What is Positive Parenting? Does it Work?

Dad and Daughter hugging
Your teen refused to do his homework for the 6th day in a row, your 4th grader doesn’t listen when you ask him to turn off the tv, and your 3-year-old wages World War III at the dinner table every night.

You’ve gone to sleep exhausted and overwhelmed for as long as you can remember. Your struggles are so different with each child you don’t even know where to start. Before you close your eyes for the night, you key out the most desperate Google search your fingers can muster: “How to Parent”

These 3 words are both a cry for help and an admission that something has to change. Sure, you’ve been a parent for over 12 years, but every day’s new challenges make you feel like it’s your first day on the job.

And you know what, my friend? You are not alone. Parents all over the world find themselves deep in the parenting trenches searching for help on a daily basis. While we have immeasurable love for our children and long so deeply to see them grow into compassionate and capable adults, the truth is we aren’t naturally equipped to handle sibling rivalry or diffuse a tantrum. In fact, our gut responses can often make the behaviors worse.

So we turn to the internet. And like you, thousands of worn-out parents simultaneously search “How to Parent.”

As your browser loads, the results come in: “Authoritative Parenting, Authoritarian Parenting, Free-Range Parenting, Conscious Parenting, Positive Parenting, Helicopter Parenting, Tiger Parenting, Dragon Parenting…”

“Dragon Parenting?!?” you think, “Is that really a thing?”

You helplessly click through page after page trying to find answers for your general parenting request but have no idea what type of parenting method will work for your family.

Before you continue down this eternal rabbit hole any longer, may I suggest there is one type of parenting method that can work for ALL families – regardless of family history, unique family needs, family size, cultural differences, parent personality, or age of children: Positive Parenting.

The only requirement to use positive parenting techniques successfully is a committed parent!

What is Positive Parenting?

Many people assume positive parenting is fluffy parenting – parenting that doesn’t offer consequences to poor choices or discipline to misbehaviors. Those who are unfamiliar with positive parenting often assume it’s an everyone-gets-a-trophy and a my-child-can-do-no-wrong type of parenting.

On the contrary, however, positive parenting is anything but fluffy. Positive parenting holds children to realistic standards by using clear expectations and empowering children to become the resilient and capable children you hope them to be.

It is based on the sound work of renowned psychologist Arthur Adler, and parents all over the world have used it successfully.

History of Positive Parenting

Alfred Adler studied human psychology in the early 1900s when people held a very traditional view of children – you know, “they should be seen and not heard?”

Despite the common societal sentiments of the time, Adler radically asserted: Children deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.

Today, that sentiment seems to be widely accepted – even though not always practiced – but this thought was counter-cultural during Adler’s time.

Together with psychiatrist Rudolf Dreikers, Adler argued children be treated respectfully, but also advised parents to avoid spoiling and coddling children because these parenting strategies only create more emotional and behavioral issuesfeelings of entitlement, self-centeredness, lack of empathy, etc. 

While these two beliefs may feel contradictory to some, in short, positive parenting simply encourages parents to be both compassionate and firm. It was this idea – that parents be both compassionate and firm – that led Jane Nelsen, Ed.D. to develop the Positive Discipline methodology used by parents worldwide.

This groundbreaking idea became the foundation of positive parenting. It is from this statement that most positive parenting experts can agree on the same three principles.

Principle Assumption 1: A Child’s Primary Goal Is to Achieve Belonging and Significance

Once a child has been clothed, fed, and housed, his next two cravings are for these fundamental needs: to belong and to feel significant.

What is belonging?

Belonging is the feeling of being wanted and connected. Humans are social creatureswe long to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. For a child, belonging means feeling emotionally connected to the important people in his life and feeling certain about how he fits in your family.

A child’s sense of belonging often gets rocked when big life changes happen–like when a new sibling arrives or when parents separate. These types of changes can lead to regressive behaviors, but if you understand where these behaviors stem from, you’ll be able to address them effectively.

What is significance?

Significance is the feeling of being capable and needed. A child needs to know that he can make a difference in a family by offering meaningful contributions. In addition, he must be able to exert his personal power over his world. Remember that, sweet friend. Power.

Every human (kid and adult) has a basic need for power and the free will to choose how to exert it. If children aren’t able to exert their free will in positive ways, they will use negative ways to get the control they crave: refusing to cooperate, talking back, doing the opposite of what you ask, intentionally pushing your buttons. (These are the negative power-driven behaviors that drive parents crazy, am I right?)

Principle Assumption 2: All Behavior Is Goal-Oriented

Do you remember your teen’s refusal to do his homework? And your 5th graders choice not to listen? How about your 3-year-olds epic battle at mealtime? Listen up, my friend, those behaviors are not random.

Whether your child can articulate the motivation behind their choice (and don’t worry, most can’t), we know from Adler’s work that misbehaviors are simply a child’s effort to achieve belonging and significance. Once we understand that misbehaviors are symptoms, not the actual problem, we can address the root cause in a way that finally delivers results.

It’s not that your previously used parenting techniques are wrong, per se, but rather they don’t address the root of the issue. They simply put a bandaid on the surface of a deeply rooted issue that can hemorrhage at any time.

Principle Assumption 3: A Misbehaving Child Is a Discouraged Child

Think about that for a moment.

A misbehaving child is NOT a bad child.

A misbehaving child is NOT a defiant child.

A misbehaving child is NOT an uncontrollable child.

A misbehaving child is NOT a mean child.

A misbehaving child is simply discouraged.

In this context, ‘discouraged’ – according to Alfred Adler – plainly implies the child’s needs for belonging and significance aren’t being met. When your 5th grader refuses to listen, it’s his way of saying, “I don’t feel like I belong or I don’t have enough control over my own life and this is the only way I can show you how I feel.”

When your child misbehaves, view it as a cry for help – understand something isn’t quite right for them. Unfortunately for children, if they don’t see a positive way to get their emotional needs met, they will do so by exhibiting negative behaviors instead.

If a child’s feelings of discouragement continue over an extended period of time, you’ll see they repeat common misbehaviors. Over time, the child will start to believe their misbehaviors get them the attention they crave or give them the sense of control they seek.

However, when we shift our thinking and recognize the misbehavior as a SIGN that something is off instead of seeing it as a failing on our part or a shortcoming in our child, we will see almost instant improvement in behavior.

Does Positive Parenting Really Work?

I get it. You feel like you’ve tried everything, and you want to be sure this time will be different.

Now that you understand the principle assumptions behind positive parenting, you can understand why positive parenting will work for your familyno matter your circumstances.

The truth is, all humans have the same basic emotional needs that must be meet: belonging and significance.

Whether a child has special needs, divorced parents, 10 siblings or no siblings, learning differences or a behavioral diagnosis: they STILL have the same emotional needs as all other humans.

Positive parenting doesn’t rely on any external factors to be successful, it simply requires a parent who is willing to meet the emotional needs of their child.

One of the greatest differences between positive parenting and most other parenting methods is that positive parenting is PROACTIVEusing strategic parenting tools in advance, rather than reacting to misbehavior. Unfortunately, most adults maintain a reactive posture. Parents will ask…

Should I send them to time out?

What consequence should I give for lying?

What’s the punishment for not doing homework?

What do I do when my kids are fighting?

Can I let you in on a little secret? If you spend your parenting journey looking for ways to REACT to misbehaviors, you’re going to wear yourself out (if you haven’t already) and even more frustrating, you’ll never get to the root of the issue – making the power struggles escalate even more.

Positive parenting helps parents proactively prepare and ward off future misbehaviors by meeting their child’s emotional needs FIRST. Think of your child as having 2 bucketseach representing different emotional needs. The first bucket is labeled BELONGING, the second is labeled SIGNIFICANCE.

Here are your choices with just a few examples:

  1. You can fill your child’s BELONGING bucket by spending undivided time with her each day OR she will get your attention by whining and throwing a tantrum.
  2. You can fill your child’s SIGNIFICANCE bucket by offering choices throughout the day and involving her in meaningful decisions OR she will exert her power by talking back or refusing to take a bath.
  3. You can fill your child’s BELONGING bucket by reassuring her she is loved and plays an important role in your family OR she will act helpless and beg you to help her get dressed every morning.
  4. You can fill your child’s SIGNIFICANCE bucket by empowering her to help around the house and complete age-appropriate tasks OR she will complain about and negotiate with you on every little thing.

Positive parenting encourages parents to fill their children’s belonging and significance buckets each day. By doing this, parents will minimize the instances when they have to REACT. Don’t get me wrong, even when kids’ needs are met, they will still misbehave from time to time. They will get overly tired or lack impulse control in managing big emotions, but over time those instances will diminish.

Parents who use positive parenting techniques enjoy amazing results because they spend less time reacting and more time enjoying parenthood.

Final Thoughts

I’ve been a parenting educator for over 15 years, friend, and I have helped transform over 75,000 families by equipping them with positive parenting tools. If you’re at the end of your rope and wondering if positive parenting is a good fit for your family, I’d love to have you join me for a FREE CLASS. I’ll teach you how to get your kids to listen without nagging, reminding, or yelling Sounds too good to be true, right?

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About the Author

Amy McCready
Nationally recognized parenting expert Amy McCready is the Founder of Positive Parenting Solutions® and the best-selling author of The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic - A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World and If I Have to Tell You One More Time…The Revolutionary Program That Gets Your Kids to Listen Without Nagging, Reminding or Yelling. As a “recovering yeller” and a Certified Positive Discipline Instructor, Amy is a champion of positive parenting techniques for happier families and well-behaved kids. Amy is a TODAY Show contributor and has been featured on The Doctors, CBS This Morning, CNN, Fox & Friends, MSNBC, Rachael Ray, Steve Harvey & others. In her most important role, she is the proud mom of two amazing young men.