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To many, positive parenting, also known as authoritative parenting, sounds like a misnomer. If you take away punishment, how will a child know who is in charge? Find out how to execute positive parenting from a position of strength and raise well-adjusted, responsible children.
Last week, a question popped up in the Parenting from the Heart Facebook group that sent me back to the beginning of my parenting journey.
I understand we shouldn’t use punishment with children. But I’ll be honest, I don’t really understand how to execute positive parenting. I would love your parenting tips.
The comment brought me back to when my daughter was a few months shy of three and my son was close to his second birthday.
Tensions in our household were running high. I was sleep-deprived as my son hadn’t stopped night nursing. We had outgrown our small two-bedroom apartment but were struggling financially. My husband was looking for a new job. And the more he looked, the more it became apparent that we would have to leave the area I grew up in and move across the country for a better opportunity.
Though we were careful not to talk about our worries in front of our children, the stress was palpable.
And, our oldest picked up on it all.
As our tension mounted, our sensitive girl’s behaviour became less and less manageable.
Almost overnight, our daughter became angry and defiant. She had started hitting her brother and, at times, us.
Having studied developmental psychology during my undergraduate degree, I knew that parents who used punitive (authoritarian parenting) were more likely to raise children with lower self-esteem, lower school performance, and poorer mental health (1). Moreover, children who are raised with strict parenting appeared tended to be more reliant on the approval and acceptance of authority figures (2). Not only that, but they are less likely to internalize their parents’ moral reasoning. This is because this parenting style relies on external forces to get the child to behave (3).
I understood that, in order to execute positive parenting, I needed to try my best not to:
- use of threats,
- demand obedience,
- use physical and arbitrary punishments (4).
Sure I understood what I shouldn’t do. But I had little-to- no clue what I should be doing do.
As my daughter’s behaviour intensified, I felt weak. I was slipping into permissive parenting.
I felt limited by what I shouldn’t do. And, there were times where I just ignored misbehaviour or pled for my child to listen.
This was of grave concern.
Permissive parenting tends to be indulgent, place low-to-no expectations on the child and puts an overemphasis on the child’s autonomy and choice.
Parents tend to take more of the role of a friend and tend to avoid boundaries and firm “nos.” The developmental outcomes for these children are poorer than authoritative parenting. Specifically, children of indulgent parents tend to have poorer impulse control, higher rates of aggression, and poorer emotional regulation and maturity.
It took a lot of my own research, trial and error as well as starting to work in developmental labs to get a better handle on how to execute positive parenting. Fortunately, I was able to get my parenting back on track. This is what I learned.
Related reading: How to discipline a child: Science says this is the best approach
This is how to execute positive parenting from a position of strength.
1. Connect with children to improve behaviour.
Research shows that responsive parenting is asssociated with some of the best developmental outcomes:
- comfort and seek to understand their children when they are upset,
- regularly hug, kiss, and hold their children,
- are sympathetic when their children are hurt or frustrated,
- appreciate what their children are trying to accomplish or have accomplished,
- are responsive to their children’s needs and feelings,
- encourage their children to talk about their troubles,
- and, spend quality time with their children (4).
When children misbehave, their brains are operating in the fight, flight or freeze response (5). Their prefrontal cortex, responsible for self-regulation, can shut down (6). When parents address a child’s behaviour coming from a place of connection, the child is more likely to have oxytocin released calming the child (7, 8). Moreover, studies show that parents who respond calmly and compassionately to their children are more likely to develop more appropriate emotional responses.
This means in day-to-day life, parents can:
- show affection, attention, and encouragement
- appreciate what a child is doing regardless of if the parent understands it or not. For instance, “I see you have a lot of containers out with shaving cream and food colouring. Can you tell me what’s going on?” And then, “Okay. I need everything cleaned up when you’re done making your potion.”
- consider the child’s perspective before giving directions. For example, “I love your lego set-up. You’ve worked so hard. In five minutes, I need you to clear it off the table for dinner.”
- validates the goodness in the child when faced with misbehaviour like this example adapted from Correction Through Connection, As It Turns Out, There’s No Other Way:
The parent may say: ‘I know you’re a great kid. I know that for sure. That decision you made didn’t end well. I’m guessing at the time you thought it was a good choice. What made it feel like a good idea?’
Then, ‘I get that. I’ve felt that way myself. How do you think it went wrong?’
And finally, ‘What might be a better thing to do next time?’ Or, if needed, ‘Is there anything I can do to make it easier for you to do that?’Or, ‘Things seem pretty upside down right now. What might you be able to do to put things right?’
2. Work together to establish rules and then follow through on those rules.
Research shows that people who execute positive parenting:
- collaborates with children to establish the family rules
- explain the reason for rules and expectations
- uses front-loading by explaining expectations and rules ahead of time so children know what is expected of them
- explain the consequences of behaviour (4)
- are consistent about following through on rules and expectations.
This means in day-to-day life, parents should try to:
- be clear about expectations beforehand
- allow children to express how they’re feeling regardless of if the parent agrees
- take into consideration the child’s perspective when following through on rules and expectations
- allow for natural consequences to happen when they happen. For instance, my daughter didn’t clean up her LOL dolls after being warned that my parents’ dog would eat them. When they were eaten, she had to save her money to replace the figurines.
- wait for cooperation after expectations have been explained. For example, if my own children refuse to wear their helmets bike riding, I tell them we won’t go until they comply. Or, when the house needed to be cleaned before we went to the pool, our departure time was pushed back until everything was done.
- use logical consequences when safety or wellbeing is at stake. For instance, I took away the scissors my two-and-a-half-year-old was using until he was willing to sit down while using them.
- take a time-in. Specifically, take a child to the side of a social interaction or to her bedroom and help her calm down. Stay with her if she would like or leave her if she wants space. Once she is calm, talk about different ways to problem-solve the upsetting situation.
3. Model instead of lecture.
Lecturing can make a child feel as if he, or at the very least, his behaviour is under attack.
When this happens, his fight, flight, or freeze response is triggered making him defensive against what is being said. As outlined in the section about connection, when we use our love of and attachment for our child as a means to understand and explain what went wrong, the child becomes more receptive to the parent’s direction.
Additionally, modelling calm behaviour as opposed to chastising out of anger, creates an invaluable lesson. Specifically, whenever we model the behaviour we want to see in our children, the actual function of their brain changes. The more they see their parents respond calmly, reasonably and responsibly, the more neural pathways form around those events within the child making them more likely to act the same (9).
This means in day-to-day life, parents should:
- observe their responses to events.
- speak calmly and kindly as often as possible.
- model how to respond when they have acted out of anger or frustration.
- find ways to exemplify their beliefs and principles in their daily lives.
4. Redirect behaviour.
Aside from modelling and front-loading, one of the most powerful ways to execute positive parenting is by redirecting a child’s energy from an undesirable behaviour to a more desirable one.
Different forms of redirection include:
- making substitutions.
- changing the environment.
- demonstrate and request better behaviour.
This means in day-to-day life, parents may:
- Offer toys a child can play with when others are in use.
- Tell a child to kick a ball outside instead of inside.
- Suggest an alternative idea to one your child has suggested. For example for a tween, this could be dropping and picking up him and his friends from the movie theatre instead of leaving him at the mall unattended.
- Get outside to release pent-up energy.
- When a child whines or backtalks, tell them to take a deep breath and start again.
- Say yes, but first. For example, “Yes we can go to the park, but first we need to clean up.” Or, “Yes, we can go on a bike ride, but first you need to put on sunscreen and your helmet.”
5. Use ‘re-attunement’ when parenting gets off course.
No matter how proficient any parent is at positive parenting, there will always be less-than-ideal moments. In a study on emotional development, Shore found that new mothers responded “the right way” to their babies approximately 30% of the time (8). What separated the best mothers from the mean was their propensity to re-attune. Meaning, when they failed to get their responses right the first time, these mothers tried again to find ways to get it right. As such, he concluded that the real power in parenting is in the “good enough mother.” It’s guaranteed that all parents will get parenting wrong often. However, what separates the best parents from the average is their desire to get back on track and re-attune themselves with their parenting goals and what is best for their children.
This means in day-to-day life, parents should:
- re-connect with children through shared fun activities.
- re-read parenting materials that support parenting goals.
- forgive themselves when they get off track.
- take care of themselves so that they can parent effectively.
- apologize to their children when they make mistakes such as yell or threaten.
- explain to the child in age-appropriate terms that the parents’ mistakes are not a reflection of the child but because of other stressors.
A final note about how to execute positive parenting
Since the other shoe has dropped, I am able to guide and teach my children in a way that both respects them and models the behaviour I want to see in them. Though I will falter, I can use the opportunity to demonstrate to my children how to act when they make mistakes. This style of parenting is invaluable because it understands both the child and adult are human. We will both make mistakes but when they do, I will continue to love and respect my children through their problems. And when I do, I will model contrition. I cannot think of a more meaningful way to raise my kids.