Creative Child

Differences in Traditional, Permissive, and Positive Parenting

by Rebecca Eanes

I always get a bit discouraged when parents automatically shrug off the idea of positive parenting because they think it’s permissive, or they try what they think is positive parenting but actually lean toward permissiveness and then give up when it fails to produce good results. I think, in order to advance the positive parenting message, we must define the difference between this and traditional or permissive parenting. 

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In positive parenting, we move away from traditional methods for disciplining children such as time-out and punishment. This leaves many parents thinking “what’s left?” In order to answer that question appropriately, we have to back up and look at the bigger picture of parenting and define what disciplining children truly is. The ultimate goal of discipline is to instill in children self-discipline.

We want them to know right from wrong and to make good decisions that help them reach their fullest potential, and we want them to be able to do that independently, eventually. I don’t think any of us want to still be trying to control our children’s behavior when they’re 25 or 40.

We’ve come to think of discipline as something we do to a child, a way in which we punish them for their wrongdoing in hopes of deterring such behavior in the future. The purpose of punishment, then, is to make them hurt enough or feel uncomfortable enough to want to avoid the punishment again and therefore come to obedience. And this is certainly one way to “train” a child, and it often works at least for a while.

The question we should be asking is why it works. Why do children come into line when we threaten to spank them or put them in time-out or take away their things? It’s because children, especially little ones, will do just about anything to try to stay connected to us. They need our love and affection. They are literally wired to connect with us from the beginning. So when something threatens the attachment they need, they will often “straighten up” for a period of time to avoid the pain of detachment.

There is another way to influence a child’s behavior, not through fear, but through connection. Dr. Gordon Neufeld says, “We were never meant to parent children whose hearts we do not have.” Positive parenting uses this heart-to-heart connection as a way to reach our children because when they feel connected to us – when they believe we are their advocate – they naturally are more inclined to follow our leadership.

The reason we move away from methods of disciplining children like time-out (social isolation) and punishment (training through pain) is because it does the opposite of reach their hearts. Those traditional parenting techniques divide us rather than unite us, thereby harming our true authority and influence.

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At the other end of strict and punitive techniques for disciplining children is permissiveness. This occurs when there are no boundaries set and children never face consequences for their actions. Sometimes a parent becomes so focused on wanting a good relationship with the child that they completely relinquish their role as leader and fail to provide any limits, which they worry might cause the child to dislike them. As you might expect, this generally doesn’t have a good outcome. I believe children need parents who care enough to set and enforce boundaries and hold them accountable for their choices and behavior. When we provide the yellow lines, so to speak, they can grow and flourish within the boundaries while staying on the right path toward their greatest potential. Children who are not corrected, coached, and guided have a very hard time finding their way in this big and confusing world.

The question then remains, what do I do instead of punishment or permissiveness? The answer is to look for solutions rather than punishments.

Children need to learn how to fix their mistakes, not just pay for them.

At the time an incident occurs, first look for the reason behind the behavior. What could be happening to cause him to behave in such a way? Is he hungry or tired? Has he had enough positive attention? Does he need to learn a new skill that will help him to manage himself better? Next, draw him in close. I know this is counter-cultural because we are told this rewards poor behavior, but children need to feel that our love and affection for them is not dependent upon how they perform. It is withstanding and unwavering.

This drawing close is what enables them to receive the instruction we are about to provide. So rather than hardening and bringing down an iron fist, we actually soften because this allows them to soften and regulate their brains if they’re upset. It allows their “thinking brain” to re-engage and then we can problem-solve. Finally, we look for a solution to the problem, and we engage them in helping find that solution.

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