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, my kids and I had stopped at the grocery store for three items.
We needed yogurt, almond milk, tomato soup and we’d be outta there.
As we speed-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. Instantly, they entered into a screaming match. 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.
This wasn’t the first time someone had disapproved of my parenting style.
The fact I don’t punish my children has been the subject of unsolicited criticism before. For instance, 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.
In the absence of punishment, outsiders sometimes assume my parenting is permissive.
As someone who uses positive parenting, I do my best to forgo the use of:
- traditional timeouts,
- shaming, and
- power exertion to get my children to listen.
Many seem to think that permissive parenting exists in the absence of punishment. They view positive and permissive parents as one in the same.
Related download: Here are Effective Strategies to Get Your Kids to Listen
What behavioural science tells us…
Developmental psychology has established four distinct styles of parenting and only one relies on punishment.
- Authoritarian parenting (or strict parenting) uses lecturing, punishment, threats and shaming to get children to obey. It is a high discipline, low warmth style of parenting.
- Neglectful parenting is ambivalent to the moral and emotional development of the child. The parent tends to turn a blind eye towards a child’s behaviour whether it is difficult or favourable. It is low warmth, low discipline.
- Permissive parenting avoids punishment and discipline. Parents who fall into this category on tend to avoid conflict because they don’t want their child to cry or get upset. They see appeasing the child’s desires as more practical than enforcing boundaries. This parenting style is high warmth, low discipline.
- Authoritative parenting or positive parenting is the parenting style of parenting recommended by developmental psychologists as parents set and reinforce boundaries. They are responsive and kind. This parenting style is high discipline, high warmth.
This is why positive parenting can be mistaken for permissive parenting
As previously mentioned, authoritative parenting avoids punitive disciplinary measures. To the unknowing eye, this style of parenting seems permissive. Many of us have been raised to believe that forcing children to comply is the best way to parent. (Countless studies prove otherwise.) In addition to omitting punishment, authoritative 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
In the grocery store example, if I had chosen a permissive approach to the conflict over emoji cookies, I would have bought both vanilla and chocolate. (Note: I am not a perfect parent and have conceded in the past.) A positive approach seeks both understand and coach the child.
Additionally, positive or authoritative parenting establishes rules and expectations proactively. Then, if the child fails to make good choices, the parent uses positive disciplinary measures to teach them.
For instance, on a road trip, we will discuss that the trip will take a long time, we will take breaks, and that the kids have to keep their bodies to themselves.
If they don’t listen, we will pull over to the side of the road and wait until they are ready to listen.
Or, another example is that if one of them is loud while we’re in the library, I will take them to the foyer and remind him to use an inside voice. I let him know we can’t go back into the library until he’s ready to use an inside voice.
Related reading: When Positive Parenting Fails, This is What You Can Do
When it comes to emotion, positive parents don’t discipline emotion only behaviour. Parents understand that, like adults, children experience a wide range of emotions. They don’t use phrases like, “Stop crying,” or “Calm down.” However, they do tell their children how to express their emotions appropriately. For example, they can use their words, deep breathe, scream into their bedroom, draw angry drawings, clench and open their fists, or walk away.
A final note about parenting styles
Parenting styles aren’t absolute. As is the case with all aspects of life, there are moments where 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!” The more my husband and I coach our children, the more I’m noticing they are internalizing our values and responding to our guidance. Positive parenting is about the long game and it warms my heart to see the pieces start falling into place.
Related reading on positive discipline