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. Discover this way of looking at the relationship with your child.


The fundamentals of a gentle approach

Quarrels, conflicts, tantrums . . . Ever thought about looking at things from your child’s perspective so you could handle difficult situations more effectively? This is the idea behind positive parenting.

By Nathalie Vallerand

Quarrels, conflicts, tantrums . . . Ever thought about looking at things from your child’s perspective so you could handle difficult situations more effectively? This is the idea behind positive parenting.

Livia, aged 5, recently started kindergarten. After a few days, she started pushing her 4-year-old sister, Doralie, on her way home from school. “It was obvious that something was bothering her,” says her mother, Sandra. “After talking to her, I realized that between starting school, taking the bus, and spending all day with other kids, she was dealing with a lot of changes all at once. 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, talk about their feelings, communicate in a respectful way, and acknowledge other people’s feelings,” says psychoeducator Marie-Hélène Chalifour. “They also learn how to be more independent and take responsibility for their actions.”

Positive parenting is backed by a body of research on the importance of empathy in communication. It also draws on the latest breakthroughs in brain development. “In young children, 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 haven’t been formed yet. The brain’s immaturity explains many behaviours we see in children, and positive parenting takes this into account.

Guiding your little one as they grow

“With positive parenting, parents seek to guide their children rather than control or dominate them,” explains Marie-Hélène Gagné, a full professor at Université Laval’s School of Psychology who is studying the Triple P – Positive Parenting Program. “Children are a little like plants, and parents are like gardeners who do their best to help them grow.

According to positive parenting, children act out when they are trying to express a need.

According to positive parenting, there is a need behind every “bad” behaviour. “If a 3-year-old hits another child, that doesn’t mean they’re a bad kid,” explains Gagné. “They’re frustrated and don’t know how to communicate it. It’s the adult’s job to teach them how to express their feelings in a healthy way.” Positive parenting suggests trying to see things from your child’s point of view. When your little one is misbehaving, take a moment to ask yourself why they might be acting that way.

Fewer power struggles

Parents who practise positive parenting still have authority, but they wield it gently. “When there’s a problem, they work with their child to find a solution,” says Chalifour. “The goal is to have the child take responsibility for their actions rather than obey their parent out of fear.”

This approach rejects punishment on the premise that it makes children feel bad and ashamed instead of teaching them proper behaviour. Instead, when a child misbehaves, the parent will impose a logical consequence or encourage their child to make amends.

Some people feel this approach is too permissive. Gagné disagrees. “Positive parents don’t let their kids run wild. There are still rules. The difference is that instead of scolding their children, they get them to cooperate.”

While not everyone thinks that positive parenting is the way to go, parents who follow the approach are pleased with the results. According to a study of 295 parents who completed Triple P training, the approach made them feel more competent. “Parents also report less stress and a reduction in problem behaviour in their children,” says Gagné.

Because positive parenting promotes the development of a healthy attachment bond between parent and child, it often helps parents raise more cooperative children.

The “perfect parent” trap

Of course, it’s important to remember that positive parenting isn’t a miracle solution. The approach helps reduce tantrums and arguments—not eliminate them altogether. And you won’t become the world’s best parent overnight! “If you set the bar too high, you could wind up feeling incompetent and guilty,” warns psychoeducator Stéphanie Deslauriers.

Parents have to give themselves permission to make mistakes. It’s normal to be irritable sometimes, to get fed up with constantly repeating yourself, or to react strongly to your child’s behaviour. “The occasional slip-up doesn’t make you a bad parent,” says Deslauriers. “The important thing is to believe in yourself and do your best. If you catch yourself yelling at your child, you can admit that you were wrong and apologize. Use the opportunity to model how to take responsibility for your mistakes.” By applying the principles of positive parenting, parents can grow alongside their children and find more joy in parenthood.

How to embrace positive parenting

Here are seven recommended strategies for practising positive parenting every day.

Here are seven recommended strategies for practising positive parenting every day.

1. Focus on giving positive instructions

Phrases like “Don’t run” or “Don’t hit your brother” tell your child what they shouldn’t do without helping them understand what they should do. “When you tell a child not to run, they just hear the word run, which may actually encourage them to do just that,” explains psychoeducator Marie-Hélène Chalifour. Indeed, young children can have a hard time following rules because inhibition, the brain mechanism involved in refraining from prohibited behaviour, is very slow to develop.

By contrast, positive instructions direct a child’s attention toward the desired behaviour. This makes the instructions easier to follow and, therefore, more effective. For example, instead of telling your child “Don’t jump on the sofa,” say “We sit on the sofa.”

It’s also a good idea to limit yourself to a few essential rules. When there are too many rules, children tend to forget them. Here’s how Sonia, a mother of three, puts this idea into practice: “I’ve put up a sign in our home that lists our five household rules: I share, I speak calmly, I put things away, I sit down when I eat, and I respect people and objects. Each one is represented by an image. When my kids need to be reminded of a rule, I show them the corresponding image.”

2. Encourage your child to think

To empower your child and reduce opposition, try asking them questions instead of giving orders. This is a trick that Sandra uses with her two little girls. “When they forget to leave their plates on the counter after dinner, I ask them, ‘What do we do when we’re finished eating?’ They like coming up with the answer and don’t mind going back for their plates.” When your child reflects on their actions, they feel grown-up and responsible, which in turn makes them more cooperative.

Another trick is to let your child make small decisions to satisfy their need for autonomy and affirmation. “At bath time, for example, you can ask if they want you to carry them to the bathroom or if they’d rather hop there like a frog,” suggests Marie-Hélène Chalifour.

3. Acknowledge your child’s emotions

When a child experiences a difficult emotion, it’s tempting to say “Stop crying,” “There’s no need to get upset,” or “Calm down.” That’s what Sonia used to do. “Now I make an effort not to deny my children’s emotions,” she says. “The other day, my daughter was sad after arguing with a friend over pencils. Instead of telling her it was no big deal, I said, ‘I know, it’s not nice when someone takes your things. I understand.’ She never mentioned it again.” Acknowledging a child’s emotions is comforting because it makes them feel understood.

Empathizing with your child instead of simply saying no can also curb their frustration. For example, you could say, “I know you really want a cookie, but it’s almost dinnertime. You can have one for dessert.”

4. Avoid using labels

“You’re a slowpoke—it takes so long for you to get dressed!” It’s normal to get annoyed with your child sometimes, but it’s important not to belittle them. Besides hurting their feelings and self-esteem, putting them down can reinforce bad behaviour. A child who’s constantly told they’re a brat will eventually internalize this idea and behave accordingly.

If your child makes a mess, try to describe the situation without judging them or assigning blame. “If they spill a glass of milk, for instance, you can say, ‘Oops, there’s milk on the floor. What do we do when that happens?’” says Chalifour. You can then ask them to help you clean up.

5. Choose amends over punishment

If your child does something they shouldn’t have, the best thing to do is encourage them to make amends. Unlike punishment, atonement teaches kids the appropriate way to behave. Correcting their mistake also helps them feel better. “When one of my daughters hurts her sister’s feelings, I ask her to apologize by making a drawing or doing something nice,” says Sandra.

Natural or logical consequences are other ways to give children a sense of responsibility. An example of a natural consequence would be letting your child’s hands get a little cold if they refuse to put on mittens. A logical consequence is up to the parent to impose. If your child throws a toy, for example, you might decide to take it away.

6. Encourage good behaviour

Putting more energy toward reinforcing your child’s good behaviours—and focusing less on trying to rein in their disruptive ones—can also be effective. Give them specific praise when they do something good, such as “Great job, you put your pajamas on all by yourself!” According to Prof. Marie-Hélène Gagné, who teaches at Université Laval’s School of Psychology, the more positive attention a child receives, the less disruptive they’ll be.

7. Don’t presume intentions

If your 2-year-old points to a stuffed animal at the store, you might automatically assume they want to buy it. But what if they’re just trying to tell you they know what animal it is? “If you tell them they can’t have it, they’ll keep pointing and then start to cry because you don’t understand,” writes psychologist Isabelle Filliozat in her book J’ai tout essayé. You’re more likely to avoid a tantrum if you say, “That’s right, it’s a dog! You love dogs.” The same advice applies to 3-year-olds who seem to want everything. At this age, want can mean many things. For example, “I want ice cream” may mean that your child sees ice cream, likes ice cream, or simply remembers eating some yesterday.

If you start to think your child is intentionally trying to push your buttons, remember that young children are incapable of being manipulative. “They’re not trying to get on your nerves,” says Chalifour. “If they’re bothering you, something’s wrong. Focus on figuring out what it is. Your child may be hungry, thirsty, or hot, or they could be feeling tired or restless.

Sometimes children misbehave because they lack positive attention. Chalifour recommends setting aside time to play with your child, hug them, and tell them you love them every day.

I’m going to explode!
There may be times when you feel like you’re at the end of your rope, but lashing out at your child is not the solution. This will not only scare them but also set a bad example. “It often helps to stop and take three deep breaths,” says Marie-Hélène Chalifour. “Instead of telling yourself you can’t take it anymore, think of a happy memory with your child.” Reminding yourself that your child isn’t trying to upset you on purpose and that their brain is still developing can also help you stay calm in difficult situations.
In addition, take the time to reflect on why your child’s behaviour makes you so mad. Do you have unrealistic expectations for yourself or your child? Does the situation trigger a deep fear or remind you of something from your own childhood? Asking yourself these kinds of questions may help you adopt a gentler approach.
Things to keep in mind
  • Positive parenting encourages parents to put themselves in their child’s shoes to understand them better.
  • This approach helps parents educate their kids by guiding rather than controlling them.
  • Positive parenting favours atonement and cooperation over punishment.
Naître et grandir

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

Updated: August 2023

Photos: gettyimages/Tatyana Tomsickova, gettyimages/Steve Debenport


Positive parenting sites


  • Miller, M. Découvrir la parentalité positive : pour être parent du cœur. Éditions du Trécarré, 2019, 216 pp.
  • Lindgren, P. Krantz. Développer l’estime de soi de son enfant : les fruits d’une éducation bienveillante. Éditions Eyrolles, 2017, 192 pp.
  • Gagné, M.-H., and C. Bacque-Dion. Effets positifs du programme Triple P – Pratiques Parentales Positives chez des familles québécoises. Université Laval, Collection Phare, 2018. jefar.ulaval.ca/triple-p
  • Filliozat, I. J’ai tout essayé! Éditions Marabout, 2013, 252 pp.
  • Deslauriers, S. Le bonheur d’être un parent imparfait. Guy Saint-Jean Éditeur, 2017, 192 pp.
  • Valet, G.-M. Les 101 règles d’or de l’éducation bienveillante. Éditions Larousse, 2016, 208 pp.
  • Filliozat, I. Comprendre et éduquer son enfant : les outils concrets de la parentalité positive pour transformer votre quotidien. Éditions Marabout, 2022, 269 pp.