I recently did an exercise with the staff at my small nonprofit in which we shared appreciations for what we value in our colleagues. The people who work for me described me as someone who cares about their success, fosters their learning, and listens to their ideas.
That's the person I want to be, and to hear that I am succeeding meant so much to me. But it also made me question whether my children would describe me in the same way.
I want my kids to see me as someone who empowers them to be the best they can be, despite the authority role that I may hold over them. I want to be someone who makes them happy while also teaching them to make good decisions, not someone who yells, delivers ultimatums, or loses her temper.
Yet, as a parent, I am sometimes not the person I want to be. For some reason, I expect my kids to act as responsibly and respectfully as my colleagues. When they don’t, I have trouble maintaining my composure.
I believe in doing what works as a parent, but there are times when I just can’t figure out what works and I need some advice to better handle interactions with my kids. That’s why I’ve grabbed on to the concept of positive parenting (and variations on the theme like “peaceful parenting” or “gentle parenting”), and I’m holding on tightly.
It was a paragraph in Dr. Laura Markham’s book "Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids" that really hit me in the gut: “The most obvious sign that your relationship with your child needs some repair work is defiance. Children will always have priorities that differ from ours, but they want to feel good about their relationships with us, so they actually want to cooperate. When they don’t, it’s usually a signal of disconnection. So defiance isn’t a discipline problem, it’s a relationship problem.”
Defiance is a relationship problem? I sat back and thought about it. When does my six-year-old “misbehave?” When we've just gotten home at the end of the day and we're making dinner and telling him to play on his own so we can get things done; when we're rushing to get out the door in the morning and shooting orders at him from across the room (“Get your shoes on.” “I told you to get your shoes on!” “How many times have I told you to get your shoes on?!?”); or when we are trying to do a million chores on a Saturday morning and noon arrives before we do anything fun with him.
Markham encourages parents to fill their children’s “emotional bank account.” We were clearly over-drafting.
No wonder Dr. Markham’s website is called AhaParenting. I know instinctively that my children act out when they want attention from us, but I don’t think I realized how obvious that issue was until I started reading some of these theories.
Rebecca Eanes, in her book "Positive Parenting: An Essential Guide," explains the scientific importance of parent-child relationships and the impact that positive relationships have on our children, then sums it up in one sentence: “With strong connection,” she says, “comes more cooperation, and with that, more joy and peace in the family.”
As a family with two working parents, moments of joy and peace are always our goal and they are so sweet when we have them. Unfortunately they were not happening as frequently as we would like.
Markham and Eanes, and others with similar bends, lay out practices that will help us to first connect with our children, and then build a positive relationship from there. They remind us that we need to change our own behaviors – and often examine our own baggage – before we are able to move in this direction.
Once we've looked inwardly and gotten on the same page with our spouse, we can then move to seeing our children in a different light. They encourage us to see our children not as little adults but as growing humans who are still learning how to be in the world, and thus give them the necessary compassion and respect that comes with that realization. They encourage us to see ourselves as “emotional coaches” (Markham) and to “trade punishment for solutions” (Eanes).
This doesn't mean we should give our children everything they want, against our better judgment or the better judgment of our spouse. Eanes offers a careful explanation of the difference between “permissive parenting” and positive parenting. “Permissive parents do not set limits; positive parents do,” and, “the absence of punishment does not mean the absence of discipline.”
Likewise, Markham describes positive parenting as the difference between coaching and controlling: “When we think of ourselves as coaches, we know that we have only influence – so we work hard to stay respected and connected, so our child wants to ‘follow’ us.”
Positive parenting has helped me to better express who I want to be as a parent. I want to form strong, trusting relationships with my kids. I want my kids to behave well (when they are able) not because I threaten them or bribe them but because they know I have their best interests at heart; because they love me and want to please me.
When they're not able to behave, I want to help them understand their poor behavior and work through it, rather than punishing them with even more separation and damage to our relationship.
In some ways, the concept of positive parenting puts a name on things I've wanted to do and be for a long time. I wanted to be more understanding with my children, but I worried that I was being too permissive or that they would take advantage of me if I didn’t show a little “tough love.” I felt horrible leaving a screaming toddler to work out her own tantrum, but I had read that ignoring the behavior and not acknowledging it was the quickest way to eliminate tantrums. I felt like time-outs escalated poor behavior and made our son mad at us, but it seemed like it was the only way to go.
Positive parenting encourages more understanding, more connection, “time-ins” instead of “time-outs,” and demonstrates that approaching parenting this way will not lead to spoiled or selfish children.
I’m not going to claim that positive parenting is the answer to everything or an easy solution; it takes great levels of patience and dedication to anticipate challenges, manage our reactions, and stay peaceful as we interact with our children. I still find myself losing patience when my child dives into another tantrum. But I take a breath and a time-out if I need it, and I try again.
The more I try, the more I find that it's working. When I sit with my toddler and tell her that I am there to help when she is ready, her tantrums seem to end a little bit sooner. When I take time to play a game with my son after work, and before preparing dinner, he does things like offering to clear the table or taking a shower without complaint. These small changes are bringing more moments of laughter and less yelling.
Positive parenting is helping me to be the parent I want to be instead of the parent I didn’t like very much. I hope that the changes I'm making are helping my children to feel more loved and supported as they navigate this challenging world.
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