Positive parenting explained

Every parent wants what’s best for their child, but not everyone has the same teaching style. One of the most popular approaches is positive parenting, sometimes called positive discipline or loving guidance. Learn more about this way of seeing the parent child relationship your relationship with your child.


The fundamentals of a gentle approach

Quarrels, conflicts, tantrums . . . Ever thought about putting yourself in your toddler’s shoes to see things from a child’s perspective and handle difficult situations more effectively? This is the idea behind positive parenting.

By Nathalie Vallerand

Quarrels, conflicts, tantrums . . . Ever thought about putting yourself in your toddler’s shoes to see things from a child’s perspective and handle difficult situations more effectively? This is the idea behind positive parenting.

Last September, Livia, age 5, started attending nursery school. After a few days, she began pushing her four-year-old sister, Doralie, when she got home from school. “It was obvious that something was bothering her,” says her mother, Sandra. “After speaking with Livia, I learned that starting school, taking the bus, and being with a group all day was a lot of changes for her. She figured out what would help her feel better all on her own—playing by herself in her room after school.”

Positive parenting is mostly about listening to and respecting your child’s needs. “This approach teaches children to be more confident, to talk about their feelings, to communicate in a respectful way, and to acknowledge other people’s feelings,” says psychoeducator Marie-Hélène Chalifour. “It helps children learn to be independent and accountable for their actions.”

Positive parenting hinges on a body of research on the importance of empathy in communication. It is also based on the latest findings regarding brain development. “In young children, the frontal lobe—the part of the brain associated with reasoning, problem-solving, and impulse control—is still developing,” says Chalifour. “The same goes for the limbic system, which is responsible for managing emotions. Certain neural connections still need to be formed. The brain’s immaturity explains much of a child’s behaviour, and gentle guidance takes this into account.”

Teaching your toddler

“With positive parenting, parents focus on guiding their children as opposed to controlling or dominating them,” explains Marie-Hélène Gagné, a professor at Laval University’s School of Psychology who is studying the Triple P (positive parenting program) approach. “Children are a little like plants, and parents are like gardeners who do all they can to help them grow.”

According to positive parenting, children who misbehave are trying to express a need.

According to positive parenting, toddlers misbehave when they need something. “A three-year-old who hits another kid isn’t mean,” explains Gagné. “He’s frustrated and doesn’t know how to express himself. It’s up to the adult to teach him how to behave properly.” Positive parenting advocates trying to see things from your child’s point of view.

Fewer power struggles

Parents who use positive parenting are still in a position of authority, but they wield it gently. “When there’s a problem, they involve their child in finding a solution,” says Chalifour. “Parents want their children to learn accountability, not obey out of fear.”

This approach does away with punishment on the premise that it makes children feel bad and humiliated instead of teaching them proper behaviour. Positive parents implement a logical consequence or encourage some form of apology when their child misbehaves.

Some people feel that this parenting method is overly permissive. Chalifour disagrees. “Gentle parents don’t let their children run wild. There are rules. However, rather than confronting their children, they get them to cooperate.”

While not everyone thinks that positive parenting is the way to go, those who subscribe to this approach appear to be satisfied. According to a study of 295 parents who completed Triple P training, the approach made them feel more competent. “Parents also say they feel less stressed and that they notice a drop in their children’s problem behaviour,” adds Gagné.

The “perfect parent” trap?

Be warned: positive parenting is not a miracle solution! It may result in fewer tantrums and arguments, but these won’t disappear altogether. And, it won’t suddenly make you the world’s best parent. “Set the bar too high and you could wind up feeling incompetent and guilty,” warns psychoeducator Stéphanie Deslauriers. “In the long run, that can lead to depression or parental burnout.”

Parents need to know it’s okay to make mistakes. It’s normal to be irritable sometimes, to get fed up with constantly repeating yourself, or to lose your cool over your child’s behaviour. “Not being a positive parent 100% of the time does not make you a bad parent. What matters is that you believe in yourself and do your best. If you catch yourself yelling at your child, you can admit that you were in the wrong and say you’re sorry,” Deslauriers adds. “That way, you become a role model by demonstrating how to own up to mistakes.”

How to embrace positive parenting

7 effective strategies for practising positive parenting every day.

Here are 7 effective strategies for practising positive parenting every day.

1. Tell them what they can do and not what they can’t do

When you say “Don’t run” or “Don’t hit your brother,” you are telling your child what not to do rather than what to do. Since children’s brains still have trouble processing negatives, your little one may get confused. “If you tell your child not to run, his attention goes to the word run, which could make him think he should be running,” explains psychoeducator Marie-Hélène Chalifour. “Try telling him what’s okay to do. For instance, instead of saying, “No jumping on the sofa,” say, “Sofas are for sitting on.”

Another good idea is to focus on what’s most important. When there are too many rules, some are bound to be forgotten. Sonia, mother of three, uses visuals. “I made a sign listing our five house rules: share, speak calmly, pick up after yourself, sit down at the table to eat, and be respectful of others and objects. Each rule is associated with an image. When someone needs reminding of one of the rules, I just show them the image.”

2. Make them think

To teach your children about responsibility and keep them from digging in their heels, try asking questions instead of giving orders. This tip comes from Sandra, mother of two girls: “When they forget to clear their plates, I ask, ‘What are you supposed to do when you’re done eating?’ Knowing the answer—and doing it—makes them feel proud.” Getting children to think helps them feel grown up and responsible. They become more cooperative.

Another trick is to let your children make some of the smaller decisions, which satisfies their need to be independent and assert themselves. “When it’s bath time, you could ask your child if he wants you to carry him to the tub or if he’d prefer to hop to the bathroom like a frog,” suggests Chalifour.

3. Acknowledge their feelings

When a child is upset, it’s tempting to say, “Stop crying,” “It’s okay,” or “Calm down.” That’s what Sonia used to do. “Now, I try not to dismiss my children’s feelings. The other day, my daughter was sad about an argument she’d had with her friend over crayons. Instead of telling her that it wasn’t worth getting upset over, I said: ‘It’s a drag when someone takes your things; I know how you feel.’ She didn’t bring it up again.” Acknowledging what children are feeling is comforting because it makes them feel understood.

Showing empathy instead of saying no straight out can also curb frustration. For instance, you might tell your child, “I know you want a cookie, but it’s almost dinnertime. You can have one for dessert.”

4. Avoid labels

“It’s taking you a long time to get dressed. You’re slow!” It’s perfectly normal to find some of your child’s habits irritating, but it’s important not to put children down. In addition to hurting their feelings and damaging their self-esteem, you could be encouraging bad behaviour. Children who are told they are “annoying” will end up thinking it’s true and begin acting the way they’ve been labelled.

If your child makes a mess, describe things as you see them without judging or chastising. “If your child spills his glass of milk, for instance, say: ‘Oops, some milk spilled on the floor. What do we do when that happens?’” recommends Chalifour. You could then suggest cleaning things up together.

5. Opt for penance over punishment

When children misbehave, the ideal response is to give them a chance to make things right. Contrary to punishment, making amends teaches good behaviour. Children also feel better when they correct their own mistakes. “When one of my girls hurts the other’s feelings, I ask her to apologize by drawing a picture or doing something nice,” says Sandra.

Letting children experience natural or logical consequences is another way to teach them responsibility. Having cold hands when your son refuses to put on his mittens is an example of a natural consequence. Logical consequences are imposed by the parent. For instance, your daughter throws her toy, so you take her toy away.

6. Encourage good behaviour

Putting your energy toward encouraging good behaviour instead of trying to quash poor behaviour is another effective strategy. When praising good behaviour, describe what your child did right. For instance, you could say: “Good job! You put your PJs on all by yourself.” Marie-Hélène Gagné, a professor at Laval University’s School of Psychology, says that the more positive attention children get, the less they misbehave.

7. Don’t make assumptions

At the store, your two-year-old points to a stuffed animal, making you think she wants it. But what if she is just telling you that she knows what it is? “If you tell her no, she’ll insist, then start crying out of frustration,” writes psychologist Isabelle Filliozat in her book J’ai tout essayé. “You’re more likely to avoid a tantrum by saying, ‘Yes, it’s a stuffed animal. You like stuffed animals.’” Use the same approach with the threeyear-old who wants everything he sees. At his age, the verb “want” can mean a lot of things. For instance, “I want ice cream” could mean that he has spotted some ice cream, that he likes it, or that he remembers eating it yesterday.

If ever it feels as though your child is trying to push your buttons, remember that toddlers are not capable of manipulation. “He’s not trying to pick a fight,” says Chalifour. “If he’s pestering you, it’s because something isn’t right.” Try to find out what’s wrong: he may be hungry, thirsty, tired, antsy, or hot. Children sometimes act out when they need more positive attention. Chalifour suggests spending some quality time with your children every day, either playing, cuddling, or talking to them lovingly.

I’m about to lose it!
There may be times when you feel you’ve reached the end of your rope, but getting angry with your child is not the answer. You’ll only scare him and set a poor example. “Taking three deep breaths before doing anything else can help you keep your cool,” says Chalifour. “Instead of telling yourself that you can’t take it anymore, think of a positive moment that you shared with your child.” Remembering that your child isn’t trying to make you upset and that a child’s brain is still developing may also help you stay calm in tough situations.


Naître et grandir

Source: Naître et grandir magazine, March 2018
Research and copywriting: Nathalie Vallerand
Scientific review: Annie Goulet, psychologist


Photos: gettyimages/Tatyana Tomsickova, gettyimages/Steve Debenport