The Science Behind Discipline: 7 Tips to Keep in Mind to Modify Your Child’s Behavior

A child learns about acceptable and unacceptable behavior by observing the people around him/her. What lessons can you learn from behavior modification?

Your 7-year-old daughter won’t brush her teeth when told and says “I’ll do it in five minutes
Your 3-year-old daughter throws tantrums every time she doesn’t get her way
Your 10-year-old son switches on his tablet when you tell him “no more video games for the night
Your 4-year-old daughter refuses to eat her breakfast because you put bananas in her cereal and she “doesn’t feel like bananas today”.
Your 8-year-old son has watched too much TV. You ask him to turn it off to which he replies “no”.
Do these scenarios sound familiar?
Discipline is one of the greatest and most common challenges parents face.
This explains why the quest to predict, and thus control, human behavior has continued to receive much attention over the years.
In 1905, Thorndike came to the following conclusion: “responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation, and responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation”. Other studies have come to similar conclusions:

  • Positive reinforcement helps produce desired behavior.
  • Negative reinforcement reduces undesirable behavior.
  • Overall, children exposed to aggressive models are more likely to use physical and verbal aggression.
  • Children are more likely to imitate behavior from those they perceive to be similar to themselves (same gender). For instance, boys are more likely to become more aggressive when they start school if other boys in their class exhibit aggressive behavior.
  • A child learns by observing the consequences of other’s behavior: If a girl sees that her older sister’s negative behavior goes unnoticed, she is likely to reproduce the same behavior if this behavior appeals to her (jumping on the sofa, refusing to listen to instructions, throwing tantrums, being a picky eater, etc.).

In other words, a child learns about acceptable and unacceptable behavior by observing the people around him/her (parents, relatives, teachers, friends, TV personalities, etc.)
What lessons can you learn from behavior modification?

Success breeds success

Make it a habit to, “catch your child being good” and offering positive reinforcement (for instance by praising his/her behavior or effort) is likely to lead him/her to repeat the behavior.
There is scientific evidence that the “carrot and stick” approach in which good behavior is rewarded (positive reinforcement) and negative conditions are removed is effective in teaching your child about appropriate behavior. Rewarding good behavior, therefore makes your child more likely to repeat that behavior.

What can you do?

Focus on good behavior. Teach your child to view him/herself as a “good child.” Let your child overhear you praise his behavior.

Have clear expectations

Some studies have found that parents’ expectations and behavior largely determine how children behave in childhood years and beyond.

What you say matters

Telling your child, “I want you to be good,” is way too vague for a child. What does being good mean? Get specific: “I want you to share your LEGO bricks with your sister.”
Another example: telling your son, “You can play video games once your homework is done,” can lead to conflict when you ask him to stop. It can feel like you’re taking away his “hard-earned benefits.” To avoid this, be specific: “You can play video games for 30 minutes once your homework is done.”
Being clear on your behavioral priorities also makes it easier to modify behavior.
What are your absolute priorities when it comes to behavior? What are you willing to let slide?

Use relevant consequences

Consequences can only work if they are age-appropriate and relevant. “Grounding for a month,” does nothing more than increase your child’s resentment towards you.
Be clear about your expectations and clearer about the consequences. Warn your child, then apply the consequences: “If I have to ask you one more time to turn down the volume, I’ll put off  the TV.” Be one hundred percent consistent.
When possible, consequences should be as closely related to the misbehavior as possible: “If you ride your bike without your helmet, you won’t be able to play with your bike for a week.”

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step

Modifying behavior is no easy task. It helps to take small steps.
It’s much easier to focus on one specific behavior you would like to change, then move on to another when your objectives are met.

Punish or reward immediately after specific behavior

Evidence suggests that you are more likely to succeed if you punish or reward immediately after the behavior you want to suppress or reinforce is exhibited. Let your child know the reasons for the positive or negative reinforcement.

Praise sparingly

When your child does a good deed, praise the effort “you did a great job”, not the child “you’re so clever”. Give praise where praise is due.
Evidence suggests that verbal praise can be effective in reinforcing positive behavior.
However, there is proof that praising children without thought can go very, very wrong.  
According to Mueller & Dweck, inappropriate praise can affect children’s mindsets and lead them to avoid challenges. Inappropriate praise can also lead children to associate praise with failure or to become immune to praise.

Keep an eye on your child’s models

We learned many things about our son the first time his best friend came home for a play date: they acted exactly the same, spoke with the same Southern French accent and used the same expressions.
According to the behaviorist theory, children identify a number of models with whom they identify (TV personalities, parents, siblings, friends, classmates, relatives) then imitate those models. This is why it’s important to know who your child is hanging out with.
It’s just as important to keep an eye on what he/she is actually watching.
Studies on television and video violence have consistently found that violent shows affect how children think and act: children exposed to violent shows are more likely to behave aggressively, be fearful and show less empathy.

What can you do?

  • Monitor what your child is actually watching.
  • Determine where and for how long TV can be watched.
  • Allow your child to watch current news only if you are available to explain any disturbing information.
  • Ban violent programs even if your child hates you for it – he/she will thank you later!

Behavior modification can only work if you are realistic about your expectations and make a consistent effort to modify misbehavior.

Actionable Steps

  • Is your child often “acting out”? Observe his/her models. How well do you know your child’s friends or the influences in his/her life? Spend some time together this week and find out.
  • How well do you know the programs your child watches? Watch at least one of his/her favorite shows together this week. Watch him/her play his/her favorite video games.
  • Honestly assess how you convey instructions. Do you communicate clearly? Are you aware of your expectations? Is your child always aware of what is expected of him/her?

I’d love to know what’s working for you! Let me know in the comments below.

Five things dysfunctional parents teach their kids (by omission)

Being raised by neglectful parents has its upsides, I guess. I had to learn these things on my own and it made me who I am.

I come from a hugely dysfunctional family, who will probably stop speaking to me after reading this, but instead of being a mess, I am organized, flexible, and capable. So don’t tell me dysfunction breeds incompetence.
When I was just ten years old, I babysat kids all the time and no one thought I was too young. I got those kids to bed on time and cleaned up the kitchen before the parents came home. When was the last time your babysitter did that?
As a mother of two and a teacher, I’ve been seeing a disturbing quality in kids – they can’t manage their own lives. We could blame the usual suspects, screen time or helicopter parenting, but I think we should consider being a bit more selfish as parents.
As an old therapist of mine once said, “Let’s blame this all on your parents and try to figure out what you’re going to do now.”  I’d like to share the five things I had to learn on my own because my parents weren’t able to help me. 

It’s your homework

My parents never asked me if my homework was done. I don’t think it even occurred to them. It was my job. They had enough to do managing the liquor supply, fighting with each other, and getting ready to go out. So, I did my homework and got it in on time.
I re-did my homework if I needed to. I didn’t tell my parents how it was going. It was my business. We may have talked about current events and reading books during dinner, but we didn’t rehash my homework. They just didn’t care about it.

Amuse yourself

I can’t think of a single time my parents played a game with me. They were grown-ups and we were children. We met around the dinner table and occasionally for an outing. We played Monopoly with our siblings and our friends. No adult intervened if one of us got angry and threw the game across the room when he lost.
When boredom really kicked in, we read. There was no shortage of books in our house and no one cared which ones we read. I read incredibly inappropriate books like “Fear of Flying” and “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” when I was just eleven, We called that, “Education.”

Save your money

If my parents remembered to give us an allowance, we were psyched. We raced out to Woolworth’s and agonized over the perfect thing to buy. Usually, it was something we could lord over our siblings. My parents had lots of money, they just didn’t dole it out for everything we wanted.
I think this was less a result of good parenting and more because they didn’t feel like paying for my stuff, but it worked. When I wanted a car, my dad made me pay for half. He also made me pay for my driver’s ed. and insurance.
Every kid I know gets a car when they get their driver’s license. I can’t help but wonder if they are missing out on the feeling of pride after hours of mowing lawns or babysitting kids to have earned the money themselves.

Do the dishes

After dinner each night, my parents refilled their scotch and sodas before heading into the library to watch TV. They didn’t even clear their own plates, that was our job and, though we fought about it incessantly, it got done.
We had three interchangeable jobs: setting the table, clearing and loading the dishwasher, and hand washing the pots, pans, and knives. We threw food out the window of our NYC apartment. We sprayed each other with the kitchen faucet sprayer. We kicked each other and yelled. My parents watched TV and drank their drinks. Not an ideal situation, but my kitchen is generally spotless now.

Manage your time

When all is said and done, having narcissistic parents means you have to pay attention to where you need to be and what you need to be doing. Nobody is waking you up on time. My mother did make us breakfast every single morning, but she did not notice what time it was. She was not saying, “go get your stuff, it’s time for school.”
So I watch the clock and I’m on time. In fact, I’m often early. I think it’s a residual effect of having to pay close attention when I was younger.
You don’t need to get your kid’s stuff accomplished and in on time. They aren’t learning anything if you do. Should you just pour yourself a drink and hope no one hits each other, or just grab that clicker and watch Jeopardy while your kids are doing the dishes? Well…
The five characteristics above are necessary for a person’s success and they are not learned by forcing a young person to obey. You can’t do it for them, parents. Let it go.

5 Ways Acting Like a Dad Will Make You a Rock Star Mom

At some point in our parenting journey, I stopped bitching at my husband to be more like me as a parent and started learning from him instead.

Admit it. You’re jealous. The jealousy runs deep, and you’ve often wondered what he’s got that you haven’t got. Is it the effortless and adventurous personality he exudes? Or maybe it’s his confidence. 
No, I’m not talking about the life-of-the-party guy or the popular co-worker, who always has a good story to tell. I’m talking about dads.
Dads march to the beat of their own drum. And I love it. But I didn’t fully understand it at first. Coming home to a chaotic shitstorm as my husband plays with the kids, seemingly unaware of the mess he’s made of the house or the 10 different ways this game of indoor tag could go wrong, used to set me off. And he would get an earful.
But at some point in our parenting journey, I stopped bitching at him to be more like me as a parent and started learning from him instead. As if an episode of National Geographic, I’ve watched dads from afar in their natural environment. And here’s what I have observed:  

Dads think best case scenario

When a kid asks to try something new, dads seem to be much better at saying yes. Moms tend to think about what could go wrong, whereas dads think about how things will go right.
As a new parent, my knee-jerk reaction was “No.” Maybe I wasn’t confident about how a situation would play out. Or maybe I wasn’t sure my kid’s skill level was up to the challenge. I’d ask myself, “Could this end up in tears (for the kid or me)?” I was asking the wrong question.
Dads expect a positive outcome and adjust if things go south. I find myself saying yes much more, and my anxiety about what-if scenarios has decreased immensely. As I test out this Dad approach, I find Im more at ease and can celebrate the experience instead of worrying about things that haven’t happened.

Dads go with the flow

Dads don’t plan the day in advance, scroll through Pinterest for kid activities, or check the weather ahead of time. They just make the best of what’s in front of them. They think on their toes and come up with imaginative, kid-led activities.
Their first instinct is to pull the mattress off the bed and use it as a wrestling mat. While I may lean towards a more planned out day, I no longer hyper-schedule every waking moment with organized activities. It’s fun to let the kids lead the way and enjoy their unlimited and wild imagination.

Dads have fashion freedom

Getting kids dressed equals a battle for Mom-me. One child refuses to stop playing, while the other has an opinion about every single article of clothing they may or may not put on for the day. It’s maddening.
When dad’s in charge, everything gets simplified. They either stay in their PJs all day or run around half naked. On occasion, I’ve come home to kids in bib overalls and Birthday suits. Not only has dad shaved off 30 minutes of his day, he avoided a battle, and the kids are happy.
Now that’s some Dadness I can get behind.

Dads see past the shit

I admire a dad’s ability to let shit go. When I ask my husband for a rundown of his day with the kids, he almost always says, “It went great.” No complaining, no negativity.
We all know he didn’t get through it without a meltdown or two. But he focuses on the fun parts and dismisses those shitty my-kid-is-an-asshole moments.
This skill is still a work in progress for me, but hey – baby steps.

Dads parent guilt-free

I don’t often hear dads second guessing their parenting decisions. They make the best choice in that moment and roll with it. That doesn’t mean they don’t learn from their mistakes. They just don’t stew on them or feel guilty about them. And they certainly don’t give a shit about what other parents might think about their decisions. 
Sure, maybe serving bread, and only bread, for dinner three nights in a row isn’t the best choice, but the kids are fed and a quick meal means more time to spend together. And yes, we can all agree that kids need a good night’s rest. But dads know that neither kids nor parents will remember the times the kids went to bed on time. What we will remember is that time we played flashlight tag in the dark until 10 p.m.
Do I wish my husband could keep the house from imploding in a matter of minutes? Sure. But I see the strengths he brings to the parenting table, and I’m determined to incorporate more of them in my day-to-day. I will say yes more and go with the flow, let go of anxiety and see the joy in the day instead of fixating on frustrations.
So the next time you feel overwhelmed, lost, or just need some parent inspiration, embrace your inner Dad and see what happens.

Be Honest With Your Child About the Tough Stuff

No matter how stable your family is, there will probably come a time when you need to have a tough conversation with your kid.

No matter how stable your family is, there will probably come a time when you need to have a tough conversation with your kid. An Aunt is diagnosed with cancer. A beloved pet dies. As parents, we struggle with how much to explain and whether or not to bring it up at all. We wonder if our kids will understand.

I have one friend whose son had cancer. She and her husband chose to be honest with their other children. Another friend has a husband who is HIV+ and whose viral load is approaching full-blown AIDS. They still haven’t told their pre-teen daughter. Personally, I think they’re making a mistake.

I’ve had my share of difficult talks with my five-year-old, from telling him about my divorce to explaining that he doesn’t have a grandmother on my side because my mother died. But by far the most difficult talks have been those related to his father’s disease.

My ex-husband has primary-progressive multiple sclerosis. As his disease has worsened, so has his ability to walk. At kindergarten orientation, he trailed his hand along the lockers, the school walls, and the backs of chairs for balance. He leaned against bookcases for support. I noticed that the tips of his shoes were scuffed and worn bare from falling.

Due to a combination of pride, toxic masculinity, and denial, he refuses to use any of the canes multiple doctors have given him. In fact, he left them behind when he moved out of our house. He still won’t install hand controls in his car and instead uses his legs to manipulate the pedals, even though his legs frequently spasm. Ask anyone who knows him well and they’ll tell you his disease is worsening. Yet not according to him. That dynamic plays out in his relationship to our son.

During the first week of kindergarten, my son’s teacher sent me an email requesting that I come in and talk to her about some concerns she had about C. I groaned. Whose kid gets in trouble the very first week of school? I couldn’t wait two days to find out what she wanted to talk about, so I emailed her back and asked her to explain. She told me that he’d been telling kids that his daddy was going to die soon.

At five years old, my son can see that his father is different from other dads. I’ve trained him from a young age not to grab our legs walking up stairs, or run too far ahead on the sidewalk, or pull on us because his daddy might fall over. While he can see the differences, he can’t make sense of them quite yet.

When my ex-husband falls on the ice or has to hold onto things for support, C interprets his father’s claims that nothing is wrong in the worst possible manner: Obviously, he’s hiding something awful from C and must be dying.

When deciding how to handle difficult conversations with children, I now come down on the side of being honest and upfront. If not told the whole truth, some kids – like mine – fill in the worst possible interpretation. Recently, I watched this play out again.

After two days stuck inside due to snow, I’d loaded my son into the car and taken him to Como Conservatory. This sprawling iron building houses plants from the rainforest and other tropical climes in rooms muggy with heat – the perfect antidote to a cold Minnesota winter. Running from one room to the next, C passed a man sitting at a table with a frog in a terrarium and a frog’s skeleton on display.

“What’s that?” he asked, pointing at the skeleton.

“It’s a frog’s skeleton. See how long their bones are?” The volunteer pointed out the jointed limbs.

C tilted his head. “Did someone kill the frog to get its skeleton?”

“No, no, no,” the man shook his head. “It was already dead.”

“Oh, okay.” He looked up at me with the same big blue eyes that stole my heart the first time I held him in my arms. Then he said, “Mommy, I want Daddy to die in the next five days.”

It had been a few months since hed made comments about his father dying, and Id thought we were over this phase. I forced a weak smile for the shocked volunteer and hustled C onto the next exhibit.

If something big, like cancer or MS, exists in your childs life, expect to have the death conversation more than once. They might ask the same questions several times, and over a period of time. Part of childhood is making sense of the world around them, and while you may wish it wasn’t the case, death, too, is part of their world.

Later that day, in the conservatory, I sat down on a bench and pulled C into my arms. “You know that your daddy has a disease, right?” I asked him.

He nodded solemnly. “Yes, that’s why we park in handicapped.”

“Uh-huh. It’s hard for him to walk very far. Do you remember what disease he has?”

He shook his head no, and I explained multiple sclerosis to him again. “But he’s not going to die from it, honey. It just makes life a little harder.”


I don’t know how much C understood, and I’ll probably have to go over it all with him again. My ex doesn’t like to talk about it and shrugs off or avoids questions. I try to walk a delicate line between being honest with my son and not ticking him off.

Ultimately, I value creating an open environment for discussion in favor of my ex’s possible anger. In cases of divorce, therapist Kathleen Matthews, LICSW, recommends parents communicate openly and tell each other these sorts of discussions have taken place. She also advises, “I would want to let the child know that I was going to be sharing what they said (if they are over eight years old usually) so they don’t feel betrayed.”

Children are sensitive souls, who pick up and notice more than one might assume. If not allowed to ask questions and express their emotions honestly, the stories they tell themselves to make sense of the world may grow to epic and awful proportions. If you explain a situation simply and in an age appropriate manner, they’re capable of grasping a great deal.

My son knows the term ‘synapse,’ and I’ve used sugar packets and creamers at a restaurant to explain nerve endings and pathways. A little creativity may be necessary, but most parents have plenty of that.

Truly, honesty is the best policy.

How to Help Our Kids Get Unstuck

Arming ourselves with alternative perspectives on the uncomfortable, frustrating, or disappointing situations that arise can turn outcomes around.

Just like you and I, our children get stuck in emotional situations.

My eight-year-old son recently found himself stuck during his weekly extra-curricular swimming class. I first noticed the problem when he jumped out of the pool mid-class and ran over to me in tears. Apparently, he was sad and embarrassed for having come in last place during the warm-ups.

I did my best to encourage him to get back in the water and remind him there was really no competition to get upset about. He was making a mountain out of a molehill. When the same issue came up two more times in a row, I knew this was something I had to focus on and deal with. I wasn’t quite sure what to do or where to turn. Why was he getting so upset over this? It was just a class!

A week later, on the car ride over to the pool, as I anticipated this issue arising again, it hit me.

Just like my son, I get stuck on things. Of course, the situations I get stuck on are different from his, but the idea of getting stuck is one and the same whether you’re an adult or a child. My kids and I have a method we use to get unstuck, but the truth of the matter is, getting unstuck is not enough.

Preparing oneself to anticipate the possibility of getting stuck in the first place (especially with recurring triggers that exist in our lives) can not only help us get out of a sticky place, it can also help us prevent an unfortunate event from erupting.

Personally, I arm myself with “considerations” or fresh alternatives to the stuck situations in my life, such as gratitude, giving the other person the benefit of the doubt, and realizing that people who trigger me are not necessarily out to purposefully hurt me.

So, I thought, why not teach my child to arm himself with considerations just like I do? Why not come up with a list of fresh perspectives or alternatives that he can fall upon before he goes into the pool, rather than try to encourage my son to think rationally when he’s treading water in an emotional pool of tears?

Quite familiar with getting unstuck, he was open to the idea. With a little help from me, this is the list we came up with:

  • I can consider I’m new to this swimming class and most, if not all of the other kids, have been swimming for years.
  • I can consider I don’t always come in last. Sometimes, yes, but not always.
  • I can consider there’s not really a problem with coming in last. It doesn’t feel great, but there’s not really a problem with it.
  • I can consider the coach purposefully placed me in the stronger group of the two groups because I am one of the stronger swimmers. So, even if I am last sometimes, I’m still stronger than the kids in the other group.
  • I can consider I’m here to learn how to be a better swimmer, and I can compete against myself, rather than compare myself to others.
  • I can consider I’m getting stronger everyday.
  • I can consider it’s normal to feel frustrated.

I was proud of my son for coming up with this list with me. When we arrived at the pool, I asked which consideration he was going to take on. He responded, “I’ve got this, Mom,” and confidently ran off to the pool, leaving me in the dust.

For the first time since this situation arose, I watched my son swim without any apparent issues. I did notice he came in last during the warm-up session, but he didn’t cry, nor did he appear frustrated. He just kept going.

On the ride home that day, I asked him if he used any of the considerations from the list we created. He told me he considered, among other things, that when he didn’t come in last, he could pay attention to who did. I was surprised because we hadn’t thought to put this consideration on our initial list.

Armed with considerations, my son realized on his own that he wasn’t the only one feeling embarrassed or ashamed when coming in last. He realized he could hold others in a space of compassion, knowing he could identify and empathize with them.

And while he didn’t necessarily approach those kids who came in last, he was preparing himself on his own to be considerate to them rather than not caring as soon as he was no longer in their position.

I’m grateful I woke up to the realization that teaching my son to prepare himself with considerations can help him out of sticky life situations. I’m also proud that he raised his own awareness of others who get stuck in the same boat, effectively enhancing his compassion for others.

From One Mother to Another

I became a mother through adoption. Everyday, I am grateful for the selflessness of two women I’ll never really know.

November is National Adoption Awareness Month. This recognition of adoption is especially important to me because my children were brought to me through adoption.

There are two women who made it possible for me to become a mother. These women are my children’s respective birthmothers. There is not one day that goes by that I don’t think of and thank these two women.    

Due to infertility, my family was created through adoption. Countless times, I’ve been told I ‘saved’ my children from what, I’m assuming, is thought to be a less fortunate life. True, my children were born to women who emotionally and financially couldn’t care for a child. But I consider myself the one who was saved by my children’s birthmothers.

After learning about my infertility, receiving multiple failed fertility treatments, and enduring multiple failed adoptions, I hit one of the lowest points in my life. I was depressed, in therapy, and considering taking anti-depressants. After more than three years of trying to start a family, I never thought I’d be a mom.

In April 2013, my daughter’s birthmother gave me life again by entrusting me and my husband with the role of her daughter’s forever family. My husband and I received this gift again in May 2015, when my son’s birthmother had the same faith, and we became ‘mom and dad’ for the second time around. 

These women chose my husband and me by reading a brochure about us and meeting us just once. How they knew we would be the parents they wanted for their children, after knowing us for such a short amount of time, baffles me. I thank them for having this instinct.

When I met each of my children right after they were born, I cried tears of joy. I also cried tears of guilt and sadness for my children’s respective birthmothers. These women let go a part of themselves, all out of the act of love.

Each of my child’s adoptions is closed. In other words, their birthmothers have chosen not to have contact with them. This fact saddens me, but I understand they need to move forward with their lives. Thinking about their children could prohibit them from doing so.

Daily, I wonder how my children’s birthmothers are doing. I wonder how they spend their days. I wonder how often they think about the children they carried. I want to tell them how wonderfully our babies are growing, their likes and dislikes, and their emerging personalities. 

Will we ever see these women again? I don’t know. Do my children know about their respective birthmothers? Absolutely. They need to know they are loved, not only by my husband and me, but also by the women who carried them, gave birth to them, and loved them enough to make the decision to give them a life they couldn’t have had otherwise.

My husband and I speak freely to our children about adoption. Despite being only one and three years old, we talk about how they’ve been adopted and how much they are loved by their birthmothers. We show them pictures of their birthmothers and tell their adoption stories.

My last encounter with each of my children’s birthmothers involved hugs, tears, and a whispered ‘thank you.’ I didn’t know what else to say. Words cannot express my gratitude for giving me the gift of motherhood.

The following quote, by Desha Woodall, summarizes the relationship between a birthmother and an adoptive mother:

“He is mine in a way that he will never be hers. Yet he is hers in a way that will never be mine. And so together, we are motherhood.”

For Less Defiance and More Connection, Practice Positive Parenting

I want my kids to see me as someone who empowers them to be the best they can be, despite the authority role I may hold over them. Positive parenting helps.

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.