by Debra J. Green, LMFT
Children are such amazing individuals. They connect so well to their caregivers and want desperately to please. It can get confusing as parents though, when children so often fight for control. That need to be autonomous can yield frequent power struggles and subsequent feelings of frustration both for parents and children.
The idea of discipline within the realm of positive parenting is a means to guide children. We want to guide them to make good choices so that their behavior is positive and they feel confident and capable in the process. If discipline is defined only as punishment, then our children may behave initially because they fear being hurt, shamed or blamed. But eventually, they will feel bad about themselves. In the long run, children do better when they feel good about themselves and are encouraged to do better.
There are three named styles of parenting: Authoritative, Authoritarian, and Permissive. For the purposes of this Positive Parenting article, we will focus only on one style. Authoritative parents have a style of relating to their children in a kind and empathetic manner while providing the firm and appropriate structure for their children to grow safely. Parents’ limits and consequences are fair and consistent but they also are able to acknowledge and validate their children’s feelings. Within this authoritative parenting style, children have a voice and are treated with dignity and respect. At the same time, they are encouraged to take part in understanding the guidelines their parents set. For example, a child might feel mad and cry because a limit was set. The authoritative parent allows the child to experience the feeling while remaining clear about the limit. It is okay if children cry or are upset. Learning to tolerate and cope with those feelings lends to amazing growth toward their positive social-emotional health.
Part of using that voice and having a space to express their feelings, is for children to develop a sense of personal power. Although they need their parents for guidance, starting around toddlerhood, children need to explore their world beyond their parents. They also need to feel as though they can accomplish age appropriate tasks on their own. How many of you often hear your children say, “I do it”? If they have to fight for some independence, parents and children will end up in frequent power struggles. One solution is the give children the space to try, if time permits of course. If they have a difficult time, parents can offer to help but wait for their cue that they are ready to receive help. For example, your toddler wants to put on his shoe. You know he can’t but he really wants to. Allow him to try and offer to help if he needs it. Be supportive if he comes to you with the shoe and help him put it on. Or if your preschooler wants to write her name on Grandma’s card. You know her writing is not legible but you support her in trying. She will let you know if she needs help. Taking the time to do this can be hard to tolerate. Please consider staying away from comments such as “I told you it would be too hard”. Take measures to manage your frustration as a way to model patience for your child.
If you do end up in a power struggle, consider offering ‘forced choices’ as a way to encourage compliance. Offering children two choices that are within your guidelines gives them a sense of personal power while allowing you to remain the ultimate authority. This method will help your children feel independent as well as protect them from making decisions beyond their cognitive and emotional abilities. Being able to make that choice will encourage them to feel strong and proud. It will also lead to more compliance. Some examples of forced choices are: (1) “You can get into the car seat by yourself or I can put you in.”, (2) “You can lie on top of your bed or inside your bed, but you have to stay on your bed.”, (3) “You can wear the pink one or the yellow one but you need to wear long sleeves because it is cold outside.”, (4) “You can bring one toy in the car or no toys. Too many toys will be hard to carry.”
Sometimes at the beginning of using forced choices, your children might passively ignore you or actively argue with you. You can try these statements to positively enforce the choice: (1) “I will give you time, and count to 10 to make a choice, if you have trouble making the choice by yourself, I can make it for you.”, (2) Child offers 3rd, more desirable option. “That is not a choice. Let me repeat your two choices and then I will count to 10.”
Children will need guidance in many aspects of their daily routines. Another way to guide them positively is to use verbal and physical redirection. It is so easy to say, “NO!” but children need more information. The ultimate goals of redirection are to keep children safe, promote desirable behavior and compliance, reduce punishment, and promote learning and exploration. When you offer a verbal redirection, you tell a child that the behavior is dangerous or unacceptable. Next, you tell them what is acceptable. For example, (1) “Chairs are for sitting. If you would like to stand, please step onto the floor.”, (2) “That socket is dangerous to touch, let’s play with this toy over here instead.”, (3) “I see that you are having fun throwing your toy but you might break your toy or something else. Please keep your toy on the floor or I will put it away.” By offering this information, children know exactly what to expect and what not to expect while also learning the reason why they were not allowed. With physical redirection, you use the same verbal redirection but add the gentle physical prompts. For example, gently guide your child away from a dangerous object or gently hold his hand away if he tries to hit.
Lastly, it is a great idea to practice positive verbal phrasing any time you can think about it. Positive phrasing will lead to positive behavior. Here are some examples: Instead of “No Hitting.”, say, “Please use words to tell me you are upset.”, instead of “Stop Screaming!”, say, “I will help you once you use a quieter voice.”, and instead of “Stay out of the fridge.”, say, “If you would like food, please ask me first.”
To sum up this article on positive parenting, I want to say that your best parenting style is great. Parenting can be very challenging at times, especially we we feel stressed, tired, or overwhelmed. Please be kind to yourself and your spouse. As you open your mind to new ideas and techniques, you might find that you feel good about any changes you try to make. Change can be hard as it takes us away from what we are used to. Please give yourself time to integrate these new ideas of positive parenting and the changes you choose to make. Your children and other family members also need time to integrate. Using a positive parenting style might bring an additional sense of peace to your families.
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