I started learning about positive parenting long before I was actually a parent. When I was getting my MA in early childhood education, everything that I was studying about child development and how children grow up to be well-adjusted and emotionally intelligent… all pointed back to positive parenting.
So once I had my own children, it made perfect sense for me to start putting some of those principles into action. Once I dove in, the first thing I realized is that there is a TON of information out there. Too much information. It’s overwhelming and honestly hard to know where to start.
To help save you time on your journey towards becoming a more positive parent, I’ve compiled this list of 6 core positive parenting principles to live by. Consider this your “starter’s guide,” the “beginner’s manual” to positive parenting. Let’s dive in!
Misbehavior is your child’s way of communicating an unmet need
Your child wants to please you more than anything. He wants to do what you ask, follow directions, be helpful, and worthy of your praise and attention. But being little is hard. There are so many overwhelming feelings that your child is trying to figure out. He can’t articulate how he is feeling, so his communication is often through misbehaving.
Let’s say you are on the phone and your child throws a toy across the room. He does this because he wants your attention, but doesn’t know any other way to let you know. Instead of punishing or lecturing, you can say “I see you want my attention. Next time gently touch my arm so I know that you need me.”
Whenever your child misbehaves, ask yourself: What is this behavior telling me? Why might my child be struggling?
Use this information to guide your child towards more appropriate behavior in the moment. If you know that your child is getting hungry, say something like “I hear that your voice is a little whiny, do you think your tummy is feeling hungry?” This helps your child to make the connection between their emotions/behavior and how they are feeling internally.
Related: 5 Reasons Why Your Toddler Won’t Listen to You
Validate your child’s effort
One of the most difficult things to navigate as a parent is dealing with children’s feelings of inadequacy. Phrases like “I can’t do it” or “I’m not smart” come from a deep-rooted sense of not being “good enough.”
The best way to overcome this is to stop comparing your child to anyone else (especially a sibling or family member), and discourage your child from comparing themselves to anyone else as well.
Emphasize your child’s effort and growth in all that they do. Say, “You worked so hard on that picture. Tell me about it,” or “Last week you were swinging to the second monkey bar, and this week you can swing to the third!” This growth-mindset helps them to see that success is not instantaneous and that their effort matters.
See also: The Benefits of Not Saying “Good Job”
Give your child the respect that you want them to give you
This principle is often misunderstood in the parenting world. Just because you give your child respect doesn’t mean that you are being “permissive” or passive.
Giving your child respect means that you listen to them when they have something to say, validate their feelings, and talk to them like you would talk to an adult. A good rule of thumb is that if you wouldn’t speak to a coworker the way you are speaking to your child, you probably need to tone things down.
Now when I say talk to them like you would talk to an adult, I don’t mean to ignore their need for guidance. Obviously your child still needs lots of direction and help from you. But the way you speak to them should still communicate respect. Remember that whatever tone you speak to them in, is how they will speak back to you.
Your child is comforted by your calmness. When they start to escalate, you become quieter. When they start to lose it, you are their pillar of strength. This is the #1 most difficult part about positive parenting. Our kids know exactly how to push us to our breaking point. But your ability to stay calm in the midst of your child’s tantrums is what sets this parenting style apart from all the rest.
Related reading: The 5 Worst Ways to Respond to Your Child’s Tantrum
Never punish your child for their big feelings, help them work through them
One of the biggest mistakes we make as parents is belittling our children’s feelings and treating them as if they don’t matter. We shame and guilt our kids by saying things like “big boys don’t cry” or “you are hurting my feelings,” and in doing so we teach our children that we can’t handle their big emotions.
The most important thing to remember is that your child experiences the same feelings as you do – guilt, jealousy, shame, sadness, anger. But your child doesn’t yet have the words or the skills to deal with those feelings, so outbursts and tantrums occur as a result.
Help your child to name their emotion, and validate it by saying “It’s ok to feel angry.” Give them an alternative way to deal with that emotion… say “When I feel angry I like to go by myself and take 3 deep breaths.” The key is teaching your child that it’s natural to experience all kinds of feelings, but that there are good ways to deal with their emotions.
See: 10 Things to Say to Your Child Instead of “Stop Crying”
Express confidence in their abilities
Your child needs to know that you believe in their ability to be a kind, obedient, and helpful person. Your little one has tantrums and meltdowns because they lack self-regulation, which is basically the ability to keep themself calm when they are upset. Despite their best efforts, your child is going to “lose it” every day (probably multiple times) because they are still building up their resilience.
Give your child the opportunities for “do overs.” Let them try again when they don’t get things right the first time. Say things like “Oops, you forgot to use a kind voice” or “Let’s try that again.” Always give your child the benefit of the doubt. Assuming that they “forgot” tells your child that you believe that they know how to behave; they just had a momentary lapse of judgement.
When your child has success after a do-over, they will feel proud of themselves and want to repeat the positive behavior in the future. Model for your child that it’s ok to make mistakes and that even adults need a chance for “do-overs” sometimes. I especially like to model to this when I’m starting to raise my voice at my son. I’ll say “I need to calm down, I’m feeling upset. Let me take some breaths and try again.” There is nothing more powerful than for your child to see that you use the same calming strategies that you are trying to teach them.
Remember: The worse they feel, the worse they behave
I’ve said it before in this space, and I’ll say it again (because it’s that important). So often, in our frustration, we shame or degrade our children for their shortcomings. We make them feel bad for having a tantrum, not being able to follow directions, or for making poor choices. But the more negatively we react to our children the more they will misbehave. They start to get used to the pattern of misbehavior and punishment.
Instead, take all of your energy and put it towards building your child up through your words. I think this quote sums it up perfectly…
“Speak to your children as if they are the wisest, kindest, most beautiful and magical humans on earth, for what they believe is what they will become. – Brooke Hampton
Young children are trying to figure out what kind of person they are, and everything we say to them matters. The more you build them up, the better their self-image will be and the better they will behave.