To me, “Positive Parenting” isn’t a set of instructions to follow or a club to join and especially not a contest to enter. It’s a philosophy of parenting centered around one concept – Respect.
The First Rule for Positive Parenting:
Treat everyone in every situation with respect.
The Second Rule for Positive Parenting:
When in doubt, see the first rule.
There is, of course, a lot more to be said. I think the first thing is understanding what respect means and what it looks like. The dictionary definition describes it as deep admiration for someone (or something) based on their abilities, qualities, or achievements. Respect is therefore earned, as you can not force someone else to admire you. Expecting certain behaviors from others based solely on the effect you can have on them is fear based control, not earning respect. You can not “demand respect” only fear.
In its simplest form, respect is treating others the way you would like to be treated. Honor feelings, boundaries, and needs. Provide assistance not criticism. Ask instead of demanding. Build up instead of belittling. (Some specific actions and starter phrases are listed later in the post.)
For many, this may be a new concept. Parents and authority figures have respect solely from the position they hold and children are expected to concede without fail. Parents are in control and have the responsibility of ensuring the child’s behaviors are acceptable. Children are not allowed to ‘win’ lest they think they have power in the relationship. Parents are not their children’s friends.
It’s easy to see how this arrangement developed – when your well-being was tied to pleasing whomever was in power, whether it was a feudal lord, religious leader, or invading army, you tried to please them to survive. Humans have a need for autonomy and feeling deprived of control, you controlled what was less powerful. Children are perfect for that. They’re weaker, dependent on you for everything at first, and look up to you. They grew up with the same lack of autonomy and in turn, controlled whatever was weaker.
If this approach has been working for so long, why bother changing it? I would argue that it no longer works. It served us well when we had feudal lords (as a rule, not an exception) but we know more now and have more personal freedom. Parents can only control their children physically as long as they’re smaller and psychologically as long the risk outweighs the benefit. One only has to visit a college campus to see what happens when ‘children’ no longer fear consequences from their parents.
There is also the risk of the parent escalating punishments to the point of abuse to attempt regaining control of the child’s behavior. While this isn’t a risk for every family, as long as our culture promotes this approach the risk of abuse remains a relevant topic.
We have so much to gain by changing our paradigm, as well. A child treated with respect automatically learns how to be respectful. There are fewer conflicts, less need for discipline/punishment, and higher emotional intelligence. (1) EI has been determined more important than IQ, by a wide margin, for academic and professional success. (2,3,4)
I’m with you, but how do I do it?
Before I get to that, the biggest reservation I see in parents is fear of giving the child too much power in the relationship. See yourself as your child’s guide in this world, there to help show him the ropes and keep him out of trouble. When a child is given real autonomy on things that matter to him, he does not need to resist or be defiant. When he trusts that you have his best interests in mind, he will be more likely to follow you when he desires something else.
Respectful communication is non-violent and seeks connection, not separation. It is assertive, not aggressive. It is always appropriate, but sometimes challenging, if you did not grow up being spoken to in a respectful manner.
There are two high level approaches I take:
- Would I want someone to say or do that to me?
- Would I say or do that to another adult?
Of course, use language your child understands and speak at a pace that allows him to hear, understand, and decide to act. Toddlers typically understand only a few ‘relational’ words, such as on, over, under, behind, near or far. Until around preschool, and strongly dependent on the child, the child may not be able to follow multiple steps or a complex step, such as “get ready for bed” which contains “wash your face, then brush your teeth, then comb your hair, then put on jammies and get in bed.”
If your small child doesn’t seem cooperative, check first to make sure you chunk down processes into individual actions first. “It’s time for bed. Let’s wash your face. Please get a washcloth.” Then allow the child time to respond. It may take several minutes for a very young child to change focus and choose to take action. Once the task at hand is completed, state the next one. If your microwave takes too long, this might seem painful to you. It was for me. Hang in there, it gets better. You can practice yogic breathing while you wait…
You can file the next one under pedantic, but while we’re on communicating tasks that need to be done, only make requests if compliance is optional. Asking, “Would you please use your inside voice?” offers the child a choice to say yes or no. In some cultures, this is considered polite, and your child will pick up on this convention. While they are still thinking literally, make requirements as statements, “Please use your inside voice.” Many people seem to add “ok?” to the end of a statement without realizing it, which has the same effect as making the request optional.
If you find yourself thinking your child ‘never listens’, make sure that what he’s hearing is what you intend. Also pay attention to your patterns – do you mostly issue commands, ask a lot questions, or have a balance of directives, queries, and cooperative communications? [And somewhat related, how much of the child’s day is spent doing what someone else wants? The fewer items that are on the non-optional list, the higher the cooperation. My daughter’s fashion choices are not my preference, but, after much soul-searching, I’ve let that go as a priority. We also let her argue her point and sometimes change our mind. When it’s really important, we’re not starting off rebellious and resentful.]
Try not to talk over your child, unless that is family pattern. What some people consider interrupting, others consider collaborative. The idea is to allow your child to voice his thoughts to point he considers having successfully communicated.
Just about every child I’ve ever met started talking non-stop around 4 or 5, especially when there was a visitor. My headstrong daughter discovered that we listen until she finished and decided to see how long she could talk one night, to avoid going to bed. Let me just say she will not have any challenges with creativity. Or performing on-stage. We give her plenty of notice now and don’t engage her, no matter how much she talks (except for going potty. She’s flummoxed us on that one…)
One of our responsibilities as a guide is to teach societal expectations, though, so at point we will have to interrupt and let our child know it’s no longer her turn to talk. One of the best approaches I’ve seen is pause your conversation, give the child your full attention and say “I really want to hear what you have to say. I’m talking right now and I’ll check back with you when I’m done.” It takes me about 5 seconds to say that, and as long as I go back later, she won’t feel that she’s missing out on my attention. No one I’ve talked to after using this technique was upset over the delay, since she was no longer trying to talk over us.
Lest you think our child is eagerly compliant even most of the time (or that we’re delusional and self-congratulatory), there comes a time, at least once a day, where our agendas conflict and I, as the parent and guide, have to set a limit and enforce it. Maybe surprisingly, I’m not going to mention consequences here. If I were talking to another adult, I wouldn’t start counting or threatening, I’d try to convince that person to act willingly.
“Is there another way we could get to the car? Hop? Walk backwards? Race?”
“Do you want to wash your feet or your hair first?”
“What ideas do you have for getting all the toys picked up before dinner?”
“I’m not willing to let you take the car with older friends. Do you have any proposals?”
“We’ll stay out 10 minutes longer if you will wash the potatoes when we get back. Deal?”
“I made a commitment to get to work on time. I need your help getting in the seat so I can keep that commitment. (My commitments to you are just as important to me to keep.)”
So what if all that still doesn’t work? State what you expect and what action you will or will not take based on the outcome.(5)
“I want to leave the park in 15 minutes. If it takes longer, there won’t be time to watch any TV before dinner.”
“Any dirty clothes that are in the hamper by 3pm will be washed. If something you want isn’t in there by then, I won’t wash it until the next laundry day.”
“We need to leave in 3 minutes. If your shoes are not on by then, I will carry you to the car.”
“The bats need to stay below shoulder level. I will put them up for the rest of the day the next time.”
But wait! Aren’t these consequences? Well, yes, in the sense that it’s a consequence you won’t have many friends if you’re rude and inconsiderate. When you’re assertive, and not aggressive, the other person is not put on the spot and can save face by cooperating. If they choose not to, you do what you need to do to take care of you. You are doing for you not to them.
Your child may not be happy with your decision, but as long as it wasn’t delivered with hostility or designed to punish him, he will believe you’re on his side. Your job is not to control or manipulate your child, just take care of your own needs. Since you can only control your own behavior (ultimately), this is about your choice in response to their response. (to the assertive statement (hey, nothing happens in a vacuum))
It’s not uncommon to feel uncomfortable speaking assertively at first. Women, especially, aren’t empowered to be upfront with their desires and needs. As you practice, you’ll find it easier and you’ll be modeling communication skills to your kids, making it easier for them to let you know what they need.
5. The Dance Of Anger by Harriet Lerner, Ph.D.