Positive Proof

Positive parenting aims to guide children to becoming happy, confident and accountable young people
By Joanne Lillie

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You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar; this is the underlying message of positive parenting. The idea is that an encouraging and democratic – rather than autocratic – approach elicits the best response.
Positive psychology is the scientific study of the strengths that enable people and communities to thrive – essentially it’s the psychology of making people happier. The focus is on promoting mental health, rather than treating mental illness. Applied to parenting, it means parents take and share responsibility for achieving happiness not only for their children, but for themselves and the family.
This is done by treating your child with love and respect and giving her responsibility for the consequences of good and bad behaviour. Positive parenting techniques are appropriate for all children and personality types, because all children crave approval. Followers of positive parenting report greater contentment for themselves and greater confidence for their children.
Parenting by example
Positive parenting requires positive parents, as children learn best by observing and copying us. Parents who focus on their strengths, have an optimistic attitude and look for opportunities to build confidence and talent are most likely to succeed.
“It is impossible to adopt a positive parenting approach outside of the context of a positive family,” says Dr Lingum Pillay, Durban-based clinical psychologist and president of the South African Society for Clinical Psychology.
It’s all about creating an environment in which children can grow and thrive through the challenges of the early years; it’s how we stimulate, challenge and discipline them.
Discipline the positive way
Part of a positive approach is focusing on what your child is doing right and offering plenty of praise and reward. Discipline is thus non-violent and non-punitive.
But this doesn’t mean you overlook bad behaviour. “Parents tend to think they must ignore inappropriate behaviour and be completely permissive, but the goal is to maintain a high standard of accountability and be kind and respectful at the same time,” says Johannesburg child psychologist and play therapist Karin Meyer. Agreeing on rules together, as well as the consequences for breaking them, works well.
For positive parenting to succeed, you need to have a good relationship with your child and open channels of communication. The approach works with children’s natural desire to please their parents; they want our approval.
“Learn about and understand your children, their strengths and weaknesses, their needs, wants and desires, and their drivers. Learn to talk and listen attentively to them. This is empowering you to be a positive parent,” says Pillay.
You also need to look at the child as a whole: does he get enough sleep; does he eat enough healthy food; is there a routine in the house? The smaller the child, the clearer and fewer instructions there should be.
If your child is in the stage of throwing tantrums, try and act proactively. “If you’re going to the supermarket, prevent an outburst by going for a shorter time, and making sure she is not hungry or tired. A young child cannot delay gratification or think through conflicts well, so you need to act to remove frustration as much as possible,” says Meyer.
Growing happiness
Amanda Marais, family law attorney and mom to Danie, eight, and Jaco, five, is setting the ground rules for her boys now. “Parenting is so much easier when I work with them as a team instead of in opposition. For example, when fighting breaks out I calmly ask them to each go to their room to think about what they are doing and come back later to discuss their feelings. I never shout or chase them away or punish them – I simply tell them if I don’t like something they are doing and explain why. I talk in a way they understand, on their level, face to face, and this generates understanding and mutual respect,” she says.
Establishing positive patterns now means Amanda, who is a single mom, will be better able to deal with confrontations as the boys become teenagers. “My children are confident and positive individuals, and the greatest benefit I see is that they can come to me and talk about absolutely anything. They are very open to thoughtful discussion; they feel they are being heard, and they have a say in situations that affect them.”
One of the concerns some parents have is that their children might feel so confident they no longer respect parental authority. Rather, the shift is from parental authority to parental responsibility, says Dr Pillay. “Critical to this is making sure that boundaries are set early and that discipline is carried out in the context of continuous respect and love. Be aware of the words you use, your tone, your non-verbal expressions and gestures. This goes a long way in cementing a positive parenting style,” he says.
Hand in hand
This kind of involvement is the key to positive parenting for Urvashi Maganlal, business consultant and mom to Meera aged 11 and Misha, seven. “I try to take a more inclusive approach rather than one of ‘because I said so’. Explaining is at the core of positive parenting and my children find my guidance easier to accept when they understand the reasons for it.”
This may be a longer and more difficult way of parenting than simply dictating, but the benefits are that children take time to think about things, and you don’t find yourself in an “us versus them” situation, says Urvashi. “The children see that we are all affected, and they are involved in the process of agreeing on rules and the consequences of breaking them. As a parent I consciously strive to be more patient and rational, rather than frustrated and angry,” she says. But, be careful, parents often mistake heaping praise for being a positive parent. “Strive for a realistic balance by being consistent, and remember your child is a child – don’t give her too much responsibility (control), as this amounts to  unintentionally abdicating your parental responsibility,” warns Pillay. 
Quick guide to parenting more positively
Apply these principles to parenting, suggests child psychologist and play therapist Karin Meyer:
day to day
  • Provide healthy meals, enough rest and a stable routine.
  • Play with your child – find something you both enjoy and engage with him in his world.
  • Don’t ask open-ended questions (what do you want for breakfast?), rather let your child choose between oats and toast.
  • Praise, don’t punish.
building self-esteem
  • Get to know your child and allow him to get to know himself too.
  • Make self-statements together: this way you are affirming your child, showing him he matters. Ask about the things he likes and doesn’t like and make a board where your child draws these things (or cuts out pictures if he is very small): This is me – things I like. This is not me – things I do not like.
  • Use I-messages: rather than saying “you are a brilliant artist”, say “I like your picture. I think it is brilliant”.
  • Create experiences of mastery for your child, such as completing a puzzle or learning something new.
  • Give easy-to-follow instructions.
  • Explain and discuss boundaries.
  • Teach right from wrong by example; children learn by observing.
  • Teach your child that anger is okay, and how to deal with it appropriately.
  • Offer your child alternatives and choices.
  • Set limits to keep your child safe.
  • Have regular family meetings to clear the air and discuss solutions for specific behaviour.
  • Balance your child’s developmental needs with common sense.

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