Positive parenting is trending right now! But what is positive parenting? How is it different from other parenting styles? Is it effective?

(By the way: Want help coming up with ways to get your kids to cooperate with you? Grab your freebie list of ideas to gain your child’s cooperation without yelling or nagging now!)

Think about the last time your child was really being troublesome. There’s a good chance that something like this popped up in your head: If I don’t do something about this behavior right now, this kid is gonna to grow up to be a hooligan!

toddler sitting in bowl
The cutest hooligan!

When we’re really upset by our child’s actions, isn’t that the fear? That you can’t control the situation and that you’ll be responsible for raising a “bad” person? Maybe you’re a bad parent!

I know when I’m the most triggered by my kids, deep down, it’s really a fear about the future:

I’m freakin’ going to be waking up three times a night with this kid for the rest of my life!

Oh my gosh, she’s never going to learn to share!

He’s always going to be disrespectful.  He’s going to reflect badly on me!

So the initial thought: we have to crack down on this kid, now.  We gotta get that child under control before everything goes haywire.

But is this line of reasoning actually the most effective strategy for the long run? Let’s examine our thoughts about parenting styles for a moment here.



The way we were taught to think about parenting styles: Authoritarian and permissive parenting

Many (if not most) of us heard there were two ways of parenting when we were growing up. Perhaps the way you heard about parenting styles was overhearing your own parent(s) talking about how they thought other families were doing it wrong. Either way, the scale looked something like this:

Basically, there were two options.

Your kids could have a free-for-all. Some of us may have been raised this way. You went out whenever you wanted, no one checked up on if you kept up with school work, and basically there wasn’t a lot of direction.

OR, you could be really hard on your kid, browbeat them into submission (physically and/or emotionally), make sure they didn’t step a toe out of line, and that would assure that they’d become responsible adults.  And of course, lots of us grew up under this style of parenting. We were always “good” kids, but there were a lot of emotions stuffed waaaay down, to never see the light of day.

But we all know that there has to be more options than these two. They both have clear problems. And even trying to do something “halfway between” these two extremes will probably just come out as wishy-washy parenting, where your parents are “nice” until you step too far, and then they crack down on you.

The main problem is that parenting isn’t a sliding scale like I’ve drawn above.  Instead, it is better represented as a graph, like below.

So there are two scales that interact with each other:  How much empathy or sensitivity you show your child, and how high your expectations are.  Let’s look at each section of this graph and discuss what each entails.

Low empathy, low expectations

So the bottom left of the chart contains parents who are low on empathy and low on expectations.  An extreme version of this “parenting style” would be basically neglect. 

You’re interested enough in parenting to read a blog about it, so my assumption is that this isn’t you. But some of readers may have grown up in this kind of home, either due to some difficult situations your parents were going through, addiction, or some other painful problem that kept their attention away from you. If so, I’m sure it was hard, and I’m sorry for that. But I’m glad that you are here, working to break generational patterns in your family! You children will be better for it.

High empathy, low expectations

On the bottom right of the graph, there are those who show empathy to their kids, but also don’t communicate high expectations.  This doesn’t automatically mean they don’t care what happens to your child; it might instead indicate that they don’t know how to convey expectations or motivate their child to achieve them.  If this is you, perhaps you were parented in a harsh way and don’t want to carry that over to your own kid, so you have a hard time saying no.  Or heck, maybe you’re just too exhausted to deal with every time your kid disobeys.  After all, you’ve got a lot going on in your life! Regardless, if you’re in this group and you know that the lack of discipline is harming your child, there’s hope for things to get better! With a little work, you can learn some new thinking patterns and shift to a healthier parenting style.

Low empathy, high expectations

The top left is the other extreme mentioned we heard more about (or experienced) as kids:  authoritarian parenting.  This sort of parenting allows for few mistakes from children and includes more harsh punishments, whether physical (like spanking) or emotional (berating and withdrawal of love). 

Many people actually praise this as the ideal parenting style.  “You can’t be their friend; your job is to be their parent!” they’ll say. 

In fact, there was an article recently making its rounds across the internet bragging that science says that nagging mothers cause their daughters to be more successful.   I’ll be honest, when I read this article, it drove me bonkers with the inaccuracy. The “scientific article” in question is not in a credible, peer-reviewed journal, which means it hasn’t been accepted by the larger academic community.  And the researchers doesn’t really measure success; all it actually says is that daughters with higher parental expectations are less likely to get pregnant in high school.  So according to the article, success = not getting pregnant in high school. So many things wrong with this article. I’ll just stop now and say that “nagging” is not a good parenting strategy.

But this article has a small grain of truth: many adult children of authoritarian parents are “successful.” They may have a traditional family structure of their own, respected jobs, and so forth. 

But the problem? These adult children are also more likely to be anxiety prone. This is true even if parents aren’t abusive, just more garden-variety authoritarian parents. 

So yeah, maybe your child will grow into an adult that does all the right things and looks good on the outside. But what is more valuable: “success” or happiness?

High empathy AND high expectations!

The final piece of the graph above, the upper-right quadrant, is the sweet spot.  This is what we call authoritative parenting, where you display high empathy and sensitivity for your kids, but also have high expectations of them. 

Building sense of responsibility in kids

People who grew up in areas where authoritarian parenting is the norm (I’m looking at you, Southern states) might initially blow the idea off with, “Pfffffttt. You can’t get kids to do what they’re supposed to do without (figuratively) bustin’ some heads.” 

But it can be done!  The idea here is that kids listen because they love and respect you, because you show them respect too.

Is it harder to do authoritative parenting than authoritarian parenting?  A lot of times, yes!  Especially if you weren’t raised this way, it takes a lot more mental energy to stop the rising anger/panic leading us to react in a punitive fashion.  Once you’ve managed to calm down (good work!), you then have to still address the problem, but in a calm manner.

More than any other style, authoritative parenting is really about the long game. 

It might take longer to get kids to do what you want, but you’re building their internal locus of control (the sense that they can control themselves instead of just being pushed around like a victim).  You may have fewer rules, but you’re teaching your kids to make choices built on character, not built on fear. As your children grow into teens and adults, this sense of self-control will be absolutely essential.

I hope this post has let you know that there’s another, more positive way to raise your kids.  As we keep going together, I’ll share the lessons I’ve learned along the way to handle issues with kids.  Often, just taking a step back and asking a question (like in my article about taking turns) is enough. 

Sometimes, this style of parenting takes more effort. But just like any other skill, the more you practice, the better you’ll get at it. 

A huge factor in getting better at authoritative parenting? Using mindfulness in your daily life. For more details on how to use mindfulness (plus an interview with a PhD clinical therapist on the benefits of mindfulness on parenting!), check out this post!

Support is going to be your best friend in parenting.

Authoritative parenting CAN’T happen in a vacuum. Especially if you weren’t raised this way, it’s hard to guide your kids in this manner without help. I have a printable full of prompts that will get you on the path of gaining your child’s cooperation without yelling or nagging. Be sure to grab yours here and happy parenting!

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