Do you ever feel doomed to being just like your parents, even though you’re trying hard to do better?
I know how hard it is to try being a positive parent when you’ve been raised in a punitive home.
Like me, you may have grown up in a home where spanking, hitting, yelling, or shaming were the main “discipline techniques.” And now maybe you’re horrified to find yourself resorting to these techniques, too.
I lay SweetPea down on the floor to change her diaper. Immediately she twists her hips to flip over so she can crawl away. Clenching my jaw, I flip her on her back again and try to distract her with singing, but she is intent on reaching her activity center. Unbidden, the image of my hand slapping the soft, tender flesh of her thigh flashes through my mind. I take a deep breath. I acknowledge my own frustration. I decide she and I both need a break from the struggle. “We’ll try again in a few minutes,” I say as I let her go and she happily crawls away.
My impulse to lash out comes naturally to me; I absorbed it from my parents. I’ve spent the last 15 years as a teacher and nanny learning how to react differently and overcome these unbidden impulses so that I don’t pass them on to my daughter.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to take you 15 years to start becoming a more positive parent! I’ll share with you how I healed from childhood wounds and techniques you can use now to re-write your parenting scripts.
Choosing a Better Way
Re-creating the same negativity is not our destiny; we can choose a better way to raise our own kids.
The question, of course, is how?
Despite our best intentions, the things our parents said to us often become the same dreaded words we say to our kids.
“Because I said so.”
“Stop that crying right this instant.”
“That’s it! No TV for you tonight.”
Like my momentary impulse to slap my daughter when she resists diaper-changes, the way we were parented becomes our automatic default response.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Dan Siegel, author of The Whole-Brain Child and Parenting from the Inside Out, reports that “The most important factor when it comes to how you relate with your kids… is how well you’ve made sense of your experiences with your own parents.”
My journey began when I embraced Positive Parenting.
What is Positive Parenting?
Let’s first get on the same page as to what positive parenting is.
To me, positive parenting is a way of responding to our kid’s needs and emotions with sensitivity, keeping in mind where they are developmentally. Positive parenting helps us:
- Ask, “What does my kid need?” and “How can I help?” rather than “How can I get her to do what she’s told?”
- Focus on solving problems, not controlling behaviors
- Avoid punishments, such as spanking, time-out, “consequences,” grounding, shaming, and name-calling
- Honor both our child’s and our own needs
- Acknowledge the developmental drives and limits of kids at different ages
In Unconditional Parenting, Alfie Kohn calls this approach working with rather than doing to children.
When SweetPea resists diaper changes, this means recognizing that her body and mind are geared toward movement right now. Rather than punishing her or forcibly holding her down, I capture her attention with songs, give her toys to bang together, or ask her to touch her nose, her head, her belly. Sometimes, it means letting her go diaper-free for a few minutes, or pulling out a disposable diaper, which goes on much quicker than our cloth pre-folds and covers.
Why Should We Use Positive Parenting?
As a society, we have been programmed to think that punishment is a good motivator for better behavior.
But experts like Alfie Kohn say that rather than teach a lesson, punishments make the child angry, teach him that you get your way in life by using your power over those who are weaker, and make it less likely that he’ll focus on how his actions affect others.
Punishment undermines moral development by leading people to ask, “What do they want me to do, and what happens to me if I don’t do it” and actively discouraging them from asking, “What kind of person do I want to be?”
When I talk to parents about moving away from punishments and embracing positive parenting, they are often baffled. They envision wild children who dart out into the road, spoiled whiners who throw a tantrum every time they don’t get their way, and endless pleading to get kids to simply make their beds or brush their teeth.
They confuse positive parenting with permissive parenting.
Because, the most common parenting styles today show up as polar opposites: the strict drill sergeant who dictates her child’s every move or the martyr who caters to her child’s every need and whim. So if it isn’t one, they assume it must be the other.
Positive parenting, however, is neither and strikes the middle ground. It relies on a better model: Partnership. Both parents’ and kids’ desires are acknowledged, and as much as possible, fulfilled.
Parents sometimes fear that this style of parenting will lead to “spoiled” children, but research shows the opposite: children raised by parents who are perceived as both kind and having high expectations do better academically, are less likely to smoke or do drugs, and are less aggressive with other kids.
Parents win with this style, too; kids are more cooperative, more independent, and show more initiative and self-discipline. In short, they become kids who want to behave.
Making Sense of Our Relationship with Our Parents
But it’s not enough just to change our parenting techniques.
To create the most lasting shifts, we need to spend some time evaluating our relationship with our own parents.
By looking at what our parents did well, what we wish they had done better, and how both influence who we have become, we can break free from the model they gave us and create a new framework for our own families.
We can begin to make sense of our relationship by asking some of these questions:
1. What did they do well that we want to pass on to our kids?
My dad was really great about being involved with us. He didn’t limit me to traditionally “girly” things; he rough-housed with us, helped me change my bike tire, and let me fiddle with electronics. Once we spent a weekend replacing the head gasket in his truck. Neither he nor I had done anything like it before, but we worked it out together using a repair manual he’d bought. I’m sure I get my can-do attitude and a lot of my self-confidence from these experiences with him.
My mom made me feel like I was the sunshine in her world. It’s hard to point to examples of this; it was just an underlying feeling that I was truly treasured. Because of this deep love, I grew up with a certainty that the world was a safe place. She is an amazing cook, and she and I spent many happy hours in the kitchen while making dinner for the rest of the family. It was our time to connect.
2. What did they do that we want to do differently?
My dad has a very quick temper, and it comes out both verbally and physically. I’ve been yelled at, sworn at, slapped, flicked, hit, and spanked. I remember lying about a toy I broke, and thinking that I wouldn’t have to lie about it if I wasn’t going to get in so much trouble for breaking it in the first place.
My mom rarely spanked me, but in the infrequent times that she got really mad at me, she became cold and aloof. She more or less ignored me until I apologized. I think she didn’t know what to do with her own feelings of anger, fear, or frustration over my behavior.
3. What was their own childhood like?
Neither of my parents had easy childhoods. They had demanding, strict parents, and they both left home as teenagers. From my father’s warmth to my mother’s usual gentleness, I honestly believe that both of them worked hard to be better parents than their own parents were. In some sense, my own desire to be a better parent is a sign of the things they did right.
4. What ways did we feel hurt by our parents as a child? Can we view the situation with compassion?
A few years ago, I had a sudden burst of insight into a particularly painful memory from high school. The incident involved my dad punishing me and accusing me of being deceptive and manipulative, when I had actually acted responsibly and with a good deal of consideration for the needs of other people.
Looking back now, I realized that, at the time, he was suffering intense emotional pain from someone who had been deceptive and manipulative towards him. A wave of compassion washed over me, and the childhood hurt began to heal.
The Challenges of Switching to Positive Parenting
Becoming a positive parent doesn’t come effortlessly, especially for those of us who grew up in punitive homes. Some of the challenges we face:
1. Knowing what NOT to do is not the same as knowing what TO do.
Knowing that you want to stop spanking, yelling at, grounding, or sentencing your child to time-outs unfortunately doesn’t give you any tools for dealing with your parenting challenges. I’ve made a list of 25 alternatives to punishment. These ideas help me when I’m feeling stuck with how to deal with challenging behaviors!
2. Lacking role models.
We are social creatures. If everyone around us behaves in a certain way, we accept it as “normal.” For a long time, I was the only person I knew who not only didn’t spank, but was also trying not to use any punishments at all. I was constantly second-guessing myself, wondering whether I was doing things “right.”
It was immeasurably helpful when I met another family with older kids who had a similar parenting philosophy. Now I had someone to talk to, explain my frustrations to, and seek advice from. And it was reassuring to see their kids growing into happy, sensitive, responsible people.
3. Overcoming your own inner parent.
You know that voice in your head that tells you, “You can’t let them get away with that,” or “Don’t spoil them”?
That’s the accumulated “wisdom” of your own parents, the parents around you, and messages we get from media.
But it isn’t always right. In fact, it’s often dead wrong.
I’m learning to replace it with a new voice. Whenever I feel the urge to punish, I think to myself, “How can I connect?”
“Connection” has become my parenting mantra.
4. Breaking old habits.
It can be really, really hard to change habits. But it’s not impossible. One of the things that has most helped me is discovering my own triggers for yelling or getting angry.
By keeping track of your triggers, you become more aware of when you are most likely to get caught in negative patterns, and you start building up ideas for what you can do instead.
5. Facing judgment from your own parents (or other parents around you).
I don’t live near enough to my parents for there to be much conflict between us about how I’m raising SweetPea. But I’m sure that as she gets older, even those infrequent occasions will provide plenty of opportunities for them to see me handle a tantrum by holding her in my lap, acknowledge her frustration when she cries “for no reason,” negotiate for 10 more minutes of playtime, or even yell “Don’t do that!” at me.
When the criticism comes, I’ll try to stay calm, remind them of all the ways she is growing into a responsible, caring person, and ask them, “Did you do everything the same way your parents did?”
6. Kids adjusting to the new you.
Even though things will actually be much better for kids once you are parenting more positively, the transition can be challenging for them. Their world is in flux and it can be unsettling.
If you have been the “drill sergeant” parent, they can be wary that you’ll return to your strictness. If you have been the “martyr” they can worry about losing their own power.
Besides learning new skills yourself, you’ll have to help them learn as well.
Thomas Gordon gives the example of a “martyr” mother using his No-Lose Method for the first time. When her teen daughter realized that she wasn’t going to get her way as usual, she left the table and threw a tantrum in her bedroom. Mom followed her, expressing her own frustration and stating, “I think we can find a solution so we’ll both win, but we can’t for sure unless you come back to the table. Now will you join me back at the table so we can find a good solution?”
It takes time, but it is never too late to teach our kids the problem-solving process!
How to Make the Switch
1. Focus on one habit at a time.
Pick either something that will make a big difference to your family, or a small change that will be easy to make and gives you a psychological boost.
My journey to positive parenting began while with my decision to stop spanking. From there, I learned how to praise effectively, stop saying “Good job,”(I didn’t even know that was problematic!) and communicate better with kids.
Positive parenting isn’t a destination to arrive at; like you, I’m at AFP because I want to continue growing as a parent.
2. Post reminders.
When making changes in the way you parent, it can be really helpful to post reminders. Sheila McCraith posted orange rhinos all over her house to remind her not to yell. She even made signs that her boys could grab if they sensed she was about to lose it!
3. Keep a journal.
I know it sounds silly, and really, who has time to do ONE MORE THING? But honestly, nothing has made a bigger impact on my life than reflecting on my day.
And it doesn’t have to be long.
Every night (or at least most nights) I write down three things I’m grateful for, two important goals for tomorrow, and one thing I would have done differently. This simple exercise has helped me stay connected to my values as a parent and have helped me continue to find ways to connect with rather than punish my daughter.
4. Be patient with yourself.
You’re going to make mistakes. Changes take time, and even when we’ve been parenting positively for a while, we will never be perfect.
Just the other day, I responded much too harshly to my daughter’s biting. I cried, was angry at myself, and then realized that this is just one of the many times that I will fail as a parent. But it’s also an important model for my daughter in reconciliation, forgiveness, humility, and trying again.
5. Be patient with your kids.
A lot of the bothersome things that kids do are perfectly natural. This doesn’t mean we have to like these activities or even allow them. But accepting that they are normal is the first step to finding creative ways to honor our kids’ needs while also honoring our own needs to get out the door on time, have a clean home, or enjoy a few minutes of quiet.
6. Find other positive parents.
Becoming a positive parent was, at first, one of the loneliest things I’ve even done. I often felt defensive, like people were judging me and the kids in my care. Finding just one other family made it so much easier. It validated my own instincts about mutual respect and gave me a safe place to talk about my fears and frustrations.
If you can’t find positive parents in your area, you can at least connect with a few online. Here are some of my favorites:
7. Extend compassion to your own parents.
As stated earlier, the most important aspect in creating a nurturing environment for your children is to make sense of your own childhood and your relationship with your parents. If you had a painful or abusive childhood, that may be really difficult. I’ve found Twelve Ways to Let Go and Move On a helpful guide in letting myself heal from these hurts.
Dr. Haim Ginott, who pioneered a non-punitive, communication-based approach to parenting says:
I’ve come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a parent or teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or de-humanized.
To me, this is not a frightening realization at all, but a message of hope.
How I raise my kids is not determined by fate. I can choose to overcome my past so I can connect with, inspire, humor, and heal my kids.
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
For our quick-action today, answer one of these questions in the comment section:
- What did your parents do well that you’d like to pass on to your kids? What do you want to do differently?
- Examine a painful childhood memory. What stressors do you think influenced your parent’s negative response? What positive intent do you think they may have had?
- Which of your kids’ behaviors do you most struggle with? What needs do you think they might be meeting with this behavior? How can you meet that need and still meet your own?
- Look back at the section on How to Make the Switch. Choose one bullet point to focus on. What one thing can you do to help yourself be a more positive parent?
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
Choose one parenting habit you’d like to change. It could be to stop yelling, to find positive ways to say “no,” to try time-ins instead of time-outs, or anything else you think would make a difference in your family.
- Post a reminder in several spots in your house.
- Print out the tracking sheet from Orange Rhino (or make your own)
- Find an accountability partner. Tell each other your goal, and check-in occasionally on each other’s progress. You can forward them this article to get started!
Good luck! We can do this!