What is “positive parenting” and why is it better than what our parents did? It’s what I’ve been wondering as the web fills up with parenting articles telling parents that positive parenting is the best and only way to parent. I can’t help but feel a little protective of my own parents: I think they did a good job. I came out all right. And anyway, what IS positive parenting, anyhoo?
Emphasis on Clear Parental Expectations
Is it just some frou-frou psychobabble term for being nice to your kids—or is it a firm and original style of parenting that merits a closer look? Is it something I should be doing with my own kids—or am I already doing it? “Positive parenting emphasizes the communication of clear parental expectations, collaboration between the parent and child, praise and reinforcement for desired behaviors, and the avoidance of harsh consequences such as physical punishment,” says Dr. Sarah Vinson an Atlanta-based psychiatrist and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Morehouse School of Medicine.
“Many ‘old fashioned’ parents used positive parenting techniques, too. It just may not have been packaged as such, yet. Whenever parents help their children set goals, act as positive examples, support their children, they are relating to their child based on positive parenting principles,” says Vinson.
So, let’s say you’ve never done anything like this with your kids, is it too late to start now? Will positive parenting confuse them? Dr. Vinson admits that, “Like anything else, change is difficult,” but reassures parents that, “Those who are conscientious enough to use forums such as this to be better informed, are probably already practicing some aspects of positive parenting.”
Lynette Louise, a mental health and parenting expert, suggests that the new positive parenting style isn’t only good for the child, but good for the parent, too. “Positive parenting [if] done correctly builds positive emotions and heightens self-esteem in parent and child, not just the child. One cannot look back at a different time and think that what was done then should be done now, only because it was done before. In many ways we could say that today’s challenges with violence and drug abuse are directly related to yesterday’s parenting. But whether that is true or not is irrelevant, since yesterday was a different world,” says Louise.
According to Stacey C. Brown, who counsels families at her private practice in Florida, positive parenting can preserve a grownup’s sanity. “Parents tend to get along with each other better if they are using positive parenting techniques. One parent doesn’t have to worry if the other parent is too heavy-handed or using negative strategies, so trust is higher, fun can be had and problems are looked at as opportunities.”
Jared Heathman, a Houston-based child psychiatrist, puts the emphasis in positive parenting back on the child. He says that positive parenting results in better conduct. “Using positive reinforcement and complimenting favorable behaviors can result in improved conduct. Children generally experience improved self-esteem and pleasure in receiving compliments. They will often repeat rewarding behaviors in an attempt to receive continued reinforcement.
“In contrast, children learn to tune-out repeated scolding as it is an unpleasant experience,” says Heathman.
Children As Unique Individuals
Some experts feel that positive parenting is important for what it says about children. Once upon a time, children were expected to be seen and not heard. This is no longer the case. “What’s loosely called ‘positive parenting’ is important because it’s opening up parents (and educators) to a new and true perspective on children. This ‘positive’ outlook views each child as a unique human being, just like mom or dad, with a drive toward developing his or her own individual personality and chosen success. Today more than ever success in life requires one to be independent and creative, not merely a copy of the traditions of the past,” says parenting coach and educator, Jesse McCarthy.
Is there a problem with positive parenting? Could all that praise backfire? According to John Sovec, a psychotherapist with a practice in Pasadena, CA, it’s crucial that praise be given only where indicated. “Praise needs to be held for true accomplishments. Many parents are feeding their kids a constant diet of praise for even the most mundane accomplishments and this affects the child’s ego structure. Rather than being able to self-regulate, these children can become grandiose, feeling that even their simplest actions deserve the highest praise and attention.”
WATCH: Teacher Chris Ulmer, 26, who teaches at Keystone Academy in Jacksonville, Florida, and spends ten minutes complimenting his classmates each day.
Not all the experts, however, are ready to throw out the baby with the bathwater. “As a teacher of the ‘at risk’ population of Los Angeles for 25 years I’d have to say that positive parenting is important because it’s a different world than the agrarian, pre-industrial world of so many years past. Some old-fashioned parenting techniques may still work and are valid; while others, like severe corporal punishment and starvation (sending a child to bed without supper) would now be considered cruel or illegal. We teachers are no longer allowed to use old-fashioned techniques like corporal punishment, which used to be legal, so we have to use our wits and be more progressive in our approach,” says P. M. DeVuono MA Ed., Classroom Algebra and Life Skills teacher, blogger, and published author.
DeVuono has developed what he calls the Two Choices Technique which he says “builds trust, self-esteem, intrinsic self-discipline and eliminates many arguments.
“The trick is in wording what you want so that your kid is making their own choice between two alternatives of your selection. One of the choices should usually be unpleasant and quite possibly cause the child to lose face; the other choice (the one you really want) is a better choice that allows the child to save face.”
You could say, ‘Do it my way or else!’ But that takes away the child’s power and does not teach judgement. By skillful wording—putting the face-saving choice last when it was time for her to choose—your child gets to exercise judgement and be the big girl or boy.”
Hmmm. Interesting. But is that manipulative? Is it fair to the child? How does this approach jibe with the idea of really seeing your child as a unique human being rather than one made in the parents’ own image?
Holly LaBarbera believes that the main thing is not to use shame as a motivator, something that was probably part and parcel of the way parents used to parent. LaBarbera makes a distinction between shame and guilt as parenting techniques. “I think there are ways that ‘old fashioned parenting techniques’ work very well. It is important to set limits and expectations for children in order to help them feel safe and secure, understanding how the world works and that there are consistent things they can count on. Setting clear expectations and limits also helps teach personal responsibility. I fear that some of these things are getting a bit lost, although they are very important.
“One newer approach to parenting that is very different, and much better for child development, is moving away from using shame as a way to influence behavior. Shame is an intense feeling that you are not worthy of love, that there is something inherently wrong with you. Many parents unintentionally use shaming techniques when they say ‘what is wrong with you?’ or ‘how could you do that?’”
Shame Keeps Us Stuck
“When people feel shame, they are actually less likely to make changes in behavior; if they believe there is something wrong with them, that they are stupid or lazy or worthless, then no change in behavior will ever fix that. Guilt, on the other hand, can inspire change. Guilt focuses on a particular behavior, such as ‘you should not have hit your brother because you hurt him.’ When a person feels badly about what they did, yet they feel that they are a good and worthy person, they can change that behavior and do something differently next time. Guilt motivates change while shame keeps us stuck,” says LaBarbera, a licensed marriage and family therapist.
Okay, so I’m getting shame=bad, guilt=good. What else? Well, if you listen to Sherlyn Pang Luedtke, one motivator that is definitely on the way out is fear. “My son’s 6th grade classmate started crying in class in anticipation of his parents yelling at him because he got a B,” says Luedtke, a parent educator, best-selling author, and Founder of Present Parent Training.
What about positive parenting after divorce? Are the considerations of divorced parents any different when it comes to parenting? Rosalind Sedacca, CCT, “The Voice of Child-Centered Divorce,” advises parents to, “Put yourself in your kids’ shoes and think about the insecurities, fears, anger and anxieties they are experiencing—which are different at different ages and stages—including teens and young adults. Consider that your children love and need both parents and when you put down, disparage or disrespect their other parent around your children you are hurting them and changing who they are.
“Don’t rob your kids of their childhood due to your divorce. Be compassionate, considerate and understanding of their feelings. Most important of all, be the role model they need and deserve. They’ll thank you when they are grown!” says Sedacca.
Role model? So is modeling behavior a part of positive parenting? Cara Maksimow, LCSW, CPC, confirms this idea. “Positive parenting is about not only teaching your kids but by showing them. The best way to have your children be kind and optimistic is if that is what they experience from you. For example if they hear you complain, they will learn to do the same.
“Increasing a sense of gratitude and building resiliency can help children to be more positive and focus on the good. Look for opportunities to bring up a more positive perspective on everyday events. For example if you see an ambulance go by you may want to say, ‘someone is being saved and helped right now,’ as opposed to, ‘someone is hurt or in trouble,’” says Maksimow, a therapist, coach, and author.
Nu, So What is Positive Parenting and Why is it Better than What Our Parents Did?
So does all this sound way complicated to you? Are you still not getting the difference between this positive parenting approach and regular old fashioned parenting? Barbara Harvey has a neat way of parsing the difference between these two styles. “Old fashioned parenting was based on telling children what to do and how. But not necessarily why. Positive Parenting focuses on training children not just on what and how, but also why,” says Harvey, Executive Director of Parents, Teachers, and Advocates, a parent development group in Atlanta, GA. “The real difference between the two is that old fashioned parenting is focused on parents controlling their children. Positive parenting focuses on parents training children to control themselves.”
Jamie D. Hartsfield, a licensed professional counselor in Suffolk, Virginia elaborates on the issue of control. “Positive parenting is crucial in establishing and maintaining a close parent-child relationship, built on trust and mutual respect. We know that our control over our children is really an illusion- and we’ve got to move beyond that so that we can influence their behavior and choices in a way that doesn’t break our relationship with them.
“Allowing or creating natural consequences for a child enables us to get on the same side as the child, and even have empathy for them as they’re reaping the consequences of their choices. It sets the bar higher than the old-fashioned ‘do as I say and ‘because I said so’ parenting techniques. Positive parenting is a way to effectively discipline our children while promoting close, trusting relationships!” says Hartsfield.
Not everyone agrees that positive parenting is an improvement over the way our parents and parents’ parents parented. Tom Kersting, for instance, a New Jersey psychotherapist and parenting and relationship expert for Fox News. “I am a big advocate of old-school, positive parenting and it is something that I constantly promote on the national stage. What I am seeing in today’s generation is an over-indulgence and coddling of our children.
“Many parents believe this is how to show love and support for our children but it is backfiring. In the last year alone I have had more referrals of middle school age kids with anxiety disorders than the previous 15 years combined.”
Most of all, says Laurie Gray, founder and president of Socratic Parenting LLC, and the author of A Simple Guide to Socratic Parenting (Luminis Books / 2014), positive parenting tools yield more positive results over time, compared to old-fashioned techniques. Gray says the most common mistakes that parents still make are:
- Believing negative tools will result in positive long-term outcomes
- Basing their relationships with their children on control rather than connection
- Believing that they can be more successful in disciplining their children than they are at disciplining themselves
Tips! We’ve Got Tips!
Ready to dig in and get started on positive parenting your own children? Here are some tips from the experts:
Compliment the growing length of time between displays of negative behavior. “With children that have frequent problems, it may be difficult to find a behavior worthy of a compliment. In this case, consider complimenting the child when increasing periods of time pass without negative behaviors,” says Jared Heathman.
Catch your child being good. “Make it a point to catch your child being good. When you do, put just as much energy and effort into praising that behavior as you would criticizing or scolding for something you would not want the child to do,” says Sarah Vinson.
Include children in plans. “Create an environment in which children can thrive alongside their parents, e.g. include a toddler in making breakfast, have a teenager help plan the family vacation,” says Jesse McCarthy.
Listen to your child’s feelings and thoughts. “Listen to and acknowledge a child’s feelings and thoughts. For example, instead of blowing up on a ten year-old for failing a test, wait for him to share his own concerns (after all what human being, child or adult, enjoys failing?),” says McCarthy.
Set up rules with consequences. McCarthy suggests setting up rules that have natural and clear consequences. “For example, whereas with yesterday’s ‘punishment parenting’ dad might have just randomly spanked a child for not putting on his shoes, with today’s ‘positive parenting’ he would just remind his son that unfortunately they won’t be able to go to the park then, today.”
Work on challenges as a family. Sherlyn Pang Luedtke suggests regular family meetings to give “everyone a chance to speak and work through challenges together.”
For divorced parents: Always ask “Do I love my kids more than I hate or dislike my Ex?” “This will remind you that every decision impacts your children in ways that will affect them for months, and even years ahead,” says Rosalind Sedacca.
Point out the bright spots in a day. Cara Maksimow likes to do an exercise with kids called Fill Your BAG happy. “We identify bright spots during the day by spelling BAG and asking questions: B-What is the Best part of the day today? A-What did you Accomplish? G-What are you Grateful for? Use those as a starting point for a discussion on the good each night,” says Maksimow.
Hold your child accountable. “If your child gets a poor grade or gets in trouble, don’t bail him out or point the finger at the teacher or at someone else. Instead, let your child deal with the consequences; this is the only way children can learn from their mistakes,” says Tom Kersting.
Focus on the goal. Lee Uehara says that implementing positive parenting is about focusing on what you want kids to do. “For example, not ‘Don’t Run!’ but rather, ‘Walk slowly down the aisles of this store,’” says Uehara.