Positive parenting lowers a child’s risk of behavioral and emotional problems, and it helps protect kids against the effects of toxic stress. But what, exactly, is positive parenting, and how should parents get started?
Positive parenting means slightly different things to different people. But the core idea might be summed up this way: Positive parenting emphasizes warm, positive, family interactions, and guides children by rewarding and reinforcing their better impulses.
The goal is to empathize with children, offer them affection and support, and create situations that make it easier for kids to behave cooperatively and constructively (e.g., Gardner et al 1999; Boeldt et al 2012).
The family environment becomes less stressful, and children learn to associate social interactions with positive emotions – with feeling listened to, respected, loved, and cared for. This, in turn, encourages kids to respond to others in a similarly friendly and respectful way. They see that it is beneficial to seek out socially acceptable solutions to their problems.
Moreover, by replacing negative attempts at control (e.g., yelling, nagging, or shaming) with positive guidance (e.g., an upbeat discussion of better options), parents may help kids develop stronger self-regulation skills and emotional well-being (Neppl et al 2020; Pinquart 2017; Olsen et al 2017).
In cultures around the world, child behavior problems are linked with parental coercion, threats, and physical punishment (Pinquart 2017; Pinquart 2020; Yun and Cui 2020). By contrast, kids are less likely to misbehave – or suffer from psychological troubles – if their parents show higher levels of warmth, kindness, and involvement (Rothenberg, Lansberg, Al-Hassan et al 2020; Rothenberg, Lansford, Bacchini et al 2020; Lansford et al 2018). In addition, positive parenting has been linked with the development of better language skills (Madigan et al 2019), and with lower rates of stress-related brain abnormalities (Whittle et al 2017).
Granted, these are correlations, not proof of causation. But there is also evidence that we can change child outcomes by altering the way we treat kids.
For example, studies show that children with conduct problems are more likely to improve if their parents abandon harsh discipline in favor of positive parenting techniques (Furlong et al 2012). In addition, experiments suggest that kids will experience emotional and behavioral improvements if their parents are trained in positive parenting (Cullum et al 2022; Havighurst et al 2022; Smit et al 2022).
There is also evidence that the approach works in the classroom. When middle school teachers have been coached to replace punitive discipline policies with empathy and supportive problem-solving, suspension rates were cut in half (Okonofua et al 2016).
And, as I explain in my article about boosting infant language development, babies developed stronger speaking skills after their parents were assigned to ignore disruptive behaviors and reinforce desirable behaviors with positive techniques (Garcia et al 2015 and Bagner et al 2016).
So how can we make it happen? Here are 10 tips for bringing out the best in your children.
Kids might drive us crazy. Their behavior might seem irrational or unjustified. But that’s the way things look on the outside.
On the inside, children are making choices that jibe with their experiences and perceptions of the world. Their behavior is motivated by legitimate needs. If we can get inside their heads, we can learn what these needs are, and address them.
So the next time you see misbehavior, ask yourself: Is the child tired? Bored? Craving attention? Is he feeling overwhelmed or threatened? Is she nursing a perceived injustice, or facing a temptation she doesn’t know how to resist?
Kids have a lot to learn, and, as I explain elsewhere, they are still developing self-control. We need to keep their developmental limitations in mind, and give them the benefit of the doubt.
What does it really mean to be empathic, supportive, constructive? It doesn’t mean you have to agree that a child’s demands are appropriate or reasonable. Sometimes they aren’t. Nor does it mean that you fail to enforce limits. Positive parenting isn’t the same thing as permissive parenting.
Instead, your objective to be the kind of arbitrator and mentor you’d want for yourself, if you were a child. Someone who is prepared to listen to your side of the story, and reassure you that you’ll get a fair-minded and sympathetic hearing. Someone who will reason with you, and use encouragement and good humor to steer you towards an acceptable solution to your problems.
When other people treat us this way – with sympathy, fairness, and diplomacy – it inspires feelings of friendliness and trust. It defuses stress, and makes it easier for us to recover from our negative emotions. Children benefit in similar ways.
For babies and toddlers, positive parenting often takes the form of distracting children from engaging in behavior that you don’t like.
Ideally, you anticipate and prevent trouble by taking pre-emptive action (e.g., Gardner et al 1999). For example, if you know that preschoolers will fight over a toy, keep it out of sight and provide the children with something else to do — something that won’t invite conflict.
If a child is already doing something undesirable, you take quick action to provide an alternative activity. For instance, if your toddler has gotten hold of a forbidden object (like Grandma’s heirloom vase), you calmly remove it and give your child something else to play with. Oops! That vase is not for you. But look at these fun pots and pans!
Distraction is useful for older kids, too. Siblings bickering on a road trip? It’s natural to be annoyed and shout at them to stop. But consider their side of things: They are stuck in a vehicle, restless and uncomfortable, and convinced they are victims of some sort of injustice.
Ordering them to stop isn’t very helpful by itself. They may be overwhelmed by feelings of outrage, confinement, or discomfort. They probably don’t know how to stop. If you actively engage them in a diversion – like a game of 20 questions – you make it easier for them to stop fighting.
Jokes and silliness can serve as excellent distractions (positive parenting tip #3). But they are also indispensable tools of diplomacy. You’ll probably inspire more cooperation from your kids if you communicate requests with humor, and transform work into play.
For instance, when your child leaves her dirty laundry lying around, you could vent your irritation and scold him or her. But you’ll likely get better results by making a game of it – encouraging your child to “feed the dirty laundry hamper,” or play a game of toss-the-laundry-into-the-basket.
As noted above, positive social interactions make for friendlier, more trusting family relationships, and they motivate kids to be cooperative. So it’s important to keep the balance of your interactions upbeat, even if your child is struggling with behavior problems.
How can you do this? Clinical psychologist Timothy Cavell suggests that you envision a kind of quota system – setting priorities about what misbehavior to call out, and what behavior to ignore – at least for now (Cavell et al 2015).
As your child’s behavior improves, you can start addressing the less serious problems. But from day to day, make sure that most of the communication between you is warm and pleasant – and not focused on your child’s mistakes or wrongdoing.
We shouldn’t expect kids to read our minds. Nor should we expect children to develop advanced moral reasoning skills — not if we don’t share our own reasoning.
So it’s important to engage kids in genuine, two-way conversations about our standards. The goal isn’t just to recite a set of rules, but rather to explain the rationale for the rules, and to address children’s questions and concerns.
This approach is sometimes called “inductive discipline,” and it’s a core principle of authoritative parenting, the style of child-rearing associated with the best child outcomes.
The trouble with “no” is that it can fuel resentment and resistance. Parental criticism can also trigger feelings of hopelessness, making kids feel they lack what it takes to improve.
So if your child wants to do something that’s out of the question, don’t be dismissive or condemnatory. Help your child find acceptable alternatives. For toddlers, this might mean offering a quick distraction. For teenagers, this might mean engaging in meaningful discussions and negotiations. Experiments suggest that adolescents are less likely than adults to learn from negative feedback — particularly if they don’t see any rewarding options available (Palminteri et al 2017).
Some people believe it’s wrong to praise or thank kids for staying on track. They feel that good behavior is something to be taken for granted. But the evidence argues strongly against this.
As noted above (positive parenting tip #7), adolescents may respond more readily to rewards than to punishments. And experiments on young children reveal them to be very responsive to praise. When parents were instructed to offer simple praise for their children’s good behavior (“Well done!”), the kids experienced fewer subsequent behavior problems (Leijten et al 2016).
Another crucial positive parenting tip is to provide what psychologists call “emotion coaching” — talking with kids about their feelings, and discussing helpful strategies for handling emotionally difficult situations.
By acting as an emotion coach, you reassure kids that you understand and respect them. You also provide them with the concrete support they need to develop strong self-regulation skills. Read more about emotion coaching in this Parenting Science article.
It’s easy to see how anger would undermine your efforts at positive parenting. But other negative emotions also pose a threat. For instance, as I explain in another article, even babies can recognize when we’re feeling stressed out, and the stress is contagious.
So before you interact with your child, take a moment to calm yourself down and get into the zone. It’s better to give yourself a time out than overreact to your child’s transgression. For help, see my evidence-based tips for coping with parenting stress.
Kids aren’t all alike. Some are much tougher to handle, and so parents need extra support. For more information, see my article about aggression in children, and these constructive, evidence-based tips for handling defiance and disruptive behavior.
In addition, check out this Parenting Science guide for teaching children to better understand the thoughts and feelings of other people, as well as my evidence-based activities for boosting children’s social skills.
Got a teenager? My article about the importance of active listening discusses key signals to send. And if it seems that your child doesn’t respect your authority, I recommend my article “Why kids rebel” for insights on encouraging cooperation.
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Content of “Positive parenting tips” last modified 11/25/2022. Portions of the text are derived from an earlier versions of this article, written by the same author.
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