Various Theories and Aspects of Positive Parenting

Various Theories and Aspects of  Positive Parenting

The positive parenting approach is influenced by a number of theories and aspects of psychology. Knowing about these gives insight and a better understanding of positive parenting. We will take a look at seven major influences. These are positive psychology, parenting styles, attachment theory, child guidance, behaviorism, social learning theory, and child development.

1. Positive Psychology

Positive parenting is focused on the understanding that children come into the world primed with the tools and capacities to follow a path of optimal growth and development. This outlook is drawn from positive psychology, which is the study of how people flourish. This movement in the field of psychology arose to counteract the heavily present disease/illness model of human functioning and to focus on what goes right.

It is based on the view that all individuals want to have lives that are meaningful and fulfilling by exploring, enhancing, and using our individual strengths and to be able to enjoy love, play, and work. Keyes and Haidt identify four hallmark behaviors that express what is needed for people to flourish:

1) Being resilient - the ability to meet the challenges of life and use setbacks and adversity as learning and growing experiences by relying on oneself and having a positive attitude. 2) Able to engage and relate to others. 3) Finding fulfillment through being productive and creative. 4) Looking past ourselves to help others flourish, as well.

2. Parenting Styles

Parenting styles are made up of parents' attitudes about childrearing and parenting and they represent how parents interact with their child. Diana Baumrind is credited with the work of establishing parenting styles from her research in the 1960s. The research has continued on vigorously and is now one of the most extensive and robust in psychology. One of the reasons is that children's outcomes in so many areas -- from emotional, to social, to cognitive -- have been found so often to be related to the style of parenting they experience.

The first thing to understand about parenting styles is that there are dimensions that make up the various styles. Falling into categories related to being high or low on the dimensions results in four parenting styles.

One dimension is parental responsiveness. This has to do with the degree parents pay attention to their child in a way that is warm, sensitive, supportive, and deserving of respect. It is also about how much parents acknowledge the child is unique.

A second dimension of parenting styles is parental demandingness. This is about the demands or claims parents make for their child to become a functional and vital part of the family. It revolves around the extent to which parents have appropriate expectations for a child's maturity of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It is closely tied to how parents supervise and discipline. A feature of this dimension is psychological control. This refers to how much parents use guilt, taking away love, and shaming the child.

Most parents have a main or dominant style. However, they can be anywhere on a continuum, and they might also move across styles. Parents tend to use the style they experienced when they were growing up. If the style is not a healthy one, they will need to work harder to change their thoughts and behavior.

The style positive parenting is most aligned with is the authoritative. There are three other styles that are less supportive of positive parenting. These are authoritarian, permissive, and uninvolved.

Authoritative parenting style is high on responsiveness and demandingness, while low on psychological control. Parents who practice this style are very warm when their child approaches. They treat their children with respect when children ask questions and when they talk together. They are able to read children's signals well, both non-verbal and verbal. They also are accepting of individual differences in children, such as their particular interests or their temperament, which is how a child approaches and interacts with the world.

Authoritative parents encourage and support their children to show autonomy or independence in how they think and act. However, they have fair and clear expectations and limits about how children should behave and they base these on the level of their child's maturity. They believe in the child taking responsibility for managing their thoughts and behaviors, but they guide and teach their children how to do so by using reasoning and consequence-based discipline, rather than punishment. They are willing to still nurture and forgive when children do make mistakes, or engage in disappointing behavior. This makes for close, healthy relationships.

Authoritarian parenting style, on the other hand, is essentially the opposite. These parents are low on responsiveness and high on demandingness, with high psychological control. They do not respond warmly and discourage dialogue. They believe children should follow parents' strict orders and not think for themselves.

When children do not behave or try to be autonomous, authoritarian parents tend to punish harshly, both verbally and physically. This typically happens frequently, because such parents expect children to be able to do things earlier and better than any child can. These relationships are not close and not healthy.

Many people confuse positive parenting with permissive parenting, but as the following description highlights, this is not the case. Permissive parenting style is high on responsiveness and low on demandingness. These parents do respond warmly and much communication is present. These parents, however, are overly devoted to reading and responding to their child's signals in a way that makes it more about indulging the child's whims, which get met, no matter what.

Children are expected to regulate themselves without parental guidance or any standards of conduct being provided for them. These parents don't ask for personal responsibility and rarely discipline effectively; usually they just give in or bribe. These relationships are close, but not healthy.

The fourth style is the uninvolved parenting style which is low on responsiveness and low on demandingness. Such parents are disconnected and very hands-off, although they take care of their children's basic needs (food, clothing, shelter, health).

They don't respond much one way or the other to their children when they reach out, they rarely talk much with them, and they don't set limits or attend to whether the child is learning to self-regulate. Some parents use this style because they are overwhelmed and so shut down, while others think children, in general, are capable of raising themselves. These relationships are not close, and not healthy.

3. Attachment Theory

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Establishing a close parent-child relationship with secure attachment is a hallmark of positive parenting. Attachment theory has a very long and well-researched basis. It is most notably from the work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, who established the theory beginning in the 1950s. Attachment is particularly important in the area of social and emotional outcomes for children. Fundamentally, the purpose of attachment is so a child feels safe, secure, and protected.

Three main types of attachment relationships have been identified. One of the most important determinants of the quality of the attachment relationship is how the parent responds when the child has a need, such as feeling insecure, or upset, or afraid.

It's useful to know the need for attachment is so strong in infants and young children that it's not whether they are attached, but how healthy that attachment is. Also, children can have any of the types of attachments discussed below with any number of main caregivers. So they could have one for mother, a different with father, and another with a nanny or grandparent.

Secure attachment is most likely to result when parents respond to the child's needs in a way that is sensitive and loving; for instance, they pick the child up when they're crying -- especially in infancy -- speak soothingly, listen to the child. Children then know they can express such feelings and will get comfort.

Their strategy for using their parent to manage their distress is to find and stay close. When a young child has a secure attachment, they can use their parent (or primary caregiver) as a base from which to explore, but yet feel they can get reassurance and comfort if needed.

When there is avoidant attachment, children do just that -- they avoid. This is a type of insecure attachment. They will avoid both the parent and avoid showing they are in distress. This happens when the parent regularly ignores or is insensitive by expressing annoyance or belittling the child when they send signals or approach for comfort.

Another type of insecure attachment is called ambivalent/resistant attachment. This develops when the response the child gets is inconsistent or unpredictable. It can also happen when the parent acts as if his/her needs are greater than the child's or they make a big deal of the child's distress and behave as though they're overwhelmed. The child typically exaggerates their needs in the hope that the parent will pay attention. Insecurely attached children have a difficult time exploring appropriately without a secure base.

What about "Attachment Parenting?"

There has been a recent rise in a childrearing approach called attachment parenting. This revolves around physical touch, responsiveness to crying and other distress-related emotions, co-sleeping, extended breastfeeding, and authoritative parenting style. Some of these practices are part of attachment theory and mainstream positive parenting, and others are not.

The two that are most unique to attachment parenting are co-sleeping and extended breast-feeding. While these are personal choices, it is important to know that close sleeping, such as in the same room, is more safe than co-sleeping in the same bed, as there is a large risk an adult will roll onto a child and smother them, particularly for infants. Breastfeeding is recommended for as much of the first year as possible, but extended breastfeeding is seen in cultures and in times when food is extremely scarce, which is not the case in the U.S. for most families.

4. Child Guidance

The work of Rudolf Dreikurs is frequently cited as a major influence on positive parenting. His work is an extension of Alfred Adler's Individual Psychology approach, which takes into account the environment of the person in understanding them. Dreikurs' advice on parents guiding the child has a number of components. Among these are:

There should be mutual respect between a parent and child based on the basic human right of equality. Parents should show encouragement for their child's efforts, as this indicates they believe in the child and accept them as they are. At the same time, parents should not set standards the child cannot reach, as this will discourage them.

Rather than rewards and punishment, parents should use natural consequences that stem from the child's actions, as opposed to the parent using their authority to get the child to do or not do something. When disciplining, more acting and less talking, which can lead to arguments, is recommended. Related is for the parent to withdraw by ignoring or leaving the room to remove an audience for the child's attempts at a power struggle. However, this is not the same as withdrawing from the child, just from the conflict. Please note these ideas are not for when a child is in immediate danger, or too young to be left alone.

Children need to be taught important skills and habits, but this should be done when the child is calm, and also not when there are others around who aren't in the immediate family so the child is not too self-conscious. Parents must let children do for themselves when and what they can, and to accept a child's perhaps still-inadequate efforts, if it still gets the job done. They must resist the urge to make it just a bit better, or to validate their importance as parents.

5. Behaviorism

Many people shudder when they hear behaviorism connected to child rearing. They conjure up images of a controlled, scared, or emotionless child. Even those who write in the popular positive parenting world rarely use this term directly.

None-the-less, the truth is all of us, as humans, pretty much from the beginning of life, make decisions about what we think and how we act, based on the feedback we get from our environment, both physically as well in relationships. It is perfectly normal! B.F. Skinner developed the behavioral theory of operant conditioning, based on the idea that to understand behavior, one must look at both what happened before and the consequences following the behavior.

That said, in parenting, we want to use the principles of behaviorism in ways that increase positive behavior and decrease unwanted behaviors. Glenn Latham, for instance, wrote extensively about positive parenting and using positive reinforcement to increase desired behaviors, and removing positive reinforcement to decrease those behaviors that are undesired.

The idea is basically quite simple. Parents should find as many opportunities as possible each day to compliment their children for making good choices or engaging in behaviors that are pleasing to the parent. This serves as positive reinforcement and increases the likelihood these behaviors will increase.

At the same time parents should not draw much attention to the behaviors they don't like seeing in their children. As children are not positively reinforced for these, they will be more likely to drop off. Because the emphasis is on what the child is doing right, this is often referred to as positive discipline. This is contrasted with punishment to stop undesirable behavior, which is not recommended, because it is very harsh and has an undertone of wanting the child to suffer.

The underlying idea is that children are learning, whether that is to behave appropriately, or to behave inappropriately, is a matter of what has been reinforced. What is typically hardest for parents, is to ignore behaviors that bother them and to stay calm about them. Over time, however, not only are children better behaved and more in control of their own decisions and behavior, but the parent-child relationship is more pleasant. For this reason positive discipline/parenting is sometimes called peaceful parenting.

6. Social Learning Theory

Human beings, even in infancy, are exceptionally smart in many ways. We don't always have to directly experience feedback from our environment to learn. We can learn from observing others in our social circles or through receiving direction.

This is the basic idea behind the power of modeling and comes mainly from Albert Bandura's social learning theory. In positive parenting, the idea is to be aware of the examples being set by us, as parents or caregivers, and use the power of modeling to teach children those behaviors and emotions, which will support the most optimal outcomes.

In order to benefit from observational learning, one must be invested in the model. Children are in the presence of their parents frequently and are naturally attracted to them. Bandura calls this associational preference. This is one of the main reasons children so often model their parents, as well as siblings and peers.

Children can learn behaviors -- which to engage in, and which to avoid -- as well as emotional responses, with the important element of reinforcement here, too. A child can learn a behavior or emotional response, but whether it is reproduced depends on whether it was positively rewarded when the child observed it.

Further, a child doesn't necessarily go for an all or nothing approach. He/she can be selective about what is imitated or put together -- or use various pieces, resulting in a unique outcome. This highlights the cognitive or thinking nature of modeling.

Related to the thinking aspect is that children can learn to believe they have the skills to be competent, or that they lack the skills needed to master their environment. This is called self-efficacy and, when high, helps children be persistent and take on challenges. In positive parenting, parents work to ensure their children have learned skills to have a high sense of self-efficacy.

7. Child Development

Positive parenting is influenced by having an understanding of child development. When parents have adequate child development knowledge, particularly when they are better aware of developmental milestones, and understand children mature out of certain behaviors, they parent more effectively.

Such parents are more accurate in determining their child's abilities, and are more tolerant of and supportive of their children's blossoming skills. These parents respond to, and interact with, their child with more emotional sensitivity and use warmth and reasoning, as opposed to power assertion, or withdrawing love.

Better informed parents connect with their children through higher quality and more frequent communication, such as talking, reading, and telling stories. They also set up a more conducive learning environment by making age-appropriate materials available and providing a variety of active and stimulating learning and language experiences, well matched to the current developmental level of their child.

All of this results in children having better cognitive outcomes, such as better grades in school, higher self-esteem, superior functioning socially, and fewer behavior problems, as these children have better emotional and behavior self-control.

One area where lack of knowledge of child development comes into play, is that such parents, and other adults that interact with children, who have low knowledge, typically overestimate the rate at which children are developing, such as when they will reach developmental milestones. The result is frequently having expectations for what a child can do and how he/she should behave that are inappropriate and unrealistic.

Additionally, a lack of knowledge that children do grow out of more immature behavior leads many such parents to incorrectly assume children intentionally misbehave, and/or the child has a stable disposition to misbehave. This often leads to an outlook that the child is fundamentally a "bad" person. Research shows these beliefs and attributing a child's behavior in this manner actually increases over the course of the child's life.

These viewpoints frequently lead to the parent being frustrated, impatient, and intolerant of the child's still developing skills and efforts, or behaving toward the child as though he or she is permanently flawed. This can cause such parents to interact very critically, punitively, and harshly with the child and this interferes with optimal child outcomes.

Children who experience this kind of parenting have been found to have more academic problems, such as poor grades, lower self-esteem (feeling a negative view of themselves), and more social and behavioral problems, such as being aggressive and disruptive.


As we have seen, positive parenting has a rich and solid foundation. Each of these influences provides important elements to help parents provide the best childrearing environment possible. This allows their children to have the best opportunity for optimal development.