“Positive Parenting” is a widely embraced approach to child rearing, sometimes also called positive discipline, that focuses on trying to understand the reasons children behave as they do and guiding them in ways that are positive and kind rather than punitive. If you enter the term in your search engine you will find a lot of websites, based in many English speaking countries, that offer various takes on positive parenting. You’ll also find several attempts to define it, some tracing its roots to a rebellion against behaviorism. Others trace its roots to Alfred Adler, an early 20th century psychotherapist who worked on ways to overcome an inferiority complex and find meaning in life, and to Rudolf Dreikers, a child psychologist who studied with Adler and went on to develop an approach that focused on the understanding the underlying motivation for children’s “misbehaviors.” Other takes on the term describe positive parenting as an approach that instills good values or even that builds positive brain functioning. These are spin-offs and extensions of the ideas. Recently, the term has also been linked to, and confused with, “positive psychology” which is unfortunate and very misleading. 1
Some first uses of the term “positive parenting”
So far as I know, the first person to use the term “positive parenting” in a popular way was pediatrician Alvin Eden in his regular advice column and his 1980 book, Positive Parenting: How to raise a healthier and happier child. Dr. Eden wrote a weekly column for American Baby and Family Weekly, taught at the New York University School of Medicine and maintained a large pediatric practice. He was writing for an audience of parents having children in the 1970s and early 1980s, a time marked by an enormous shift in social structure and the first era in which both mothers and fathers often worked outside the home. While he addressed the whole child and offered advice on physical, social and cognitive development, he was especially concerned with healthy emotional development.
His book was positive and respectful of parents too, reassuring them that there was nothing magical about child rearing and assuring them that they had all the requisite skills and intelligence to be good parents.
Eden’s central point is that it’s important to establish a “close, non-rejecting, stimulating, trusting, and responsive relationship” between parent and child during the first few years. He claims that if such a relationship is not established during this time, there may be detrimental emotional and intellectual effects down the line (p. xviii). He goes on to say that in addition to activities and learning experiences, children need to build self-confidence, a sense that they are capable of doing things. Eden advices that the way parents can help children build this confidence is by encouraging their child and by regularly telling their child they are proud of his or her achievements. He advises parents to share the joys of discoveries and accomplishments with their child and to remind their child at every opportunity that “you love him, are proud of him, and are happy to have him.”
The key to this early concept of “positive parenting” is building a loving relationship that abundantly expresses joy and pride. Eden also states that it’s vital for parents to have a basic understanding of children’s development, so that they know what to expect and when and can recognize what is typical behavior. I think this notion that it’s important to know something about children’s development is one of the important points of positive parenting approaches. (And of course, providing knowledge about human development is one of the goals of Insights For Parents.) The bulk of Eden’s book is a chapter-by-chapter overview of growth and development in 3-month, and later six-month, intervals.
Was this revolutionary? The overview of development was not. Identifying norms of development (behaviors and thoughts that typically occur at various age groups) dates back to the early 1900s and marks the beginning of developmental science. The best-selling book on child care in the 1950s and for about 50 years thereafter in its various revision, was Dr. Benjamin Spock’s “Baby and Child Care,” (first published in 1946). Spock was widely criticized by “specialists” for being too lenient. He is responsible for shifting the American way of child rearing from getting children onto a strict schedule for eating, sleeping, and other recurrent events to recognizing and honoring individual differences among children and responding to these differences rather than imposing arbitrary “one-size-fits-all” strategies. Spock also advocated kindness and trusting your intuitions as a parent. For example, he threw out the conventional advice of the time by encouraging parents to comfort their crying infant, rather than letting babies “cry it out” for fear of spoiling them. It was Spock who famously told parents, “You know more than you think you do.”
Thus both Spock and Eden were encouraging parents to interact with and enjoy their children. Both presented detailed information on developmental milestones and offered suggestions for activities.
⇒ What Alvin Eden introduced with his notion of “positive parenting” was an emphasis on the relationship between parents and child and the role parents can have in supporting their children’s emotional development, especially their self-esteem. Crucially, that relationship should be confidence building, positive, happy and trusting. It was not punitive and did not involve shaming or diminishing a child in any way.
The same year that Eden’s book appeared, another influential book was published, this one by Jacob Azerrad called, Anyone can Have a happy Child: The simple secret of positive parenting. It’s a little gem. Azerrad is a clinical child psychologist who spent several decades counseling families. He presents a very important message in this book: that parents help their children most when they focus on good behavior and praise it. These are the “teachable moments,” when children are most likely to learn and feel good about doing valued things. He also stresses that misbehavior is not the symptom of a problem or a disorder. He explains how undesirable behaviors may prevail because parents and other caregivers unwittingly encourage them by paying so much attention to them—by talking about them with the child (a sort of parent as therapist approach) or by continually reprimanding the child for them (giving the child attention for doing something undesirable rather than for doing something desirable). Azerrad provides numerous simple examples showing how shifting attention from discussing and focusing on undesirable acts to noticing and commenting positively on valued ones leads children to confidence, good self-esteem, good behavior and a general feeling of happiness and contentment. The many examples are of familiar and typical situations such as “sibling rivalry,” fussy eating, complaining about not having friends, not liking teachers, having repetitive bad dreams, being uncooperative and so on.
Thus Azerrad’s idea is that positive parenting should center on these “teachable moments,” when you find your child doing something good. It’s the opposite of attending to undesirable behavior. I don’t hear much about “teachable moments” these days, which I think is unfortunate. It’s an approach that should be a part of skillful (and positive) parenting.
The Growth of Positive Parenting as a philosophy and practice in education and child rearing
A surprising number of books and materials have appeared in the last 20 or so years that offer information, advice, support and strategies for positive parenting. They don’t all refer to the same thing and I think it is challenging for parents to know which sites and resources offer accurate and helpful information and which may not. Two of the better known specialists are Jane Nelson and Laura Markham; both are well informed and helpful.
Jane Nelson, who holds a doctor of education degree, began publishing a series of books in 1999/2000 on “positive discipline,” initially directing these to single parents, step families and day care providers. Several other books are written specifically for teachers. She has also written for parents and her website offers courses and other programs for educators and parents.
Dr. Laura Markham is a clinical psychologist and runs a popular website, newsletters and other materials centering on “peaceful parenting,” which centers on building a warm respectful parent-child relationship and using a positive approach to guiding behavior. Her book, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to stop yelling and start connecting, addresses both the importance of managing your own stress and of creating a loving, non-controlling, relationship with your child. It also presents accurate developmental theory.
Other approaches that share many core values with positive parenting
Many scholars and practitioners working today have values and ideas that align with the key tenets of positive parenting, including my own work at Insights For Parents. Some other theories you may be familiar with that share some core values are “attachment parenting” and “attuned parenting.”
UCLA psychiatrist, researcher and professor of medicine Daniel Siegel, M.D. has written several books for parents with co-author Tina Bryson, including one on discipline that offers thoughtful advice and some positive approaches, though he and Bryson do not use the term “positive parenting” and their work emphasizes brain development, attachment and positive psychology. Their approach to discipline centers on having a thoughtful strategy rather than impulsively reacting to misbehavior, recognizing the emotions that tend to ratchet up difficult behavior, and the importance of connecting with children before you try to guide them. Some of the information Siegel and Bryson offer is about brain development and the ways human brains respond, which is a different level of information than knowing about age typical development. (Markham and I both also stress the importance of knowing about brain development.)
Sometimes trying to master “positive parenting” can seem overwhelming
There are numerous other websites, most offering workshops, programs, parenting skills courses, workbooks and other materials. There are books offering positive parenting strategies for hundreds, and even a thousand (Yikes, really!!), “specific situations.” A lot of this can feel daunting and discouraging. It can leave parents feeling they have failed or don’t know how to do things. Many parents I have talked with feel they need to carry around a book so they know how to respond (if only their child would just do what the child in the book does.) You’ll find the most important “take aways” in the next section.
How to use this information: Key Insights about Positive Parenting
If I could offer a little reassurance, I’d like to invoke Dr. Spock’s kind words: trust yourself, you know more than you think you do. These are the key insights from positive parenting:
♥ Parenting is a relationship, more than a set of skills
♥ Children thrive when they are treated with respect and their behavior is guided with encouragement for what is skillful rather than punishment for what is not. (Interact Respectfully)
♥ Use teachable moments and coach your child rather than trying to control your child (Set- Up Success)
♥ It’s important to have a basic understanding of human development and to know a little about what is typical of children as they move through various phases of maturation.
♥ A wise way to guide a child is by being empathetic, imagining things from your child’s perspective and responding to his or her needs and level of understanding at the time.
~ Anne Dunlea, Ph.D. ~
1 Positive Psychology is a new branch of psychology, emerging in the late 1990s. The term is often credited to Martin Seligman, then president of the American Psychological Association, whose keynote address at the 1998 annual meeting centered on it. Psychology has a long history of studying what is difficult and challenging for people, as well as what is typical of people at different times in life. A stunning shift came when a few researchers began to ask, What makes people flourish? What makes life meaningful? Why do some people thrive, have great resilience and so on? In other words, looking at positive experiences rather than difficult experiences. In the ensuing two decades positive psychology has grown rapidly and is highly interdisciplinary, drawing together thinking and research from neuroscience, cognitive science, biology, medicine, and a number of other fields in addition to psychology. While positive parenting approaches may help support children to build positive qualities or feel good about themselves rather than feeling shamed or disrespected or misunderstood, it is quite distinct from positive psychology as a science.
Alvin, E. (1980). Positive Parenting: How to raise a healthier and happier child from birth to three years). New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company. (ISBN 0-672-52662-X)
Azerrad, J. (1980). Anyone can Have a happy Child: The simple secret of positive parenting. New York: M. Evans and Company, Inc. (ISBN 0-87131-141-0)
Markham, L. (2012). Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to stop yelling and start connecting.New York: Penguin Group. (ISBN 978-0-399-16028-8)
Siegel, D. and Bryson, T. ( 2016 ). No-Drama Discipline: The whole brain way to calm the chaos and nurture your child’s developing mind. New York: Bantam Books. (ISBN 978-0-345-54806)