You know that gut-wrenching guilt at the end of a very long workday that makes you reward your child just because you haven’t spent enough quality time with them? Or worse, that whirlwind cycle of work frustration that aimlessly erupts at your child in the form of an earth-shattering punishment? Welcome to parenting, the universal full-time job that permeates all socio-cultural boundaries. Whether you are a parent in the Middle East, Asia or in Europe, chances are you have endured the deep breaths preceding and following any event involving your precious child. These challenges come with every developmental trajectory whether they are cuddly toddlers, curious children, or hormone-raging adolescents. The silver lining here is that the field of positive psychology is building an empirically robust foundation of parenting practices, strategies, and resources to empower parents so that the deep breath moments can transform into breathtaking moments of progress.
What is positive parenting and why is it important?
Positive parenting embraces behaviour management practices that nurture the needs of the child towards a flourishing and healthy development. Positive parenting tends to guide, nurture, and empower the child with unconditional warmth and support, while still preserving expectations and order. Dr Diksha Laungani, educational psychologist based in Dubai Healthcare City, says, “…the human race naturally dwells on the negatives. Rather than focusing on what is wrong in a child’s behaviour, positive parenting proposes to catch a child being good. Positive parenting practices play a pivotal role in a child’s development because they impact the child’s ability to regulate their emotions and behaviours. This produces a roll over benefit on learning because better regulated children are better learners for they are much better at explaining their needs, expressing their emotions, and coping with failure.”
Empirical research has shown that positive parenting practices have additional long-term benefits as they correlate with the following positive outcomes:
- Enhance school adjustment (Mireille Joussemet, Renee Landry & Richard Koestner, 2008)
- Reduce behavioural problems (Irwin Sandler, Sharlene Wolchik, Jenn Yun Tein, & Emily Winslow, 2015)
- Reduce depressive symptoms (Jasper Duineveld, Philip Parker, , Richard Ryan, Katariina Salmelo Aro 2017)
- Enhance cognitive and social development (Femmie Juffer, Marian Bakermans- Kranenburg & Marinus Van Ijzendoorn, 2008)
- Increase self-esteem (Deborah Liable, Carlo Gustavo & Scott Roesch, 2004)
- Increase social self-efficacy (Priscilla Coleman 2003)
- Enhance emotion regulation (Marc Bornstein, 2002)
- Improve compliance and self-regulation (Marc Bornstein, 2002)
Core Practices of Positive Parenting
Tapping into new age parenting, Dr Antje Von Suchodoletz, assistant professor of Psychology at New York University Abu Dhabi, encourages parents to, “…focus on the combination of positive parenting practices that are most beneficial to your child’s development in your specific culture, rather than focusing on the western ideology of parenting styles.” To break down the doctrine of positive parenting into concrete examples, here is a list of practices that are either fundamental to positive parenting or should be fundamentally avoided.
Avoid: Imposing violent and aggressive discipline that involves physical punishment
Traditional parenting practices impose authoritarian discipline, whereby the parent asserts their power and control through obedience, strict rules, and severe punishment. Dr Von Suchodoletz warns against the use of discipline that is violent, aggressive, or physically punitive stating that, “…physical punishment goes against the psychological basic need of being in control of one’s own body. Being in control does not include being hit by another person as you have no control over this external behaviour.” The implication here is that physical punishment, regardless of whether the slap is painless or ‘not on the face’, does not actually discipline because it is ineffective in teaching the child the correct behaviour. Furthermore, Jane Nelsen (2006) reported that such punishments lead to the ‘Four Rs’ of consequences:
- Resentment toward parents
- Revenge to get back at parents
- Rebellion against parents via excessive behaviours
- Retreat in the form of becoming sneaky or losing self-esteem
While many parents swear by the effectiveness of punishments and time-outs, such strategies do not work in the long run. Dr Laungani argues, “I do not recommend the use of punishment because in the short-term you will receive compliance, but in the long-term you will cultivate negative consequences on development. Albeit compliance leads a child to agree to do what you say, this doesn’t mean you have shaped their thinking about their behaviour. Behaviour is a skill that needs to be taught like any other numerical literacy skill. You can’t punish a child for being unable to learn the times table in a week. So why would you punish their misbehaviour if the child cannot express themselves correctly?”
I do not recommend the use of punishment because in the short-term you will receive compliance, but in the long-term you will cultivate negative consequences on development. Albeit compliance leads a child to agree to do what you say, this doesn’t mean you have shaped their thinking about their behaviour.
Incorporate: Positive discipline that is nonviolent, warm, respectful, and teaches the child explicit expectations, rules, and consequences of misbehaviour
A certain level of discipline and control is needed within the notion of positive parenting as long as the discipline is enforced in a warm, age-appropriate and justified manner. With positive discipline, the parent emulates the role of a teacher rather than a tyrant. To transition parents into positive parenting, Katharine Kersey (2006) research reported 101 positive principles of discipline, some of which include:
- Respect principle: treat the child in the same level of respect you would like to receive.
- Connect before you correct principle: before tackling behavioural problems, ensure that the child feels loved and cared for.
- Incompatible alternative principle: offer the child a behaviour that substitutes the undesirable one – playing a game rather than watching TV.
- When/Then – Abuse it/Lose It principle: ensure that rewards are removed when a child breaks the rules.
- Good head on your shoulder principle: ensure that the child feels empowered and capable so that he/she can feel more responsible for their choices.
- Timer says it’s time principle: use a timer to help a child understand and get involved in what is expected of them in terms of time for each daily activity. For example, asking a child whether they need 20 minutes to get dressed for school allows the child to know that time is set.
2. Expectations, Rules, and Consequences
Avoid: Focusing solely on punishing misbehaviour, without setting expectations and consequences in advance.
Imagine punishing a child for misbehaving, even though they are unaware that their behaviour has broken a rule and is deemed inappropriate. Even worse, imagine investing parenting energy solely on punitive discipline rather than teaching the child about the expectations, rules, and consequences in advance. This lack of communication and guidance is counter-productive as it hinders the child’s ability to distinguish between desirable and undesirable behaviour.
Incorporate: Setting explicit expectations, rules, and consequences of appropriate and inappropriate behaviour.
The goal is to want the child to internalise the behaviour. To do so, the reward should be faded out gradually or the expectations for the same reward should increase. For the first week, a reward can be given for one homework behaviour in a week, but for the second week the expectations should increase so that the same reward is given for the three homework behaviours in a week. That way, you increase expectations and decrease the reward until it is faded out.
Rather than focusing on the behaviours that a child should not do, the important path is to capitalise on the behaviours that a child should do. Setting expectations and consequences in advance for misbehaviour ideally paves the way of positive discipline because the child knows what to expect in terms of consequences before committing their misbehaviour. Dr Von Suchodoletz notes that, “…executing consequences consistently is more important, because being strict and consistent teaches the child to take responsibility for their behaviour.”
For more extreme misbehaviours that cannot be subdued, she recommends removing the child from the situation by sending them to their room and communicating about why they were removed from the situation. With adolescents, removing them from a situation can take the form of preventing them from hanging out with specific people. Dr Von Suchodoletz gives another example of appropriate communication, “…let me explain to you why it is unhealthy to hang out with this group of people. I am not saying I don’t want you to meet other people, but I am trying to help you identify who is good for you and who is not. Once you identify your friends, I will be here to support you to build and maintain these friendships. You can go out with them as long as you follow my guidelines, regulations and expectations. But if I see that I cannot trust you then we have to set other rules.”
3. Reward and reinforcement
Avoid: Relying on excessive rewards to externally motivate the child to display the desired behaviour.
If you think disciplining your child will get you in a pickle, take another deep breath because rewarding your child is even more convoluted. There is a very delicate line between positively reinforcing the desired behaviour with a reward versus accustoming the child to do a behaviour purely for the external reward. In the latter scenario, once the reward is not on the table, the child will not be motivated to do the desired behaviour. Similarly, rewarding behaviours in an arbitrary manner conveys mixed signals to the child regarding the desired behaviours as they are being rewarded inconsistently.
Incorporate: Helping the child internalise a desired behaviour by fading out rewards.
While rewards and praise are positive reinforcers of the desired behaviour, Dr Von Suchodoletz argues that, “...the goal is to want the child to internalise the behaviour. To do so, the reward should be faded out gradually or the expectations for the same reward should increase. For the first week, a reward can be given for one homework behaviour in a week, but for the second week the expectations should increase so that the same reward is given for the three homework behaviours in a week. That way, you increase expectations and decrease the reward until it is faded out.” Another strategy that can help children internalise behaviour is giving unexpected rewards. Dr Von Suchodoletz elaborates that, “…after three weeks of fading out the reward, parents can give an unexpected reward just to reinforce the child’s continued behaviour. Since the reward is not predictable or expected, the child doesn’t count on it to display the desired behaviour, but rather, internalises the expectations.”
Avoid: Not communicating with your child in times of discipline or positive reinforcement.
The lack of communication in a parent – child relationship negatively impacts the child’s understanding – or lack of – for appropriate and inappropriate behaviours. This is crucial during discipline, because the lack of communication can lead the child to believe that their parent does not love them, or that their personality is ‘unlikeable’, which in turn makes them feel inferior as individuals. On the other end of the spectrum, Dr Von Suchodoletz emphasises that the lack of communication during positive reinforcement such as praise is also problematic as, “… praising a child with a ‘good job’ does not teach the child what the desired behaviour is.”
Incorporate: Verbally communicating with your child about the expectations, rationales, and consequences in an affectionate and warm manner.
Communication allows the child to understand why there are certain expectations and rules, and what behaviours are in line with these expectations. During disciplinary practices, Dr Von Suchodoletz urges parents to communicate that, “…that they still love their child and that it is not about them as a person or about their personality, rather it is about their behaviour .”
Another effective communication practice used during discipline is the ‘name it to tame it’ strategy, whereby parents acknowledge and name the type of emotion expressed by the child to subside their behaviour. Dr Laungani shares that, “…when a child is having a tantrum or crying, parents should communicate, ‘I can see that you are very upset and frustrated about your toy’ to validate their emotion and tame their behaviour. A child resorts to such a behaviour when they are unable to express their emotions and needs using appropriate words.” While parents should accept all the child’s emotions, they are not required to accept all the child’s behaviours. In other words, it is acceptable for a child to feel frustrated about their sibling snatching away their toy, but it is not acceptable for the child to react by hitting their sibling. Dr Laungani asserts that, “...we need to draw a line between emotion and behaviour as this is the basic tenant of emotion coaching. A shift has to happen between thinking and doing.”
Moreover, communication practices are equally as important when praising a child. Dr Von Suchodoletz recommends that, “…to correctly praise the child, you need to communicate to the child which specific behaviour was desirable and then reinforce it so the child can learn and internalize the behaviour.”
Avoid: Having complete control over your child’s choices, decisions, actions, and problem-solving opportunities.
Autonomy is a universal psychological need that pertains to an individual’s responsible control for their own life. Whether the parents’ excessive control and monitoring of their child stems from a good place of affection and protection or whether it stems from a traditional authoritarian parenting style, there is one underlying problem with limited autonomy – intentionally preventing the child from having control over their life choices, and from being actively involved in their own decisions leads to negative developmental outcomes such as low levels of accountability, reduced self-esteem, and limited problem-solving skills
Incorporate: A sense of autonomy by allowing the child to have control over their own choices, decisions, and actions.
Positive parenting practices revolve around giving the child a sense of control so that he or she can be successful in making their own choices. Dr Von Suchodoletz shares that, “…if a child tries to do a puzzle and the parent encourages the child to keep trying to find the correct puzzle by him or herself. This practice is encouraging autonomy because you are putting the child in control of how to do the puzzle.” Instilling autonomy in a child leads to an adult with robust problem – solving skills, a sense of commitment and responsibility, and enhanced confidence. Yet in many cases within collectivist traditional cultures, there are constraints from familial, cultural, religious, and societal institutions. The silver lining is that autonomy can still be promoted by allowing the child to make choices within the boundaries of culturally acceptable behaviours. Giving a tangible example, Dr Von Suchodoletz says, “…if it is culturally inappropriate for your female daughter to go to the mall on her own, there are still additional ways she can meet with other people in a culturally appropriate manner. Within that context, autonomy can be encouraged by giving the daughter a choice about who, when, and how to meet others.”
Avoid: Being dismissive of the child’s psychological cues and uninvolved in their daily life.
Responsiveness is a parenting practice that refers to the parents’ awareness and addressal of their child’s needs. Unfortunately, traditional collectivist cultures gauge the basic physical needs of a child such as the home, the food, the security, and the education, without accounting for their psychological needs. Whether the parent is dismissive of the child’s mental health or dismissive about spending quality time with the child, the bottom line is that such lack of responsiveness hinders a healthy attachment and development for the child. Dr Von Suchodoletz comments that, “…the mental health debate is a taboo that is stigmatised. Mental health is not just psychological disorders such as depression and anxiety, rather it is the overall mental health needs pertaining to life satisfaction. Adolescence is a time of struggle in terms of finding your identity and what you will do with your life, and thus positive parenting should be responsive towards addressing the mental health needs in relation to adolescent life satisfaction.”
You don’t have to be present with your children 24/7, but once you come home you need to dedicate one hour of quality time whereby you give 100 per cent to your child. During this time, invite the child to talk about their experiences, and show interest in different contexts of their life so that your child can feel your support.
Incorporate: Responsiveness and warmth towards the child’s physical and psychological needs through proactive involvement in their life.
Supportive parenting entails responsiveness to a child’s needs, positive involvement in a child’s life, parent to child warmth, and proactive teaching. Once the physical, emotional, and psychological cues are identified, the parent should know how to help their child with those needs. Spending quality time with the child is another parenting practice that showcases support towards a child’s needs. While the majority of parents nowadays have highly structured days with long working hours and limited quality time with their families, Dr Von Suchodoletz reassures parents that, “…you don’t have to be present with your children 24/7, but once you come home you need to dedicate one hour of quality time whereby you give 100 per cent to your child. During this time, invite the child to talk about their experiences, and show interest in different contexts of their life so that your child can feel your support.”
To encourage parents, Dr Laungani argues that, “…parenting practices transcend across generations. All it takes is for one adult to adopt positive parenting practices to raise their child, and they can change parenting for the generations to come. Here is a glimpse of two parents who are already carving the path to positive parenting.
Layla Badawi, mum of four and retired electrical engineer based in Dubai, reflects that, “…raising my children in a foreign country like Greece was especially demanding because my parenting practices had to maintain an enculturation balance between preserving my children’s’ collectivist cultural and religious values while encouraging them to adapt to a more open-minded environment. The most central parenting practice in my journey is the transparent communication in our relationship because it helps my children understand the healthy rationale behind my rules, and it helps them appreciate my unconditional love and support during their achievements and during their misbehaviours. More importantly, transparent communication enhances my responsiveness toward my children’s cues because it gives me insight into the intimate details and struggles of their daily lives, be it in the context of school, friendship, cultural clashes, or mental well-being. The second most significant parenting practice in my journey is autonomy. Living in a foreign country that highly differs from your own norms, values, and constraints, makes it especially difficult to shelter your child from these cultural differences. Rather than averting them from new experiences or monitoring them 24/7, I consistently empower my children with autonomy so that they can efficiently problem solve and make healthy decisions about their lives. After all, one day they will leave my nest and it is my job as a mother to ingrain independence, confidence, and self-efficacy within each one of my children so that they can carve their own path of success.”
Chiming into the same rhythm is Saira Anish, mum of two working at Manzil Center for people with disabilities in Sharjah. She says, “As a parent, it’s important to familiarise your child with the right and wrong behaviours, especially because they grasp things quite quickly at a young age. Despite having a job and staying away from my little ones for quite some time, I make sure that I find time to talk, listen, and play with them. No matter how tired I am, or if I have any pending house chores, spending time with my children strengthens the trust and love they have for us. When my child does something wrong, instead of yelling at her, I often give her an ultimatum like ‘if you pick up your toys, I will make your favorite dish’. In terms of positive parenting, I think the trick to mastering it is to always stay attentive to your child’s needs. If your child does something wrong, most of our first instincts would be to raise our voices at them, but if we all had a conversation with our kids, I think it would be different reaction altogether. It all depends on how you converse with your child at the end of the day. Raise your voice and they’ll raise theirs back at you. Talk to them in a mellow yet stern manner, and it would be a whole new lesson for your child as well.”
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