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What is Positive Parenting and Why Does it Matter?

Father speaking to daughter on the floor as she holds up two fingers

Inside: Find realistic positive parenting strategies.

At the end of July, a video went viral on Reddit and Twitter of what appears to be a boy’s grandfather spanking his grandson in a public waiting area.

The spanking was repeated, hard, and ultimately broadcast all over the world.

Despite the violent nature of the video, the internet appeared to be divided as to whether the video was abuse or appropriate discipline.

The comments in the latter camp suggest that parents who don’t spank their children are raising entitled, poorly motivated children. 

As one tweet said:

“…I say as long as it’s his own kid & they are being a brat misbehaving &/or being unreasonably disobedient then it’s 100% ok. It’s like training a puppy. You have to discipline them on the spot when they do something bad & not let them get away with it so they KNOW.”


“A lil bit excessive, 1 or 2 slaps will do. I’ll tell u this much tho, that kid won’t be shooting up any schools anytime soon.”

Source: @makingmyown_ on Twitter

This one incident demonstrates that many people believe spanking is effective and the absence of corporal punishment is permissive.

And, to a certain extent, it makes sense. People raised by punitive parents may think that authoritarian parenting is the only way to teach a child because that is all they know.

However, like many things in life, parenting is not binary.

It’s not as though parents are limited to the option to spank or indulge – to be respected or show children respect. In fact, research published in 1966 and replicated since then shows that there are, in fact, four distinct parenting styles:

  1. Authoritarian parenting is high in expectations and low in warmth. These parents tend to favour disciplinary measures such as spanking, scolding, yelling and grounding. Feedback around problematic behaviour tends to be negative and shaming is common. Children raised with this style of parenting tend to have lower self-esteem, have higher incidences of depression and anxiety, equate obedience with love and can struggle socially (1). 
  2. Permissive parenting is high in warmth and low in expectations. This type of parenting is largely associated with indulgence, low guidance and minimal rules. Parents are very loving and emphasize freedom over responsibility (2). These children tend to struggle with responsibility, follow-through and emotional regulation.
  3. Neglectful parenting is low warmth, low discipline. These parents tend to be ambivalent to the moral and emotional development of the child. The parent tends to turn a blind eye towards a child’s behaviour whether it is difficult or favourable.
  4. Authoritative parenting is high in expectations and high in warmth. Parents have clear rules and are equally open to verbal give and take. In keeping with this, parents communicate why rules exist and seek to understand why their children object to complying (2). They treat their children with respect while also disciplining them when need be. Positive parenting falls under this style of parenting.

So this begs the question, what exactly is positive parenting? 

The United Nations on the Rights of a Child recognizes positive parenting as a form of discipline that respects children’s best interests and rights (3).

In this, they outline guiding principles for discipline including:

  1. Identifying goals for raising children.
  2. Providing warmth and structure.
  3. Understanding how children think and feel.
  4. Promoting problem-solving (4).

Some of the benefits of positive parenting are:

  • A stronger parent/ child relationship. The parent shows and models respect to the child while expecting respect in return.
  • Greater trust. Specifically, the child trusts the parent won’t use power to force the child – unless absolutely necessary. Necessity includes threats to safety and wellbeing.
  • Better lifelong outcomes. Children who are parented with authoritative parenting are less likely to have mood disorders such as depression and anxiety (5).
  • Higher internalized morals. Children who are expected to unquestionably obey their parents’ orders are less likely to demonstrate high moral reasoning.
  • A greater opportunity to become leaders. When strong-willed children are coached rather than forced to obey, they have a better opportunity to grow into the natural leaders that they are.

However, positive parenting:

  • Is more involved than authoritarian parenting – it doesn’t take a one-size-fits-all approach to parenting.
  • Takes practice. This is especially the case if the parent is used to yelling, threatening, and punishing.
  • Relies on being open to debate and conversation. Positive parents explain their rules and are open to negotiation on matters that have wiggle room.
  • Requires a lot of patience. When parents stop using force to make children cooperate, there are times they have told hold their ground to wait for compliance. Other times patience is necessary is when the child is emotionally charged. People, regardless of age, are not receptive to listening in this state of mind.

For many parents, including myself, positive parenting makes a lot of sense in theory. Letting go of spanking, shaming, and arbitrary consequences certainly felt like a better way to build trust and love within my family.

But without these ‘old school’ techniques, it’s fair to ask, what’s a parent to do?

Here are effective positive parenting strategies.

Start with communicating expectations clearly.

Regardless of a child’s age, she should know what’s expected of her going into a given situation. Not only does this give children a heads-up, but it starts discipline before the heat of the moment. It also makes it much easier to take children aside to address misbehaviour.

In everyday life, this can be:

  • Before a family dinner, explaining to a toddler that he needs to sit on his bum at the dinner table. If he doesn’t like a particular food, he doesn’t have to eat it but cannot say “Ew gross.”
  • Telling a preschooler that a road trip is going to be long, how she might feel sitting the car for hours when there will be breaks, and how she should act in the car.
  • Sitting children down and working out what chores need to be done throughout the week. You can then establish who will be responsible for what and when it needs to be done.
  • Discussing how the children have been fighting more and how the family will be responding moving forward. For instance, if they are yelling at each other, they will have to go to their rooms until they are calm and ready to apologize.
  • Explaining earlier in the day that homework needs to be done before a tween can use his tablet.

Regardless of what the expectation is, it is important that parents communicate clearly, have the child’s attention and aren’t framing directions as a question. Despite the fact that positive parenting promotes dialogue within the parent-child relationship, the parent is still in charge and needs to be clear about rules that are not negotiable.

Related reading: Front-loading, Redirection and Connection: 3 Strategies for Parenting a Strong-Willed Toddler.

Prioritize time to connect throughout the day

Prioritize the wellbeing of the parent-child relationship.

Every day in a hundred small ways, our children ask, ‘Do you see me? Do you hear me? Do I matter?’ Their behaviour often reflects our response.

L.R. Knost

Children tend to act out when they are desperate for attention and are typically most compliant when all of their basic needs including the need for connection are met.

In everyday life, this is simply looking for little moments to connect. This could be:

  • Reading a book to your child even if she knows how to read.
  • Showing appreciation for what he is working on or playing with.
  • Cooking dinner together.
  • Playing a board game.
  • Doing a puzzle.
  • Going for a walk after dinner.
  • Colouring a mommy-and-me colouring page or book.
  • Going for a bike ride.
  • Playing catch.

And, in general, looking for opportunities to have all electronics away can create more opportunities to connect.

Use positive language and positive reinforcement.

Positive language is powerful because it’s much more motivating to listen to. As psychiatrist Daniel Siegel notes, repetitive negative language puts anyone in a less receptive state. As such, it’s advantageous for parents to frame discipline positively as often as possible.

In everyday life, this can be saying:

  • “Hands to yourself,” instead of “No hitting.”
  • “Quiet voice,” (while modelling a quiet voice) instead of “Stop yelling.”
  • “Take a deep breath and try again,” instead of “Don’t whine.”
  • “Maybe you could save up for that,” instead of “You’re not getting that.”
  • “Say ‘Excuse me,'” instead of “Stop interrupting.”
  • “Let’s work through this,” instead of “It’s not a big deal.”

Related reading: It’s science. Dropping negative language improves child behaviour.

Appreciation is another way for parents to motivate good behaviour. When parents say they approve of, like what or are grateful for what children are doing, children feel good and listen better.

In every day life, this can be saying:

  • “Wow, you set the table without me asking. Thank you!”
  • “I notice you two are playing together really well and I love that.”
  • “You’re so focused right now.”
  • “That took a lot of work. Are you proud of what you’ve done?”
  • “That’s very creative.”
  • “I really appreciate your help.”
  • “You were so well-behaved and listened so well.”
  • “I noticed you almost made a bad choice there but you caught yourself. Good job!”

Model respectful, polite and kind behaviour.

Modelling is one of the most effective teachers. Research on developmental neuropsychology shows that where a child’s attention goes, neurons fire creating connections that make behaviour more likely (6). This means, the more a child sees their parent act a certain way, the more likely they are to follow suit.

In everyday life, parents can model good behaviour by:

  • Eating healthy foods.
  • Minimizing their own screen time.
  • Getting outside often.
  • Creates a family culture of helping by involving other family members in household chores instead of all responsibilities falling on one parent.
  • Staying calm when disciplining children.
  • Using good conflict resolution skills with other family members.
  • Talking about their own feelings (frustrations, sources of happiness, child-appropriate fears and overcoming them).
  • Acknowledging the need to calm down and discussing deep breathing, needing to go for a walk or take a break.
  • Volunteering, being kind to strangers and assuming the best of others.
  • Apologizing for mistakes or anger.

Wait to discipline until the child is calm.

It can be tempting to give a child a lesson in the heat of the moment. However, research shows that children are usually in a reactive state of mind after hitting a sister, throwing a McDonald’s toy at the TV or ripping up a homework assignment. Instead, it’s better to take a timeout until everyone is calm.

In every day life, timeouts can be executed by:

  • The parent escorting the child away from a social situation to calm down.
  • The child going to her room until she’s ready to come out and work through what happened.
  • The parent disengages. Timeout is operationalized as time away from positive reinforcement. Sometimes it’s a good idea to simply stop talking until everyone is calm.

Once calm, then the parent and child can discuss what happened and how to do better next time.

Related reading: Time-In vs. Timeout: How to figure out what’s right for your family

Use natural or logical consequences.

Consequences that flow naturally from the behaviour are effective, more respectful than arbitrary ones, and help preserve the parent-child relationship.

In every day life, examples of natural consequences are:

  • Letting a child who refuses to wear her jacket go outside on a rainy day without one.
  • Getting hurt when told to be careful.
  • Having a stomach ache after eating too much candy.
  • A lego structure breaking because it wasn’t put away.

Examples of logical consequences are:

  • Losing the use of scissors when being unsafe.
  • Not being allowed to use electronics after not asking to go on the tablet.
  • Using allowance money to help pay for a broken window.
  • Having to take a time-in or timeout when unable to control anger.
  • Scrubbing the walls after colouring on them.
  • Writing an apology to someone at school.

Ultimately, consequences in positive parenting should follow the three Rs. They should be related to the behaviour, respectful of the child as a person, and reasonable. Delayed consequences, ones that have nothing to do with the behaviour and ones that are much bigger than the incident themselves are not respectful, reasonable or related.

A final note about positive parenting strategies

The viral video of the boy being spanked sadly ends with a young girl being yelled at. There’s no further knowledge as to how those children are or if there were any consequences from Child Protective Services towards the man hitting the child. No matter what, corporal and arbitrary consequences are outdated, ineffective forms of teaching. Anger, hitting, and force errode the parent-child relationship and have lifelong consequences for children.

Positive parenting strategies take practice. Adults must unlearn how they were disciplined and respond to children in a calmer, more deliberate and more respectful way. Though this can be hard at first, the benefits are innumberable. Households become more peaceful, parents respond in more developmentally appropriate and respectful ways, and children flourish.

Check out these articles filled with positive parenting strategies:

Get Kids to Listen with These Powerful Strategies

One Simple Strategy to Stop Yelling and Restore Peace in Your Family

Time-In vs. Timeout: How to determine what is right for your family

How to Discipline a Child: Why Science Says This is the Best Approach

Why Connection is the Most Powerful Strategy for Good Behaviour

Why Authoritative Parenting is Essential Now But Might Not Have Been Before

The Crucial Difference Between Positive and Permissive Parenting

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