by Sarah Hughes
A couple of months ago, as I quickly approached the end of my fraying rope; I came across an article about positive parenting.
Reading it gave me a glimmer of hope. You see I’ve been trapped in a stressful cycle of my kids behaving badly, me issuing a barrage of empty threats and bribes, finally falling back on my favourite parenting technique of “Wait until I tell your Dad what you just did!”
Now before I start, can I just say that my kids really aren’t that bad. In school and at their extra-curricular activities, their behaviour is exemplary. When they go to friends houses I quite regularly will get a message from the parents telling me how fantastically polite and pleasant my kids are. So it’s not all bad news… if they could just save some of that exemplary behaviour for me life would be perfect.
The thing is, I know that’s not a realistic request. I’m my kids safe place. The person with whom they can show their worse side and know that they’ll still be unconditionally loved and adored. And what an honour that is; to be that person, for three lovely ,funny, clever boys. But as well as an honour… it’s just so bloomin’ hard. The biggest stressor I have in my entire life is undoubtedly their fighting. It can range from low level squabbling to all-out fist fights and bloodied noses, all interspersed with them being the best of friends, laughing and loving intensely like no other relationship I’ve ever seen. It’s hard to guess which trio of boys I’ll get on any given day.
“Brothers!” My Dad will smile and shrug nostalgically as he watches them wrestling on the floor.
But I’m afraid I can’t just accept the level of discord that comes up day after day in our house. Which is why I decided to try out the old positive parenting technique. It had to be worth a try didn’t it?
What is positive parenting?
Positive Psychology states that positive parenting is based on the assumption that all children are born good, are altruistic and desire to do the right thing. It encourages a consistent, caring, nurturing environment for children where they feel emotionally secure. And as you’d imagine, positive parenting encourages parents to look at their child’s behaviour from a positive perspective, highlighting the successes over the mistakes.
Now, you may be reading this, as I did, thinking;
“Well I already do all those things! They still won’t stop punching their siblings/backchatting me/throwing tantrums left right and centre!”
But when I dove into the research behind positive parenting I could see where my parenting style went off on a tangent. I ticked every box when it came to unconditional love, nurturing, supporting and championing my children. However when it comes to discipline and boundaries, there was a gaping chasm between the research and my own approach.
Here’s how discipline with positive parenting should look
Positive parenting encourages us to think of ourselves not as disciplinarians but as teachers.
Our role is not to punish our children but to teach and guide them
It is authoritative but not critical
It is always consistent and non-violent
The discipline should promote belonging within the family unit
The discipline should have a long-term effect
Reading this really made me scrutinise how discipline goes down in my house. Read on for a direct comparison!
Here’s how discipline looks in my house
I try to teach and guide up to a certain point then when I run out of strategies I grab the first punishment that pops into my head and dish it out.
I definitely resort to criticism at times, especially with my difficult middle child (show me a Mother who says she doesn’t have that one kid, and I’ll show you a fibber).
Yes! I get another tick because my parenting is always non-violent. Having been smacked as a child myself, it’s not something I was ever going to make part of my kids childhoods. All the research shows that smacking is not an effective strategy for discipline and is detrimental to the parent-child bond. However… I will hold my hand up and say consistency is not my strong point. At certain times of the month I know my hormones can lead to me flying off the handle unexpectedly. Other days I just don’t have the energy to be as authoritative as I should be.
Discipline in my house involves removal from the family unit. Usually the offender/child is banished to their bedroom to think about what they’ve done. Of course instead of thinking about what they’ve done, they make a massive mess of their room and then shout “Can I come out yet!?” every 37 seconds until I give in and release them.
Long term effect? Of discipline? Hmmm not something I can claim to have mastered. No, I’m from the school of quick fix punishments or bribes which make my life easier in the short term but achieve very little long term. It’s why the same squabbles and fights erupt day after day I guess.
So, after drilling myself on how positive parenting discipline differed from my own (free)style approach, I decided I was going to make a concerted effort to change things. I was going to go back to basics and employ these strategies which might be hard at first but would effect big changes within our family unit. I spoke to my husband and we agreed we’d approach this as a team. We were just due to jet off on holiday for a week so it seemed a good time to be able to commit to it together without the distractions of work and school.
The million dollar question: Did it work?
So here’s the thing about parenting, and human nature full stop: It takes a long time to unlearn the habit of a lifetime.
And here’s another thing about parenting: You can’t use exactly the same approach with each kid. You’ve gotta be mentally agile… or they’ll outsmart you at the first turn I promise.
On that holiday I felt I had to fight my gut instinct so many times. Because yes; my gut instinct is to chastise, to punish and to exclude, especially when I think behaviour is cruel or involves deliberately trying to cause trouble.
Instead of telling my child I was disappointed in him and sending him to his room to get him out of my hair, I was forced to confront the problem and work it through with the child. And that can be really really exhausting. I’m not sure if I was a single parent on that holiday if I’d have lasted the week.
Of course, talking and exploring with your child why they did that negative thing is the best way to root our the problems that are at the heart of the bad behaviour. But in reality that can’t happen every single time; parents would literally never be able to leave the house or have time to make a meal.
What did work, and what I’m continuing to use is the consistency element. We’ve laid out firm consequences for the kids around their fighting. They know what the course of action will be if they lash out or say something really unkind to one of their brothers. I’m no longer grasping punishments out of the air which the boys then rail against. They know what to expect and there is definitely a shift towards them respecting the new boundaries.
Another lesson I learned which has made a positive change is removing criticism from my response to their bad behaviour. I realised that I had got into a habit of saying (especially to that one kid who pushes my buttons the most!)
“You’re always the last one ready.”
“You never help me tidy up like your brothers do.”
“You are very selfish sometimes.”
Reading up on positive parenting has helped me see how that can be damaging, and how I need to comment on the bad behaviour rather than on him as a person. It seems to be paying off and we are less combative with each other over the past few weeks.
Parenting is a journey isn’t it. A winding river not a straight road. A marathon not a sprint. I can’t promise I’ll always employ these strategies perfectly and I’m determined that they won’t become yet another stick with which to beat myself. If I fall off the wagon and use an empty threat, a bribe or a “Wait until I tell your Dad!”, it doesn’t mean I’m a bad mother. It means I’m human. And I’m doing my best.