The Approach of Positive Parenting

The Approach of  Positive Parenting

What Is Positive Parenting?

Positive parenting is an approach used in childrearing to best support and promote children's natural capacity for healthy development and optimal outcomes. The central foundation for positive parenting is that parents have a powerful influence on how children thrive and build resilience.

This approach discourages being punitive toward children, but instead strives to guide and teach children how to be competent and happy through acceptance, encouragement, skill building, and natural and logical consequences. It is both about parents having the necessary knowledge and skills and the mindset and commitment to parent in this way.

The primary goals of positive parenting are that:

  • The interactions between parents and children become more pleasant and peaceful.

  • Children learn to self-manage their thoughts, emotions, and behavior.

  • Children are taught the skills needed to be successful in society.

  • Children gain a strong, healthy sense-of-self by feeling competent and accepted.

What Are the Basic Characteristics?

There are several basic characteristics of positive parenting. These have a number of elements, but by way of introduction these characteristics are:

1. Having an understanding of child development is necessary.

To be successful at positive parenting, parents must have a firm understanding of child development. This allows a parent to better know what children are able to do physically (with their bodies), cognitively (with their minds), emotionally (with their feelings), and socially (with their relationships).

With this knowledge, parents' expectations for their children are more realistic. This allows parents to better support optimal growth and development. Child development theories provide a foundation for practical, concrete skills and strategies that parents can apply when raising children.

2. A close, healthy parent-child relationship is essential.

A warm, nurturing parent-child relationship is necessary for positive parenting to be successful. There must be a close bond and secure attachment between the child and parent. It is understood this is a basic need and desire of both the parent and the child.

By the parent being responsive, respectful, and accepting toward the child, this close healthy parent-child relationship can form. Once in place, children are invested in following their parents' lead, as well as able to establish a healthy sense of self.

3. Effectively guiding behavior is essential and possible.

Positive parenting revolves a great deal around parents effectively guiding their children's behavior. In this approach, they do so by not using physical punishment, coercion, threats, or shaming. Active listening and respectful communication are core strategies. Limits are set and natural, as well as logical, consequences are known to the child and carried out, such as the gaining or losing of privileges -- either as a direct result of an action on the part of the child, or determined by the parent, based on a child's action.

The belief is held that children want to be accepted and need an adequate amount of high-quality parental attention. They will strive to get it negatively or positively, so in positive parenting the focus is to reinforce positive behaviors and choices.

4. Fostering emotional intelligence is important.

Emotional intelligence is being aware of, understanding, and controlling our emotions. Just as important, it is about understanding and caring about the emotions of others. This allows the child to make good decisions and have healthy relationships with others.

Positive parenting uses emotional intelligence to connect with the child, to help children manage and regulate their emotions, and to help them establish and maintain positive relationships with others. This helps ensure the child functions well and thrives in social situations.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Positive Parenting Techniques course?

5. Support for cognitive abilities and education is vital.

To be successful in school and in life means children must have strong cognitive abilities, such as attention, concentration, memory, reasoning, and problem-solving. Becoming educated is a long process and hinges on literacy in reading, mathematics, science, and technology.

Due to technology, the world is changing at an extremely rapid pace and the skills children will need as adults are, as well. Children require a great deal of support and practice in all these areas. With positive parenting they are given the experiences and guidance needed for enhanced cognitive abilities.  

6. The parent takes responsibility for creating a supportive environment.

The child is not seen as inherently flawed or imperfect when he or she makes poor decisions, rebels, or acts out. Rather, it is the way the child is being parented that leads to such outcomes. In positive parenting, the parent takes responsibility for creating an environment that supports effective parenting.

They know that how the child is being raised, and consequently how the child turns out as an adult, is in their court.

Parents act as good leaders and models. They are calm and proactive, rather than reactive. They observe and correctly interpret what motivates children's behavior. They connect in genuine ways with their children. Part of a supportive environment also includes the family functioning well and the parent having a sense of peace and satisfaction in the parenting role. 

Why Did the Positive Parenting Movement Form?

The Role of Professionals

The positive parenting movement was started in part by mental health professionals, such as parent educators, counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists who were, and still are, increasingly concerned about the maladaptive behavior and emotions of children being seen in their practices, in the research literature, and in society as a whole.

Particular concerns were around mental and behavioral disorders, risk behaviors, and other key indicators of youth not doing well. While some of these have a genetic/biological basis, others do not. Even those that do, are expressed and impact functioning differently, depending on whether the environment, of which parenting is a major contributor, is positive or negative. Let's look at some data around the prevalence of these areas of concern.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, looking across any mental disorder, 1 in 5 (20%) of children and adolescents, either currently or sometime during their life, experience a seriously debilitating mental illness. The most common disorders among children and teens are ADHD, Depression, Conduct Disorder, Anxiety Disorder, and Eating Disorder.

  • ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is seen when children have a great deal of trouble focusing, paying attention, and controlling behavior, which interferes with their ability to learn and manage social situations.

  • With depression, there is a sustained period where there are issues with sleeping, eating, energy, concentration, and self-image.

  • Conduct disorder involves behavior that is considerably defiant or impulsive, and drug use and criminal activity are present.

  • While a normal reaction to stress is some level of anxiety, an anxiety disorder is when these feelings are excessive, persistent, and uncontrollable so that they interfere substantially with daily life.

  • Eating disorders are when a normal concern about body image gets taken to the extreme and results in either massive reductions, or massive increase in intake of food. It is accompanied by feeling greatly distressed about one's body.


There are distinct gender differences as well. Depression, Anxiety Disorder, and Eating Disorder are much more common in girls than boys. ADHD and Conduct Disorder on the other hand are much more prevalent among boys than girls.

Suicide is another significant area of concern. It is tragically the third leading cause of death for children and teens according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). While the rate of suicide is about four times higher in males than females, this is attributed to method, as males use firearms more frequently and girls use poisoning. Girls actually consider suicide, make a plan, and attempt suicide somewhat more than boys.

While teen pregnancy rates have dropped considerably since the mid-1990s, the U.S. still has the highest rate compared to 20 other countries according to Sedgh and associates, who analyzed data from the United Nations Statistics Division. For every 1000 girls, 15- to 19-years-old, 57 become pregnant.

Alcohol abuse is prevalent among youth in the U.S. and is the drug of choice according to Monitoring the Future -- an ongoing survey funded by the National Institutes of Health. Underage drinkers (ages 12 to 20) consume 11 percent of all the alcohol in the U.S. and 90 percent of this is binge drinking. Almost 200,000 underage drinkers end up in the emergency room due to alcohol, and 4,000 die every year from excessive drinking. Thirty five percent of high school students report drinking in the past month. Drinking starts young. Almost a third of 8th graders have tried alcohol. Those who start drinking before age 15, compared to after 21, are six times more likely to be dependent on/abuse alcohol as adults.

Schools are not necessarily safe places for all children. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, almost a quarter of high school students report gangs and drugs are present. In 2013, there were almost a million and a half victimizations at school of children ages 12 to 18. Almost 100,000 were violent. A quarter of public schools report students are bullied on campus on a daily or weekly basis.

While professionals know that society must address these issues, they know too the family and parenting are the first and most powerful line of defense. Positive parenting represents an important approach for helping children build resistance against these areas that threaten their well-being.

This led many professionals to move away from a focus on all the things that parents might do "wrong" to those many, and most, can do "right." The positive parenting approach came together by drawing from a number of psychological theories and approaches, including positive psychology, parenting styles, attachment theory, behaviorism, social learning theory, and child development. From the research literature and their own experience with patients and clients, professionals began to write books, articles, and give talks about positive parenting.

The Role of Parents

The average parent may not be as aware of so many national statistics, however they do frequently see some of this in news outlets and they read and hear about individuals. Disturbing and alarming events, such as school shootings, served as a catalyst for reflection and spurred a desire to take action to be the best parents possible.

What pushed parents the most, though, came from closer to home. This is that many recognized they and their children were basically unhappy. They were experiencing a great deal more difficulty parenting than they expected, or felt was necessary, and their homes were not harmonious. They felt ineffective at guiding behavior in ways that were peaceful. They were feeling the relationship with their child was distant. Their children were not engaged and interested in positive activities.

They questioned their knowledge and skills for parenting. They themselves did not feel as satisfied and rewarded in their role as parents as they wished. All of this led them to seek a different and better approach to parenting and raising their children. A grassroots movement formed which came together under the name positive parenting, but sometimes goes by other names in the popular literature such as peaceful parenting or positive discipline.

Many parents have written books, created websites, and become very active on social media to promote positive parenting. To various degrees they have used the information created by the professionals mentioned above as well as exploring research directly for themselves.

Why both are important. Marc Bornstein is one of the most active and knowledgeable researchers in parenting. He does a lot of work around the feelings of competence and satisfaction that adults feel in their role as parents. He concludes that many of these feelings come from having connections and contact with those who give advice, those we consider role models, and others who share our parenting responsibilities with us.

 A Real Life Scenario

Let's take a look at a scenario drawn from a typical parenting situation to see how positive parenting works:

Benjamin and Harry are both in middle school. They are allowed by their parents to take their phones to school. The rule at school is that phones are not to be used during school hours. At lunch, the boys break the rule and get their phones confiscated for the day and a call made to their parents.

When Benjamin's parents receive the call from school about the incident, they hit the roof. When he comes home, they have both left work early and are waiting for him. Before he is inside the door they are both yelling at him, "How could you be so stupid? What were you thinking? We knew we couldn't trust you!" They take his phone away and tell him they are so angry he may never get it back.

For good measure, they also tell him he can forget going to the skating rink that weekend. Benjamin gets upset and tells his parents "That's not fair! You are so mean!" This really gets to his parents who don't believe in children talking back. "That's it young man. Go to your room and don't come out until you have an attitude adjustment". Benjamin stays in his room as much as he can and won't speak to his parents for many days.

After Harry's parents get the call and get home from work, they take a walk and talk about how they're going to handle the situation. They call Harry into the living room and ask him to explain what happened. Harry admits to having his phone at lunch. He says "I knew I wasn't supposed to, but I thought if I was quick none of the teachers would see me. It's a dumb rule anyway! All the teachers get to use their phones whenever they want."  Harry's parents ignore the last two remarks, but say to Harry "The school has the rule that students cannot use their phones during school hours. You knew it and still broke the rule. We've talked about it and have decided you can't use your phone for one week. Also, you will write a note of apology to your principal."

Harry gets upset and tells his parents "That's not fair! You are so mean!" His parents tell him they understand he's upset, but this is the consequence of his action. Harry stomps off to his room, but comes back down about an hour later with his note. "Here, I did the stupid note." His parents look at the note and say "This looks good, son." Later Harry comes to say goodnight and mumbles "I'm sorry I messed up." His parents tell him thank you for apologizing, say goodnight, and tell him they love him. They can see his mood has improved a bit. 

Benjamin's parents do not practice positive parenting, while Harry's do. In this scenario, the two sets of parents handled their son's drive to push adults' limits and their still-developing reasoning abilities very differently.

Benjamin is learning his parents are not in control of their emotions and that they blame him for that. He is learning that breaking a rule that is actually rather minor, can result in pretty serious punishment, some of which is random and unrelated to his infraction. He's left hanging as to how long this might go on. He's given no opportunity to rectify the situation. Further, he gets the message that while his parents are allowed to have and voice their negative emotions, he is not.

Harry's parents are teaching him that while they are disappointed and upset, they are in control. They model for him how to manage negative emotions by getting some fresh air and having a dialogue first. His consequences are logical because they fit the infraction and are reasonable, concrete, and specific. They give Harry a way to actively make amends. Harry's parents don't let him derail the process by telling them the situation is unfair and he thinks they are mean. Instead they acknowledge his feelings, but stick to the issue. When Harry follows through on his own by writing the note of apology and apologizing, they positively reinforce him, and end the day letting him know he is still valued.

Challenges to Positive Parenting

Positive parenting isn't all rainbows and unicorns. In fact, in the short-term, it can be harder -- especially if a parent has been using ineffective and negative strategies for some time. It can be a challenge to control one's irritation, and even anger, toward children when they misbehave. It takes a lot more effort to be thoughtful about how one will interact with one's child, set appropriate limits, and use positive discipline. 

If one's parenting partner isn't on the same page for using positive parenting, then how to parent the child can become a point of contention in that relationship and undermine the benefits of positive parenting for the child. Usually less extreme, but if grandparents or friends have the view that positive parenting is just catering to a child and vocally criticize, this too causes a challenge.

In the long-run however, the benefits of positive parenting for the child far outweigh the challenges.