You’re a positive parent, or working on becoming one. You’re proud of the choice you’ve made; it feels instinctive and your child is thriving. He trusts you as you’re striving to build a strong connection. You expect your child to grow into a happy, confident and independent adult.
But does your mother-in-law say you’re soft? Does your neighbour say you need to discipline your child? Perhaps you’ve also heard friends make comments about parenting styles and you wonder if they’re criticizing you. “He’ll never learn to self-soothe if you don’t let him cry.” “He’s overly attached to her.” “She’s upset, quick, distract her!” “She needs to tell him who’s in charge.”
Western society expects a parenting approach centered on adult’s wants rather than children’s needs. Punishments, time-outs, threats and rewards have become normal tools in the parenting toolbox.
So, when you’re swimming against the tide of conventional parenting how do you defend your choices? How do you silence the critics? I wondered the same. So I delved into the science and psychology of positive parenting. Want to know what I found out?
WHEN DOES THE BRAIN GROW UP?
As we evolved to walk on two legs rather than four, the size of the female pelvis reduced considerably. Childbirth became more challenging, so evolution cleverly reduced the size of the infant brain to allow for natural childbirth.
Compared to other mammals, the human brain is tiny at birth; a mere 25% of its ultimate adult size. Scientists have found animals born into hostile environments tend to have larger infant brains to help them survive. Zebras, for example, need to be able to run with the herd just hours after birth — their relatively mature brains help them run and respond appropriately when a lion appears.
Nature always has a survival strategy in place. So, what is the survival strategy for human babies with such tiny brains? Easy. Mum and Dad.
Babies are designed to form secure attachments with their parents. John Bowlby, British psychoanalyst and Founder of Attachment Theory, hypothesized healthy attachment is crucial to promote emotional regulation. And is vital for optimal brain development. Our interactions with our children, whether positive or negative, affect the way their brains grow.
The National Institute of Mental Health suggests the brain doesn’t fully mature until our mid-late twenties. The frontal lobe, responsible for judgment, planning, assessing risks, and decision-making is the last region to complete development around age 30. So, what does this mean for us, as parents?
We need to be patient and flexible with our kids — whether they are toddlers, tweens or teenagers. No matter how smart we think our four year old is he simply doesn’t have the brain of a ten year old.
Kids are often incapable of the unrealistic expectations we place on them; they may simply be beyond their stage of brain development. We may hope they’ll behave with self-discipline and self-control, but until their brains mature, our kids are doing their best no matter what others may say.
POSITIVE PARENTING ENCOURAGES BRAIN DEVELOPMENT
Albert Einstein once said the most important question for us to answer is, “Is this a friendly universe?” Infancy is when we answer that question. We are adaptable precisely because we are unfinished at birth. Babies “build” a brain, that’s best suited to the environment they experience.
In his popular book The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, Dr. Dan Siegel, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA, warns the experiences we provide our children with lay the groundwork for healthy brain integration and long-term mental health.
Consider a baby who has been put down to sleep alone. He immediately feels unsafe. His cave baby instincts tell him a saber-toothed tiger may be lurking in the dark. His little body is flooded with the stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. He starts to cry.
His mother picks him up and soothes him. He relaxes. His body sends out comforting biochemicals which help create neural pathways for self-soothing. As this pattern is repeated his brain becomes wired to believe the universe is friendly. He is safe. In time, he’ll be able to use those neural pathways to soothe himself.
Well-known developmental psychologist Erik Erikson proposed healthy healthy psychological outcomes are dependent on the quality of infant caregiving. When the balance of care is sympathetic babies grow into children who naturally trust the world. And trusting children feel confident about venturing out and exploring independently.
TODDLERS, TANTRUMS AND THE TERRIBLE TWOS
Toddlers build up stress hormones as they cope with the challenges of daily life. But the part of the brain, which allows them to express strong emotions verbally, the frontal cortex, still isn’t fully developed. Luckily, nature designed toddlers with a foolproof method to release emotional overload: tantrums.
Toddlers don’t enjoy tantrums. They don’t intentionally “throw” a tantrum to manipulate us. Tantrums are outside a toddler’s control and when emotions overwhelm a toddler, their brain isn’t able to maintain rational control. Their physiology helps restore equilibrium by having a meltdown to release negative feelings and frustrations. Positive parents see tantrums as an opportunity to connect and deepen the trust our children already have in us.
So, what’s the best way to deal with a tantrum? Firstly, remember a tantrum is not a reflection on you. It’s normal. You are an amazing parent. Take a deep breath.
Then, sit patiently with your child. Hold her close. Empathize. Give her words so she can understand her emotions. “You are so upset. You’re sad to say good-bye to Daddy. You’re crying…” Acknowledge her anger and frustrations, accept her emotions and wait it out. By doing this you’re strengthening her belief that the universe is a safe place and she’ll feel free to explore her feelings no matter how messy they may be.
The naysayers to positive parenting may suggest walking away until your child calms down. They might tell you you’re “rewarding” the tantrum by acknowledging it. They may claim you’re making the tantrums worse.
WHY ARE THE NAYSAYERS WRONG?
When young children feel abandoned, they become anxious. The tantrum may temporarily stop, but you risk creating deep insecurity. We don’t treat a toddler as a “failure” for stumbling as they learn to walk. So why would we treat them harshly when they stumble through their emotional growth?
How we respond to children’s messy emotions and behavior determines what kind of brain they build. Compassion and empathetic guidance help toddlers develop a brain that can regulate itself emotionally within a few short years.
THE BRAIN STARTS TO GAIN CONTROL
By age six, children’s nervous systems are almost completely wired. Your child’s ability to trust, self-soothe and empathize has been established, and he has developed a working model of relationships. His experiences have given him a clear picture about what to expect from people. And he has developed strategies to manage his own emotions.
In her book Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, Dr Laura Markham suggests kids who believe they can’t rely on adults to help them self-regulate have “big feelings” that burst out easily. Whereas kids who are unsure whether they can count on adults may seem more controlled. But they’re more fragile than they look. They may act nonchalant but their little hearts are racing.
The lucky kids who’ve had positive parents understand and self-regulate their emotions most of the time. They feel secure. They’ve built internal highways to deliver soothing biochemicals, which regulate fear and anger responses. They use their full brain power to function at a higher level. They feel comfortable in their own skin and with other people’s emotions, so they’re able to connect deeply with others.
Of course those connections with others aren’t always friendly. So, when your four-year-old daughter hits her baby brother, and your “naysaying” friend suggests she needs to be disciplined, how do you respond?By daring to break free from traditional punishment-based discipline!
DARE TO NOT DISCIPLINE
The science is in. It’s consistent and compelling. Want to raise a child who is kind, happy, cooperative, self-disciplined and whom you can trust to do the right thing as a teenager? Never use punishment.
No time outs. No spanking. No threats. No yelling. No cry it out. Punishment erodes your connection with your child. And without connection your child has zero motivation to behave as you’d like. Connection is your parenting superpower. It is the only reason kids give up what they want to do and do what you want instead. They trust you and don’t want to disappoint you. If you lose connection parenting becomes a lot more difficult.
WHY PUNISHMENT DOESN’T WORK
Punishment is intended to hurt a child either physically or psychologically. It aims to teach a lesson. To avoid “bad” behavior again. Studies show, however, that punishment encourages more bad behavior. And more punishment. And so the cycle begins.
How does punishment make the child feel? He begins to believe he is “bad.” Bad for having naughty feelings. Wrong for misbehaving. Wicked for making us, parents, angry. A child who thinks he’s bad will act badly.
Punishment prevents children from taking personal responsibility for their actions. An authority figure hands out punishment. Subconsciously he doesn’t believe he can behave on his own. He begins to rely on the authority figure to “make” him behave.
And punishment teaches kids to focus on whether they’ll get caught and punished, rather than on the negative impact of their behavior. It impedes moral development.
PUNISHMENT BY ANY OTHER NAME
Psychologist Elizabeth Thompson Gershoff analyzed more than 80 studies and found a “strong correlation” between corporal punishment and negative behaviors (including increased aggression and antisocial behavior). Among her findings Gershoff reported a 2009 study which concluded children who were frequently spanked “had less gray matter in certain areas of the prefrontal cortex that have been linked to depression, addiction and other mental health disorders.”
Damaging effects aren’t limited to physical punishment. Time outs, threats and rewards offer a new means, but to the same ends — control. Do you really want to control your child?
Barbara Coloroso, parenting consultant, says parents of teenagers often say, “He was such a good kid, so well behaved, so well mannered, so well dressed. Now look at him!”
She offers the following reply: “From the time he was young, he dressed the way you told him to dress; acted the way you told him to act; he said the things you told him to say. He’s been listening to somebody else tell him what to do….he hasn’t changed. He is still listening to somebody else tell him what to do. The problem is, it isn’t you anymore; it’s his peers.”
LOVE AS THE ULTIMATE MOTIVATOR
You love your child unconditionally. All parents do. But, does your child feel loved unconditionally? Psychoanalyst Alice Miller observed it’s possible to love a child “passionately – but not in the way he needs to be loved.”
So is it more important how we love our kids rather than how much? Mainstream discipline techniques erode children’s perception of unconditional love. They make children feel loved only when they behave in a certain way. These techniques try to control children’s behavior by using love as a weapon.
Time outs withdraw love. Rewards shower love. When children feel loved unconditionally they feel good about themselves. They thrive. And live up to their full potential.
GUIDE WITH LOVE
Research has been shown repeatedly that punishing criminals cannot prevent “crimes of passion”. When we are driven by fierce emotions we don’t think rationally.
Imagine your child “misbehaved” by excitedly ripping open the wrapping of a gift at his birthday party. Only five minutes previously you’d asked him to wait until the end of the party.
You gently explain you understand how excited he is. You realize he couldn’t help himself from opening the biggest gift on the table that looked like a yellow digger. You’re not mad but his behavior isn’t appropriate and you’ll talk about it after the party. You give him a hug and he happily goes back to play with his friends. You’re practicing positive parenting.
Then you sense your mother-in-law by your side. She disapprovingly quirks up her eyebrow and says, “That child turned 5 today. He should be able to control himself better. You should have taken away his present for so blatantly disobeying you. You are too soft on him.”
Science tells us our child’s rational brain doesn’t have full control over his emotional brain when he’s only five. When he’s overcome with emotion, positive or negative, it isn’t possible for him to comprehend the punishment he may suffer as a result of his actions.
Is your mother-in-law right? If you don’t start dishing out harsh punishment is your son bound to become a delinquent teenager?
Of course not. Children need their parents for guidance. Loving guidance. Without it they feel unsafe and unsure of their limits in the world. Traditional discipline may be easier. It produces immediate short-term results, especially when kids are young. But it doesn’t work in the long run.
It’s like trying to achieve vibrant health on a diet of fast food. It may make you feel full. It’s cheap and easy. And everyone is eating it. But in the long run it will make you sick, fat and lazy. So, how do we raise healthy, loving, cooperative children? Loving guidance. Model moral behavior. And a super strong connection with our children.
In Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, Dr Laura Markham suggests loving guidance teaches children to assume responsibility for his actions, including making amends and avoiding a repeat, whether the authority figure is present or not much more effectively than traditional discipline. She cites the following reasons:
- Loving guidance increases our influence with our child. It doesn’t suggest permissive parenting, which makes children feel nobody is in charge. Guidance helps children assume self-responsibility. When we guide with love our children see the rules and habits we promote make sense. They’re more likely to “own” them.
- Loving guidance helps children feel safe. It allows children to concentrate on essential developmental tasks. Authoritarian parenting keeps children in a state of anxiety, anticipating the next mess up and subsequent punishment.
- Loving guidance strengthens our bond with our child. When our focus shifts from the bad behavior to our relationship with our child our connection intensifies.
- Loving guidance increases our empathy for our child. Kids aren’t here to give us a hard time. They’re small people trying their best and they sometimes mess up. Loving guidance frees us to feel compassion for our child. Punishment on the other hand demands that we harden our hearts and abandon our children emotionally when they need us most.
As a Positive Parent, you’ve put your child’s needs above the expectations of society. Good for you. The naysayers might have different views. But your choice for positive parenting is the right choice for you. In years from now your kids won’t remember what you said, but they’ll remember how you made them feel.
“One generation full of deeply loving parents would change the brain of the next generation, and with that, the world.” – Charles Raison