Positive Parenting: 2 Steps for Success

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

There are many facets of positive parenting, and it's nearly impossible to explain the entire philosophy in one post. Of course, philosophies are important, but concrete guidance for parents is also necessary to help facilitate successful positive change, which is why we have written Positive Parenting in Action.

If I were short on time and needed to explain positive parenting to someone, I think it can be done in 2 simple, basic steps, or ideas.

1.  Expect a lot from your child.

Positive parenting is not permissive parenting. I have high expectations regarding behavior, manners, helpfulness, cooperation, etc. High expectations are good for a child's esteem and character, as long as he is given the tools and knowledge of how to meet those expectations in a loving and respectful way. Falling into the permissive trap of not expecting much from your child for fear of breaking your connection or making him feel "bad" only leads to a child who doesn't expect much from himself. Of course, within the realm of this, we have to understand what is age appropriate for our children. We can't reasonably expect an 12-month-old to sit through an hour-long dinner or a 2-year-old to manage his emotions well all the time, but we can expect them to do what we know they are capable of.

It is a huge misconception that positive parents allow our children to run willy-nilly through restaurants and stores, never provide boundaries, and don't discipline our kids!

How do you get your child to meet your expectations without punishments or bribery? The key is in #2.

2. Let him know you believe him entirely capable of meeting those expectations. 

We know that a child's self-concept determines his behavior. We also know that self-concept is largely formed, in the early years, by his parents and caregivers. He sees himself the way you see him. What messages are you sending? I was out with my family over the weekend and overheard 2 parents in 2 different stores chatting with other adults in their child's presence. One parent called the child "mean" and other other parent said her's was a "wild child." How do you think those children are going to behave? Now I know sometimes parents say those things in jest, but if those children are constantly getting that message, they will come to believe that they are mean or wild. Give your children positive labels. "You are so helpful!" "You are kind!" "What a great big sister you are!"

"Cleaning up is a big job. I know you can handle it."
"I love how you say 'thank you'. You have good manners."
"You have a lot of homework? Well I know you'll crush it! I believe in you."

How you speak to them becomes their inner voice. I believe Peggy O'Mara said that.

For more on building a positive self-concept, click here.

What might this look like in action? What if your child still refuses to cooperate, even if you said you have faith in her that she will get it done?

Well, of course hearing the message once isn't going to take root. She needs daily affirmations that she is capable, good, loved, kind, enough.  And even if she does have a wonderful self-concept, she's still a human being. Let's not forget to allow for her humanity. I know that sounds like an absurd statement, but trust me, many parents don't allow for their children's humanity. If you ask her to clean her room and you know she is capable of doing so, yet she refuses, you have options. I'm not going to suggest you let her live with the mess. Some would suggest that, and it's reasonable if you can deal with messes, but I can't and I'm not going to get started down that path. It needs cleaned, she's capable of cleaning it, I expect it to get done. So what are my other options? I can offer to help her clean it. Offering help isn't a weakness. If I expect her to sometimes help me with my dishes, I can, in turn, lend a hand in helping her clean her room. Another option is to set a time limit on it. "You may finish your game first. I need the room cleaned up by 8 p.m." She's got things she wants to do. This isn't an emergency. We think if they don't jump up and obey us immediately, we've gone astray, but as long as she gets it done, it gets done, right? I can't tell you how many times I've put off the laundry until just before bed!

What about a toddler who bites his baby brother? Well, you know he isn't capable yet of controlling those impulses, but that doesn't mean you let him bite the baby. Once you check on the baby, take the toddler to a time in or a calm down corner and tell him, "I can't allow you to bite. Biting hurts. I know you would never want to hurt your brother. I'll help you." Notice how there was no "How could you be so mean!?" Instead, I told him that I know he'd never want to hurt his brother and that I would help him. He didn't want to hurt his brother. He got angry and acted on impulse. So now I'll help him learn how to manage his impulses. We'll talk about anger and strategies for dealing with it, and we'll talk about repairing the relationship with baby. It takes a lot of practice to get control of those impulses, but the more we reinforce their positive self-concept and give them tools they can use to handle themselves, the more successful they'll be.


For an in-depth look at the philosophy of positive parenting, please see these posts:

Positive Parenting: What, Why, How?

Positive Parenting is NOT Permissive Parenting

Nonpunitive Discipline ≠ Lazy Parenting

What's the Deal with Consequences

10 Things that are More Important than Discipline


  1. I am a first time parent to a 27 month old. I fully believe in positive parenting but sometimes I don't know what to say/do when my son hits. I know he can't control the impulse, but sometimes I can't catch his arm in time. I talk to him about his action, how it hurts, etc. but I wonder that he isn't old enough to absorb my words. Especially when he goes right back to hit again as soon as our time in is over. I could substitute hit for throwing toys as well. Is it simply repetition and he will understand with lots of time? Am I missing something?

  2. No, you're not missing anything. It takes time and repetition. My second son went through a hitting phase. He would hit constantly. If I could intervene before he hit, I would. If not, I'd talk to him about it or just redirect him (as there is no point in talking about it every single time). It took several months, but he did stop hitting. He'll get there!

  3. I feel so lost about this as well. We have been attempting to continue positive parenting for nearly 18 months. Prior to this, we spanked on rare occasions and did some time outs- but mostly tried to redirect and teach (so we were kind of here already). I guess what is confusing me is that I feel I have not been able to build a connection with my children (4.5 and 2.5) because when I ask for something to be done, they nearly always just say NO!!! (2 year old is copying I believe)

    And how do you get them to do it? I feel like everything I do is undermining the relationship even more. It comes down to "your room needs to be clean before we can go play" or whatever, and since there is always a carrot dangled, they are never doing it because they WANT to please me. I have read that they will want to please when the relationship is strong. It's like a vicious cycle that I can't seem to stop.

    Same with hitting, kicking, pushing, etc. I take him to his room and wait with him to calm down, then we often talk about how it is hurtful and come up with alternatives. He never uses the alternatives though. He just wants to hit. He wants to push and shove and hurt his little sister when he is mad. Or he wants me to notice.

    I also try to stay out of their business most of the time, but it's like kids only do what you don't want them to do. The office is off limits, so they are constantly trying to go in there and mess with the computers/printer (this happened an hour ago. So I carried him out, and stood there holding the doorknob. It became a power struggle and then he started to hit me. So I moved him, and he started crying and then it was time for quiet time. WTH?). I don't want them to dump their water on the table, but when I offer to go out with them to play in water/with water cups, they decline. I ask if he wants to put cups or plates on the table for dinner and he screams "NOTHING!" It's like he is already a teenager and doing everything in his might to object and point out that I am lame and have no say in the matter.

    I spend lots of time (too much?) with them trying to build trust in order to get some cooperation. But cooperation doesn't come. Then I don't know what I SHOULD do in order to keep things positive. I sometimes feel like I understand, but I haven't been able to get things to work. So now I just feel defeated, discouraged, and frankly, stupid. I read testimonials from other parents talking about how 2 months of positive parenting has changed their lives. I've been "studying" this for 18 months and don't feel that I have gotten anywhere...except maybe a little permissive because I don't know what else to do.

    (other examples, he demands I cut his eggs, stay with him in his room while he changes out of his peed in pj's, demands I stay at the top of the stairs so that he can be the first one down, etc. I don't accommodate [but I feel that he internalizes this into a struggle for power]. They don't really have "chores" as of yet, but we try to get them to help us clean up their toys, clear their plates, set the table. That's about it.)

    Again, I read stuff and think that this is so easy, then when I get bucked, I don't know how to turn it around. I don't know how to "make" them help, or what to do if they choose not to. And if it is a bad relationship in regards to being connected, I need to be pointed in the right direction to see how to improve that. Specifically what needs to be done to become better connected with mutual respect. Is that possible when I am always saying no? No you can't drive the van/hit your sister/rip apart my books/play on my phone/watch 12 hours of TV/eat 50 cookies/buy new toys/eat the neighbors junk food/sit with us in church....

    1. I'd like to use this question as a basis for another post - would that be ok?

    2. I haven't forgotten about you, just haven't had time to finish the post yet! I hope to get it published soon. Sorry about the delay.

  4. I have two questions using a couple of examples. 1) It seems that any limit can turn in to a power struggle. How do you prevent this? 2) It seems like following through on some limits can still reinforce "might it right" and encourage kids to hide their behavior.

    My 4.5 year old started to chase after my 2.5 year old this morning because he wanted the butter knife she was using to cut open her banana. I had to intervene for safety and got in between them while trying to explain that a) chasing with knives is not allowed because it is dangerous, and b) when you want something from someone, it is appropriate to ask/wait. He was so intent on getting the knife that I could not engage him at all during this time and I had to remove the knife and put it on the counter. He then started to climb to get it. I moved it on top of the fridge...which he tried to get....can you see the power struggle? I ended up carrying him to his room and sat with him until he calmed down enough to stop struggling over the knife. But, while we were in his room, he tried to hit and eventually got frustrated that I kept gently grabbing his hands before he made contact. He was also attempting to push me, and I would have to gently move him away (more power struggle...and my mind was screaming to me that this was totally unproductive.) I told him I would stay with him and I could tell he was upset and that I was not going to leave him alone with those big scary feelings.

    It also seems that situations like this, where I remove an object, encourage them to take from each other. This morning my 2.5 year old took a toy from the baby. I told her that I would not let her take her sisters toy, to which she replied, "I'm bigger so I can take the toy." I explained that taking toys hurts peoples feelings and that sometimes I have to take something to prevent someone from getting hurt or because certain activities/toys are for outside only.

    I've also started to decline to help with things that they should be able to do or can do, but don't want to. Examples are opening a banana. My 20 month old nephew can open his bananas, yet my 4.5 year old constantly asks me to do his for him. I've started to say, "I know you are capable" or "I know that you can do it!" It's not that I don't want to help, it's just that I have three kids, and where does it end? I found myself spending my whole day grabbing them forks, cutting eggs, moving their chairs, opening string cheese, etc and I don't think it did anything to build a positive self image...so I stopped. I try to encourage them and let them know they are so big, I know they can do those things....but they just tell me they can't. I even offer to show them if they need help. I'm meeting lots of resistance but holding my ground and keeping my mouth shut. It's almost like they know they can do those things so they want me to do it, but the things I don't want help with at the moment, like cooking pancakes over a hot griddle- they are clawing at me to help and get frustrated when I wont let them sit next to the counter and push each other next to a 300 degree pan.

    (sorry if I already sent this- they hit a key and I thought it got lost in cyberspace so I typed it again)

  5. I am so curious to hear the reply to your comments! My almost 5 year old has a hard time with his feelings. He gets frustrated and then angry. All his emotions turn to anger, and I am so lost as to how to help.

    1. Stella,
      What do you do when he gets frustrated? What is he getting frustrated over?

  6. To Simply Complex, I hope you saw the post Laura wrote in response to your question. Here it is: http://www.positive-parents.org/2013/02/the-following-comment-was-posted-on.html

    In response to your last post:
    1) It seems that any limit can turn in to a power struggle. How do you prevent this?

    You can't always prevent a power struggle, but you can disengage from it. It's not a struggle if you don't participate.

    2) It seems like following through on some limits can still reinforce "might it right" and encourage kids to hide their behavior.

    Hmm. I think you're overthinking this a bit, which is a common thing to do when you're trying to figure out a new paradigm. How long have you been practicing positive parenting? You have to follow through on limits and they need to see you as a leader. Sure, taking the knife from him might lead him to believe that "might makes right" at that moment, but the lessons you will teach him over time will teach him otherwise.

    In the scenario of taking the knife from him, I think you did everything right. Don't always expect him to be happy with your limits, even if show empathy. Put the knife out of reach and explain why, but you don't have to continue to soothe him over it. "I'm sorry you're upset. Knives are dangerous and I can't allow you to have it." End of story. What I've found sometimes is that when I continually try to soothe my kids through their upset, they drag it on and on. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying to not empathize, but I absolutely would have said to him, "I'm sorry you're upset, and I won't allow you to hit or push me. When you are calm and ready to be respectful, we'll play." Then I would have walked away. You can't always talk them out of their upset.

    As for saying "I'm bigger, so I can take the toy", again you did the right thing by explaining that you are the parent and therefore you have the authority to take away things when they are a danger. She may not "get it" right now and that's okay. Being positive doesn't mean you don't have the authority, it just means you are a gentle, kind authority. I tell my kids "Daddy and I are the leaders because we are your parents. We are all equally important in this family, but daddy and I have the final say."

    Your last paragraph is me to a T, and believe me, you are doing right by holding your ground now. If they are capable of doing it themselves, insist they do it. I thought that, by doing everything for my son, I was strengthening the attachment and that would eventually foster independence. Nope! I ended up with a 6 year old who couldn't put on his own shoes, bath himself, dress himself, get his own drink from the fridge, wipe himself, etc. I saw his self esteem suffer because he felt incapable of so many things. I, too, am now doing the same thing you're doing, and I wish I'd done it much sooner!

    I hope this helps you some. It sounds like you are doing everything right, you're just overthinking it. Have confidence in yourself; you're doing a great job!

  7. Stella, it sounds like he needs some emotional coaching. Check out kidlutions.com for a printable "feelings pack." I believe Dr. Gottman has written a book about raising an emotionally intelligent child that you may want to check out. I'm currently working on a social-emotional curriculum, but it will be a while before it's finished. Best wishes to you!

  8. Thank you for the sensible critique. II were just preparing to do some research about this. We got a grab book from our local library but I think I learned more from this post. I am very glad to see such great information being shared freely out there.
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