessarily from the perspective of “respectful parenting expert”, but from a parent who has worked really hard to unlearn authoritarian parenting.

Author Iris Chen, a Chinese American, unschooling mom of two, shares her own challenges, doubts and insights throughout the journey.

You will find a lot of references to Chinese American parenting, which might make you think this book is not for you if you don’t come from an Asian “tiger parent” or BIPOC background. But this book addresses authoritarian parenting in any and all its forms, so if you were raised by authoritarian parents or used to be one and are trying to become a respectful parent, this book is for you.

What I love most about this book is its comprehensiveness. She addresses everything from healing your own childhood wounds to reevaluating your definition of success to observing your children instead of judging them.

My favorite chapter speaks specifically to permissive parenting, and what makes it different from respectful parenting. It’s a must read for every aspiring respectful parent!

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Related: Top 12 Unschooling Books for Rethinking Education

5. Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting by Janet Lansbury

Author Janet Lansbury is thought to have first coined the term “respectful parenting”, so it’s only fitting that her book be included in this list.

I’ll be honest: I haven’t read Elevating Child Care yet. But I wanted to offer a book for parents who are specifically wanting to practice respectful parenting from birth.

Fair Warning: You might roll your eyes when she tells you to ask your child’s permission to change their diaper and walk them through every step of the process.

The point isn’t that you need to follow everything exactly, but that you are trying your best to practice respectful parenting from birth. And honoring your child’s bodily autonomy and practicing communication and consent are core tenets of respectful parenting, which is the point of the diaper changing advice.

If you want an alternative book that I have read and would also recommend, Rachel Rainbolt’s book Sage Parenting offers similar information for respectful parenting during the first year.

Bonus: Low-Demand Parenting by Amanda Diekman

I read this book very recently, and while it was written specifically for parents of PDA autistic children, I think low-demand parenting has a lot in common with respectful parenting.

Consider it a “companion book” for respectful parents.

Learn how to drop typical parenting demands in a healthy way, and get back some of your parenting energy for actually enjoying your kids (instead of enforcing demands).

Related: 7 Secrets for Surviving The Terrible Twos (from a mom of 5)

Learning How to Be a Respectful Parent Is Difficult: Do It, Anyway

Especially if you are coming from a authoritarian or authoritative parenting background, there is so much to unlearn and unpack before you can really hit your stride as a respectful parent.

My encouragement to you? Push through the discomfort. Feel uncomfortable a lot of the time is just part of the process. But 90% of the time, that discomfort means you (not your child) has more work to do.

You might will definitely mess up along the way. This isn’t about doing parenting perfectly because spoiler alert: there are no perfect parents.

There is no play-by-play handbook – you know, the one that tells you “just do THIS when they do THAT”, not even for respectful parents. How I wish there was!

There will be A LOT of trial and error and working with your unique child in your own unique circumstances to figure out what works best for your family.

You’ll probably swing to the side of permissive parenting for a bit. Or maybe you’ll drift back into old authoritarian parenting habits.

It’s o.k.! It’s not the end of the world – I promise.

Apologize to your kids if you need to. Do some more inner work. Reach out in a respectful parenting group for support.

Get counseling. Reread one of these books.

And finally, give yourself grace to get up the next day and try again.

“There is no such thing as a perfect parent. So just be a real one.”

Sue Atkins

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  1. I really resonated with your journey to respectful parenting. A little late to the party but better late than never. 🙂 My kids are 5, 8, 9. I just read several of the books you recommended. Hunt Gather Parent was my favorite. You talk about it in your post about how there is no play-by-play handbook but I feel like I need more examples and direction. I’ve been doing great about calming down, not yelling, not spanking, etc. but feel like I’m way too permissive now because I just don’t know what to do when my kids misbehave. When my 5 year old is crying and whining for not getting her way…I feel frozen like I’m not sure how to handle this without punishment. We also homeschool so I’m with them 24/7. Anyway just curious if you have any other suggestions of where to turn for some more practical advice to get me going in the right direction. Thanks!

    1. Author

      I will try to brainstorm some practicals for a post! Not having formulas is really hard. Whining – I try to empathize first (it sounds like you’re having a really hard time with XYZ). I will often try to distract with an activity or question. If it persists, I will give myself a break so I don’t lose it. Jesus the Gentle Parent has a lot of practicals that could help, even if you’re coming from a secular perspective.

      1. Yes! Please write a post on some practical ideas! Thanks for the tips on whining. Making a mental note to try to empathize and distract. It would be helpful to just hear about some everyday parenting you’ve done with your kids, shifting from authoritative to respectful. Seriously I feel like your post is exactly my story so I would love to hear more about how you have shifted your parenting styles. I also noticed the author of Jesus the Gentle Parent has a book called The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline. From the title it sounds like it would have some more practical examples. And her book was such a breath of fresh air to me as well. I grew up in a Christian home and begun my parenting very much with the mindset of James Dobson books were the way too go. A few years ago I read Love and Logic but couldn’t really get on board, then went back to what I thought was “Biblical” parenting but many things just didn’t sit well with me. When I stumbled across your post it was definitely an answer to prayer for my searching heart.

  2. This is an amazing list. I read Unconditional Parenting early on in our parenting journey and I’m so glad I did. I can’t IMAGINE trying to parent any other way.
    Hunt Gather Parent sounds really good too!
    And I follow Iris Chen and get so much good information and encouragement from her. Excellent recommendations ☺️

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