Parenting is one of those topics that everybody is an expert on, regardless whether they have children, or any experience (or even theoretical knowledge) about children. As soon as you announce that you are expecting, the advice and ‘opinion sharing’ begin. This doesn’t stop once the baby arrives; if anything, it gets worse. People dash out advice and opinions on everything – feeding, sleeping, teething, nappy changing, crying, development, and behaviour. Very often, the advice given is contradictory and many parents end up being even more confused than before and almost completely detached from their own instincts.
So, what is one to do? Where do you turn and how do you know what is the right thing for you and your child? Since, let’s face it, parenting isn’t easy, especially nowadays when most of us have lost that ‘village of support’ to help us on the way. My answer would be – look inside you. At the start of every new course that I run, I ask parents to fast forward the years and imagine their children turning up on their doorsteps for Christmas lunch in 25 years. Stop and ask yourselves: what kind of person would you like to see standing there? What sort of characteristics and social skills would you like your children to have as adults? Take your time to think about it because the answers you come up with are your guide to parenting your children. In other words, if you would like your children, for example, to be kind, patient, generous, confident, to have empathy, to be inquisitive and active, you need to examine whether your actions as parents help your children become the person you want them to become.
In my experience, parents almost 100% agree on what should be on this list. We want our children to grow up to be good people, to be trustworthy, compassionate, loyal, to speak their minds and be able to stand up for themselves, to show initiative and argue their case. How is it then that most of the mainstream, widespread parenting practices and advice advocate using parenting techniques and tools that directly discourage development of these skills? Ask yourselves, what are our children learning while we are shouting at them not to shout? How are we encouraging our children to become strong, confident, independent people when we very often belittle them and don’t take them seriously? How are our children to learn to recognise and listen to their emotions and feelings when we constantly tell them what they should feel (“How can you say something like that?! Of course you don’t hate your brother!” or “No, you are not hungry, you’ve just eaten.”) If kids don’t see the desirable behaviour and skills, they most probably won’t learn them. Children will have even less chances of acquiring these skills if they don’t experience and live them.
Unfortunately, instead of finding methods to nurture the skills and characteristics we want for our children, modern society has inflicted on us the idea that parenting is a battleground and we, as parents, need to be in control all the time, punishing kids when they stray away from the rules we have created. This is why, we are told, toddlers need to be ‘tamed’, a developmentally completely normal stage of kids’ life is called ‘terrible twos’, children of all ages are being referred to as being ‘difficult’ and are publicly shamed and humiliated on social media for… for simply being children.
I am writing this article because I, as a parent of two, have been down the ‘my way or the highway’ route of the mainstream parenting advice and I’ve got lost. I have also nearly lost my attachment with my elder daughter while repeatedly forcing her to stay on the naughty step when she was three. Luckily for my family, I discovered gentler ways of parenting, the ones that help me empower my children to become those responsible, kind, caring, capable adults from my wish list. This is why one of my passions is to share my knowledge and experience and spread the word about gentle parenting in general and positive discipline specifically.
How can I be sure that gentle, positive method of parenting can help you with supporting your children to grow into thoughtful, accomplished, sympathetic adults (while you stay sane)? The short answer is: I can’t be sure in each and every case. Long answer is: I can’t because the success of the positive discipline requires shifting mind-sets of parents, not trying to change kids. And that is a challenge because you’d probably be going against your own experience of being a child and how your parents parented you, as well as against what the majority of parents nowadays do and are told to do. In addition, changing the way you think and act takes time; positive discipline is not a quick fix, is not a fad. And that is precisely why parents like me use and advocate it – because it has a holistic approach to our relationships with our children; because it is about changing slowly together while being respectful to individual differences; because it promotes the sense of connection none of us can thrive without.
But let me be a bit more specific as to why you might want to choose positive discipline. Firstly, positive discipline relies on recent scientific research, specifically neuroscience. It takes into account how the brain develops and from this it draws conclusions on what is developmentally appropriate behaviour.
Furthermore, it focuses on which parenting practices encourage optimal brain development (how what we do affects our children’s brains) and psychological development (how our parenting affects what sort of people our children will become). This is why positive discipline is effective long-term: it considers what the child is thinking, feeling, learning and deciding about themselves and their world, and what they need to do to survive and thrive. For example, if a child misbehaves and gets punished for it, one of the decisions they could be making about themselves and the world is “I must be a bad person. I can’t rely on my parents to help me without hurting me. I am on my own. The world is a scary place.”
Positive discipline reminds us that children are children, not small adults. It seems that too often we forget this and judge our children’s behaviour against very high moral standards – ones even we wouldn’t be able to satisfy. Thus our children aren’t allowed to have a bad day, complain, and feel angry, jealous, sad, whereas parents are allowed to moan, slam doors, swear and shout when they are frustrated. On top of that, children are the ones in this relationship that actually don’t have brains developed enough to allow them to control themselves and behave appropriately (the so-called ‘human’ part of the brain, responsible for logical thinking and ability to control one’s emotions and behaviour amongst other things, doesn’t fully mature until age 25 years!) And yet we put a lot of pressure and expectations on children to do things or behave in a way that is not developmentally appropriate for them. We are setting them up to fail and when they do, we get angry, disappointed and short tempered with them. This in return causes more regression in our child’s behaviour because they feel under attack (and who can blame them with a massive adult with a mighty voice towering over them) and triggers a fight-or- flight response in their brain – not a good place to be.
Positive discipline teaches parents what to expect from children at different developmental stages, how to calm themselves when children push their buttons, how to help their children calm down and move away from this fight-or- flight response, how to empower children to learn from mistakes they make.
If you are intrigued and would like to find out more, I will be writing more articles that will address specific parenting issues and will include techniques and tools for dealing with them. There are many positive discipline tools – this is because every child is different, every parent is different, the same tool that works in the morning doesn’t work in the evening and so on. The goal is to have your parenting toolbox full so that you can then pick and choose the tool that works for you, your children, the situation you are in. To start with, go back to the beginning of this article and create that ‘wish list’ of characteristics and social skills you’d like your children to have. Pin it somewhere visible. Next time when you have a ‘run in’ with your child, look at the list and think about whether your response to their behaviour made your children become closer to the list. Or did you move them further away?
And if you have any specific questions or topics you’d like me to address, please let me know – and I will do my best.
Positive Discipline is a programme designed to teach children and young people to become responsible, respectful and resourceful members of their communities. Based on the Positive Discipline books by Dr Jane Nelsen, Lynn Lott, et all, it teaches important social and life skills in a way that is respectful and encouraging for both children and adults. Information presented in this article was based on Positive Discipline and gentle parenting publications, including:
- Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen
- Parenting from the Inside Out by Dr Dan Siegel and Mary Hartzell
- Teaching Parenting the Positive Discipline Way by Lynn Lott and Jane Nelsen
- The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Proven Strategies to Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind by Dr Tina Payne Bryson and Dr Dan Siegel
- The Science of Parenting by Margot Sunderland
Marijana Filipovic-Carter is a mum of two and a Positive Discipline Parent Educator. She runs courses and workshops for parents and other childcare providers; she also offers individual support to parents via skype, phone or email. To find out more about what Marijana can do for you, please visit www.pdparentingsolutions.org . You can also like her Facebook page to join Positive Discipline virtual community https://www.facebook.com/pdparentingsolutions/