Here we explore the theory and practice of positive parenting to help you decide whether this style – or elements of it – might be right for you.
So what exactly is positive parenting?
Positive parenting can be a powerful approach (Seay et al, 2014). The idea is to focus on your child’s strengths rather than trying to correct their weaknesses (Waters et al, 2018). That’s why some people call it strength-based parenting.
The roots of positive parenting stem from the work of Austrian psychologist Alfred Alder in the 1900s. He believed that children have a real need to feel connected to those around them. When they are in a responsive and interactive environment, they thrive and are less likely to play up (Knox et al, 2013).
Often our natural default position, as a parent and a partner, is to nit-pick. It’s easy to focus on what your baby or toddler is doing wrong. But shifting your focus to their strengths is the blueprint of this parenting style. And the research shows it’s a more effective way to parent (Waters, 2017).
Blame nit-picking on our brains. We all have an in-built negativity bias – an ancient survival mechanism. This means we’re wired to focus on what’s wrong as a way to keep ourselves and our tribe safe (Waters, 2017).
Fast-forward to the present day and we’re also under social pressures. We’re keen to ‘fix’ our kids’ behaviours based on what we think is missing or lacking. This may be the way we were parented ourselves, so it might have become our default setting. But by learning how to shift our focus to our child’s strengths, we can override this negativity bias (Waters, 2017).
So how do I positively parent?
Positive parenting approaches can vary slightly but the central thought is to emphasise positive interactions (Hartwig et al, 2017). You recognise, reward and reinforce positive behaviours and impulses. You aim to show empathy and offer warmth and support. You also create an environment to make it easier for your child to behave cooperatively and constructively (Joussemet et al, 2008; Boeldt et al, 2012).
Psychologists define a strength as something your child does well, happily and often. This can range from being a good walker or talker, to character traits such as grit, curiosity, courage, humour and kindness (Waters, 2017). Having it in your mind to encourage your child’s unique personality, abilities, talents and skills can help them to flourish (Waters et al, 2018).
Here are some useful tips:
Try to get inside their head
Sympathise with how your child may be feeling (NSPCC, 2020). Their thoughts and behaviours might seem irrational or even naughty to us on the outside. But inside they’re trying to make sense of their experiences of the world and their needs. If we can take the time to understand, we can help them. Ask yourself: are they tired? Bored? Overwhelmed?
Catch children being good
How often do you focus on the mealtime where your child doesn’t eat, rather than the mealtime where they do? Good behaviour should not be taken for granted.
Be sure to praise your little one for doing well and staying on track. Evidence shows that young children are very responsive to praise. Rewarding them, even with a simple ‘well done’, has been shown to lead to fewer behavioural problems later down the line (Leijten at al, 2016).
For babies and toddlers, positive parenting often means distracting children from behaving in ways you don’t want (Gardner et al, 1999). You could try to pre-empt any conflicts by anticipating what might happen. Then employ a distraction technique before it does happen (Gardner et al, 1999).
So, you think your toddler is about to steal their cousin’s toy? Whisk them up or find a toy to divert their attention.
Think of yourself as their lawyer
Stick with us here. You don’t have to agree with their demands or behaviour but ask for their side of story and give it a fair hearing.
You could show them this by reasoning with them fairly, with empathy and constructively. Then you can help them find a positive solution to their problem. Think about how you’d like to be represented and treated. Be their ally.
It’s easy for us to be (a) distracted – we’re looking at you, phone, and (b) busy – we’re looking at you, housework. But reading aloud, having conversations, and playing with your child are the classic cornerstones of positive parenting (Weisleder et al, 2016; Mendelsohn et al, 2018).
Encourage these positive interactions together. Get down to their level and be a kid with them. And be available so they’ll come to you when something is wrong or they’re upset. Listening to them from a young age sets up a positive pattern for life (NSPCC, 2020).
Have a misdemeanour quota
Make sure the majority of your interactions are positive ones. Even if that means ignoring some of your child's wrongdoing. Clinical psychologist Timothy Cavell suggests a quota – considering priority misbehaviours to call out, and others to ignore (Cavell et al, 2013).
Feeling frazzled? Angry? Stressed?
It’s common sense that being angry might affect your ability to positively parent in that moment. But babies can pick up on other emotions like stress from a young age. Your stress and relationship tension makes them stressed too (Engert et al, 2014; Waters et al, 2014, 2017).
So, step away for a few deep breaths, or ask family or friends for support if your emotions are building up (NSPCC, 2020). For more tips, you could read our articles on how to look after your own wellbeing.
Is positive parenting right for me?
The research is extensive and compelling. Favourable outcomes for the child range from social, to emotional, to behavioural, to language, cognition and health benefits (Hartwig et al, 2017).
Studies show that using positive parenting strategies with babies and toddlers:
- improves social-emotional development and reduces disruptive behaviours, e.g. attention problems, hyperactivity, aggression, separation distress and externalising problems
- positively influences cognitive outcomes in later toddlerdom (at 18, 24 and 36 months) and gives them a better chance of higher educational achievement years later
- improves their ability to cope with stressful situations and their physical and mental effects
- leads to greater gains in imitation and play.
(Malmberg et al 2016; Weisleder et al, 2016; Mendelsohn et al, 2018)
Remember, as with all of these approaches, do what feels right for you. You might choose to adopt positive parenting wholeheartedly, or implement a few ideas from it.
You needn't feel under pressure to implement a raft of changes and set yourself up for a fall – no-one can positively parent 100% of the time. But perhaps try to flip the balance if you feel you need or want to.
This page was last reviewed in February 2022.
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Cavell TA, Harrist AW, Del Vecchio T. (2013) Working with parents of aggressive children: ten principles and the role of authoritative parenting. In: RE Larzelere, AS Morris and AH Harrist (eds): Authoritative Parenting: Synthesizing Nurturance and Discipline for Optimal Child Development. American Psychological Association, Washington D.C.
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