This story was originally published on July 15, 2021. It has been updated
Positive parenting has become quite the buzzword these days, but what does it really mean? And more importantly, does it work? At first glance, positive parenting sounds like parenting without consequences for bad behavior. Contrary to what many may think, positive parenting doesn't mean you respond with "I love you" when your 3-year-old hits you.
Positive parenting is not a vague concept of being nice to our children when they don't deserve it. It's a parenting philosophy and strategic method based on the idea that our relationship with our children is the most important thing, and that we can help children develop self-discipline.
To be clear, positive parenting is not permissive parenting, which is parenting with high responsiveness and low demanding-ness. With positive parenting, there is a focus on discipline, and the goal is to raise a person who follows the rules and respects others, not because of fear, but because it's the right thing to do.
Here are some ways to help your child develop discipline, while practicing positive parenting:
1. Set boundaries
Having boundaries in our relationship with our children is key to being successful in positive parenting. Having, and enforcing, boundaries allows us to remain patient and calm because we feel respected and that our needs in the relationship are being met.
A good way to know when you need to establish a new boundary is when you are feeling exasperated, impatient or angry by a recurring behavior or situation.
Do you dread dinner time because your child insists on sitting on your lap and you can't eat? If so, establish a rule that everyone sits in their own chair for meals. You can snuggle after dinner.
Do you feel resentful because your child begs you to play dolls first thing in the morning every day when your eyes aren't even open yet?
Establish a rule that you get to sit and drink coffee for 10 minutes before you're available to play. Will your child complain? Probably. But they will also begin to learn that you have needs too.
You will be a better parent if your own needs are being met and your child will see a wonderful example of how to advocate for their own needs in a relationship.
2. Build connection to gain cooperation
Do you remember having a substitute teacher as a kid? Did anyone listen to them? Probably not. Children need to feel a connection to an adult to listen to them. This is a good thing—you don't want your child listening to any random stranger who tells them to do something.
But it also means your child is more likely to listen to you when they feel connected to you. This is the problem with punishment. It puts you at odds with your child, diminishing your connection and making it less likely your child will do what you ask.
If your child is going through a rough patch with behavior, try to build in a little extra one on one time to connect. This does not need to be a long stretch of time, but it does need to be frequent and focused. Even 15 minutes a day of dedicated, phone-free, time with your child can make your connection stronger than ever.
3. Be firm, but loving
So much of positive parenting is in the tone. You can be firm and hold your children to high expectations, while still being loving.
Decide what rules are important to you, clearly communicate them to your child, and be consistent with enforcing those rules. Being a positive parent does not mean letting your child walk all over you. It does mean trying to maintain a calm, loving tone when your child needs reminders about the rules.
4. Avoid shaming
"You're 6 years old, don't act like a baby!"
"Your room is disgusting, go clean it up."
"Why can't you ever listen? It's not that hard!"
Have you said those words? These phrases all have a shaming effect, making children feel bad about themselves. This naturally has a negative impact on a child's self-esteem, but it is also not effective because it reinforces a child's identity as someone who behaves a certain way.
If your child is always told they're acting like a baby, they will absorb this and behave that way even more. If you refer to them as a bully, they will think of themselves that way and act accordingly. Try to comment on your child's behavior, letting them know when it's inappropriate, without inducing feelings of shame.
5. Try natural consequences
Punishing your child makes you the enemy and can often be confusing if the punishment is unrelated to the offense. Instead of punishment, try allowing the natural consequences of their actions to unfold.
For example, if you ask your toddler to put on their rain boots and they refuse, the natural consequence is that their feet will get wet outside. They will be far more likely to acquiesce next time it's time to put on boots than if you respond with a time out when they say, "no!" to rain boots.
6. Use logical consequences
While natural consequences are ideal because they don't put you in opposition with your child, there is not always a convenient, short-term natural consequence.
For example, it might be important to you that your child puts all of their Legos away every day so that you don't step on them (ouch!).
The eventual long-term natural consequence would be that some Legos might get lost if they're not put away every day. This could take weeks or months to occur and your feet might not be able to take that.
In this type of situation, try to think of a related consequence that makes sense, and execute it without anger. The consequence might be that if you step on a Lego, you're going to put it away in the garage instead of back in your child's Lego bin.
7. Use positive reinforcement
Did your child remember to put their shoes away all by themselves? Did they help their sister when she was frustrated with her homework? Let them know that you noticed!
It's easy to comment on bad behavior, but just smile to yourself when your child does something beautiful. Make sure they get more attention for good behavior than for bad.
This doesn't mean you need a lavish reward system—just tell them what you saw. Say something like, "I noticed you put your shoes away all by yourself. That shows real responsibility!" Or, "I saw you help your sister. You really care about other people."
In addition to letting them know you noticed, this kind of praise helps your child maintain a positive self-identity that they will want to live up to.
8. Model respect
Children copy what we do. If we want them to be respectful to others, we have to be respectful toward them.
If you want your child to say "please," say "please" to them.
If you want them to wait until you're available instead of interrupting you, wait until they get to a stopping point in their play before asking them to do something.
If you want them to be kind and gentle with their siblings, be kind and gentle with them.
It can be hard to put into practice in our busy, frazzled lives, but children absorb everything around them, and this definitely includes how we treat them.
9. Strive for empathy
It can often seem like our children are misbehaving just to make our lives harder. Why can't they just follow the rules at the park so you can all have a nice time?
There is always a reason for misbehavior though, whether it's as simple as a hungry or tired child, or more complicated like difficulties at school.
If you can understand the reason behind the misbehavior, it will be so much easier to find empathy for your child and respond with kindness. If you can't figure out the reason, just know that there is one. Your child loves you more than anything and wants to please you, so there is a reason if they are acting out.
10. Use time-in, not time-out
The goal of positive parenting is to build and maintain your relationship with your child, while also raising a person who will do good in the world.
Time-out sends the message that we can't deal with our child's behavior, that we don't want to see the part of them that is loud and angry and messy. It pushes you apart.
Time-in, or spending time being present with your child, brings you closer together. It recognizes that what all children need is to feel loved and accepted by their parents, no matter what their behavior looks like that day.
Time-in is not always a pleasant thing. It's not all hugs and painting rainbows together.
It may look like your child crying or throwing a tantrum next to you because you're holding the line on a boundary. It may look like you explaining the importance of the safety rules you have in place and why you had to leave the park early.
Time-in doesn't mean that everyone is always smiling and happy, but it does mean that everyone feels loved, that your child gets the message that you will always be there and can handle anything they throw your way.