To the unknowing eye, positive parenting can be mistaken for permissive parenting. This is because positive parents forgo the use of punishment and listen to their children’s feelings. Here is the crucial difference between the two parenting styles.
My daughter and oldest son were in the throes of a heated argument when a store attendant got uncomfortably close to us.
Moments earlier, we stopped at the grocery store for three items.
We needed yogurt, almond milk, and tomato soup. Then, we’d be outta there.
As we sped-walked past the cookie aisle, my daughter spotted emoji cookies.
“Mama, can we get some puleez?”
I paused. It had been a while since we had had sweets in the house.
“Sure,” I answered.
My son lept for joy. “Yaaaaaaay! Emoji cookies!”
At that moment, my daughter realized there was more than one flavour and swapped the vanilla out for chocolate. This change of cookie plans was not what my son bargained for and they went toe-to-toe.
That’s when the attendant in the wine section took a meter-sized step away from her kiosk in our direction.
The lady stood uncomfortably close to my children’s feud.
Ignoring her blatant surveillance, I crouched down to my daughter’s level and asked if she would switch back to vanilla.
“But I really want chocolate!”
Still squatting, I turned to my son. “You’re pretty angry she switched the cookies, aren’t you?” He nodded as his frustration started to dissipate. “How about next time we choose cookies for the family, you get to decide?” He smiled and nodded. As I stood back up and turned back to my cart, the spectating sales associate made eye contact with me and shook her head. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she said and then resumed her post.
Though I had diffused the altercation between my oldest children, her feelings towards me were palpable.
This wasn’t the first time someone had disapproved of my parenting style.
The fact I avoid punishing my children can be the source of unsolicited criticism. Recently, my neighbour implied I should spank my son because he was upset he had to take his bike home from the park. And, I have heard more than once that my strong-willed daughter would benefit from harsh punishment and stricter parenting.
But it’s not confined to IRL situations, on social media, my articles invariably see comments like:
“Spare the rod, spoil the child,” and
“If this were the case, then why are there so many acts of violence today?”
In the absence of punishment, many assume that there is also an absence of discipline.
People who favour positive discipline, do their best to avoid or entirely forego the use of:
- traditional timeouts,
- shaming, and
- forcing children to listen.
It is important to note that removing these actions from discipline does not mean a parent has stopped teaching or guiding their child. It also doesn’t mean that the parent is focused on befriending instead of parenting their kids. There are three distinct styles of parenting and only one focuses on rigid rules and obedience.
Related download: Here are Effective Strategies to Get Your Kids to Listen
Baumrind‘s research throughout the 1960s and early 1970s revealed three distinct parenting styles:
- Authoritarian parenting (or strict parenting) tends to favour a “because I say so” approach to discipline. They may be more inclined to lecture, threaten, or punish children in the interest of promoting obedience. They have rigid rules, little explanation, and low warmth when disciplining their children. As a result, their children tend to be more obedient, but also struggle more with mental health, have poor internalized moral reasoning and more antisocial behaviour.
- Permissive parenting avoids punishment and is indulgent. Parents who fall into this category tend to avoid conflict because they don’t want their children to cry or get upset. They see appeasing the child’s desires as more practical than enforcing boundaries. This parenting style is high in warmth and low discipline.
- Authoritative parenting or positive parenting is the sweet spot in between. This style of parenting honour’s child’s perspective, and provides explanations for rules and expectations with warmth and respect. Though parents using this style of parenting may not agree with or give in to the child’s wishes, they nevertheless respect the child’s viewpoint and feelings. They tend to work with the child to improve cooperation rather than by asserting authority to get compliance.
Related reading: The best and worst consequences for moral development
Because positive parenting avoids punitive disciplinary measures, it may seem permissive.
Instead of providing a demonstrative response to challenging behaviour like yelling or chastizing, positive parenting is more subtle. Many of us have been raised to believe that forcing children to comply is the best way to parent. In addition to omitting punishment, positive parenting can seem permissive because parents:
- listen to their children when they’re upset,
- acknowledge their feelings,
- take into account what their children have said,
- do not punish feelings,
- answer the children’s questions about why they are being disciplined, and
- are affectionate and attentive.
Fostering empathy, the ability to identify with another person’s feelings, can serve as an antidote to aggression and is crucial to good parenting.
– M. Gordon
This is how positive parenting differs from permissive parenting
Permissive and positive parenting differ in one key way – teaching.
Positive parents abandon arbitrary punishment to teach their children based on the issue the child is facing. Permissive parents tend to appease the child. It may be that whenever my children cry for emoji cookies they get both flavours or any time they are upset, I try to compensate them or remove any obstacles in their way.
Instead, a positive approach seeks to calm the child by expressing understanding and then coaching. Though the parent is perspective-taking (e.g., “I know you want to try all the emoji cookie flavours. It’s upsetting that your sister got to choose and you didn’t”) while maintaining boundaries. It’s important to note this doesn’t mean I wouldn’t ever buy two flavours of cookies, simply that isn’t my default when there is a fight.
Related reading: How to discipline a child. Why science says this is the best approach.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, harsh parenting doesn’t work the way it is intended to.
Authoritarian parenting does increase compliance, but it doesn’t address the root of the child’s behaviour.
Children tend to comply in the short term out of fear of punishment, suppress their feelings and act the way they are scolded or threatened into acting.
But the root of the behaviour isn’t addressed.
Not only that, but these children tend to become reliant on external pressures or extrinsic motivation to obey.
Over the long term, parents tend to discipline out of anger, are strict, and are controlling have children who are more likely to be defiant, experience depression, anxiety, issues with substance abuse and engage in delinquent behaviour.
Research shows that at-risk youth show the greatest improvements when parents adopt positive parenting strategies.
While many may still insist that the way to address at-risk youth is with more structure, more authority and more punishments, research shows this is not the case. The most effective interventions for at-risk youth, teens that show callous and unemotional tendencies, have had run-ins with the law, or are engaging in risky behaviour such as drug experimentation, experience the greatest benefits when parents approach conflict from a place of compassion (examples include the Triple P Program and the Connect Attachment Program). These programs teach parents to explain their rules, show warmth and understanding, and empathize while maintaining boundaries. The evidence from these programs is compelling. In a two-year follow-up, teens who had gone through the Connect Program had reduced their disruptive behaviours by 75%.
This evidence further reinforces the benefits of positive, compassionate parenting.
A final comment about positive vs. permissive parenting
Parenting styles aren’t absolute. As is the case with all aspects of life, there are moments when we can be ambivalent about our children’s poor choices because we’re exhausted or yell at them out of frustration. Positive parents aren’t perfect parents. They are parents who strive to learn more and do better.
What the wine kiosk attendant failed to see is what goes on behind closed doors. In abandoning traditional or colder forms of punishment, we are teaching our children how to cope with disappointment and make good choices. We explain to our children why they are being disciplined and follow through when they’ve made a bad choice.
That day, my kids went home and both enjoyed the chocolate emoji cookies. That afternoon, my daughter turned to my son, “Hey, next time, remember, it’s your turn to choose!” My son who was already smiling shone with pride. “You’re right. I don’t know what I’ll choose!”
Related reading on positive discipline
Raising good kids: Why forcing kids to behave hurts more than it helps
How to discipline a child: Why replacing harsh punishments with compassion will improve behaviour
Why You Shouldn’t Punish Tantrums and What You Can Do Instead
Cecilia Matta says
Don’t worry you’re not alone. I’m from the Philippines. My parents disciplined my sisters & I without spanking, without harsh words, nor punishment. We’re very close to them. My sisters & I use the same parenting style as what our parents showed us. We call it Discipline with Love. In the school where our kids study, that’s what the school teaches the parents to do and that’s what most of my co-parents prefers too. There are many of us who has the same parenting style.
Alana Pace says
I absolutely love how you call it discipline with love. Thank you so much for your comment and for reading.
Ruth Quiring says
Hello. I really like the positive parenting approach. My husband and I as grandparents are helping our single Dad son in a wheelchair, raise his now 3 1/2 year old son. What I get confused about is how to handle my grandson’s behavior when iit is inappropriate, for instance throwing his toys when he gets frustrated or angry, or screaming loudly when he doesn’t like something. I totally understand not using punishment and acknowledging his feelings, giving him a hug etc. But how to let him know throwing things is not acceptable when he is angry. I can say that but he just keeps throwing. Or let out a blood curdling scream when something upsets him.
In the example you gave about a toddler throwing toys a positive parenting action could be A) pick him up and remove him from the situation while maintaining your calm “You are upset, and it’s okay to be upset. It’s not okay to throw toys, we could hurt someone or break the toy. Let’s sit over here and do deep breaths/talk about what made us upset/etc and when you feel calm you can keep playing.” B) Take the toy away with kindness and calm “I can see you’re upset. I don’t want this to get broken or anyone to get hurt so we will put it up here while we calm down.” Utilize calming strategies. C) recognize the sights of fatigue/overwhelmed kiddo and offer an out “It looks like you might need a break/snack/book read to you/etc, let’s go do that.” Once the initial crisis is passed and you’re in a calm moment talk about why the feeling is okay and the action isn’t the best way to get help with the feeling. Strategize about what could be done next time he feels upset, for example seek out an adult and ask for a hug, do deep breathing, etc. Keep that conversation ongoing You’re right that just saying “We shouldn’t throw.” doesn’t do anything. Addressing why he’s throwing, while making clear that he’s not going to get to keep on throwing is effectively doing something, without punishing him for the act of throwing. Reinforcing when he chooses differently (like if he took a deep breath, asked for a hug, etc) is a great way to shape that direction. What’s most important is not shutting down the “unacceptable” behaviour, but helping him to figure out what’s going on and respond differently.
Kristel Teh says
Hi! My husband and I are first time parents, we’ve discussed before that we wanted to do the positive way of parenting because we want our child to have a more open communication/relationship with us and his future siblings. But, honestly, dealing with a very assertive toddler is difficult, I find myself getting frustrated in some days and I actually yell at my 17 month old son for not listening/obeying me. I feel like I’m turning into a dictator and I hate it. My heart always crush to pieces whenever I see his face when I get mad at him —-scared, sad, and crying. Anyway, we’ve already had a one-on-one session with a preschool teacher to help us better our parenting style and I’m so glad to find your article about it! It encourages me to do better and actually eases the feeling that we’re not alone in this crazy world of trying-to-be-good-parents. Thank you.
Alana Pace says
Very assertive toddlers are difficult. You have my world of empathy. Good for you for working with a preschool teacher. In my earliest days of parenting, an early childhood educator was my lifeline when I wasn’t sure if I was being too strict or too lenient. If ever you have any questions and think I could help, feel free to let me know. We also have a parenting group on facebook for support and encouragement. You can check it out here.
Anonymous Auntie says
Hello, I just wanted to say that this is a fantastic article and thanks so much for posting it and sharing your experiences! I truly think the world could become a better place if we all strove towards positive parenting, even though we may occasionally lose our tempers or roll over and permit behaviors we really shouldn’t. I grew up with two loving parents who believed in giving my brothers and I plenty of freedom and reasoning with us rather than telling us “because I said so!” Of course, they’re not perfect either, and occasionally they did lose their tempers and perhaps even spoiled us sometimes (haha) but for the most part they were/are good parents. Now I am not a parent myself but I am an aunt and I like to occasionally read child-rearing articles like these so I can be better prepared to help raise and babysit my nephew. I was wondering, however, if you might have any advice for dealing with the guilt that comes with disciplining children. As you said in your article, no one wants to be a permissive parent (or caretaker!) But I always feel badly about letting my nephew (who’s still a baby but currently able to walk and learning how to talk) cry. I know I need to be firm and tell him no when he tries to play with things he isn’t allowed to play with or that are dangerous, but I struggle with feeling guilty afterwards. I also am very gentle with my nephew because I’m terrified of hurting him, but sometimes this causes problems for me, because sometimes you do have to be a little rough with kids. For example when pulling them away from something dangerous, like a hot oven, Or another example: holding their hand and not letting them run off when in a public place like a library or supermarket. Do you have any advice for how I can stop feeling guilty and stop being afraid of hurting my baby nephew? Thanks again for writing this article and if you have any advice I’d be extremely grateful! P.S. To be honest, being too gentle was an issue for me back when I took martial arts, too. I’d often find my punches and kicks weren’t hard enough because I was afraid of hurting my training/sparring partner, lol.
I absolutely LOVE this! I am trying to take this approach with my very stubborn 3 year old but Im finding it really hard to not get fustrated. Thank you for sharing this.
“Authoritative parenting or positive parenting is the parenting style of parenting recommended by developmental psychologists as parents set and reinforce boundaries.”
This premise is false. Authoritative parenting is NOT the same as positive parenting. Please don’t distort facts to make your personal choices appear scientifically acceptable.