Positive Parenting: Case Study #1

Positive parenting, or democratic parenting, is essentially parenting as if your children are human beings who deserve the same amount of respect as the adults in the household. It is about raising your children to understand that they are part of a community, with rights and obligations, and it's about getting them to behave without punishments or rewards. It's also evidence-based parenting, with a grounding in scientific research and knowledge of neurological development and psychology.

I was raised with respect and I want to raise my children with respect, so I am using the tools of positive parenting to guide me.

My leaders in this endeavour are Alfie Kohn and Alyson Schäfer. They have both written excellent books on the subject. Both Alyson Schäfer's books are about positive parenting (although I prefer The Good Mom Myth), and Alfie Kohn's parenting book is called Unconditional Parenting. If you're interested in positive parenting I recommend you pick up one or both of those books. (And then everything else Kohn has written, because he's awesome.)

I'm not an expert on psychology or positive parenting, so I'm not going to give out advice here, but what I will do is write about situations in our house, and how we managed them. Some of these situations go smoothly, some of them don't, so I'll talk about what I think worked, and what I wish I had done differently. I hope this will give other parents some ideas about how to parent positively, and I'll admit I hope that rehashing these situations will reinforce my knowledge of positive parenting, and help me apply positive parenting techniques more often.

What Happened: Today Delphine (6) was invited to a friend's birthday party. Fifteen minutes before we were to leave for the party, I told Delphine it was time to get ready. She was wearing a stained t-shirt and a pair of leggings with a hole in it, so I told her she would have to change into something nicer.

She hated that idea. She wanted to wear what she was wearing, because (she said) she didn't have any other leggings. (It was a gymnastics party so she wanted to wear leggings rather than jeans or a skirt.) I stuck to my guns and explained that in our culture we show respect for people by wearing clean clothes to their gatherings. Delphine countered with "But Erika won't care!" Which is probably true, but I pointed out that Erika's mom will care, and she did most of the work for the party. We finally got to the point where I said I wouldn't take her to the party unless she had some clean clothes on.

The situation was resolved by Blake going upstairs with Delphine to help her pick out something appropriate—she ended up borrowing a pair of leggings from Cordelia. It took quite a lot of gentle persuasion and friendly helpfulness from Blake to get everything smoothed over.

What I Wish I Had Done: I wish I had started the whole conversation by saying "In our culture, we show respect and affection for people by wearing clean, tidy clothes to their special occasions. Are you happy with the clothes you're wearing, or would you like to find something else?" Alyson Schäfer (can I just call her Alyson?) calls that TTFT, or Take Time For Training. Usually she's talking about more mechanical things, like doing up a zipper or cleaning a bathroom, but it applies to social conventions, too. Giving Delphine ownership of the problem would make her feel responsible, and there's a pretty good chance she would have just changed without a fuss.

If she still protested I could have gone with the "when-then" tactic: "When you're dressed for a birthday party, then I will take you to the party." That's a little more coercive because I'm basically saying, "I won't take you to the party until you're dressed the way I want you to be dressed", but the wording is impersonal and it does reflect the needs of the situation (societal norms) rather than what I want. (Rather conveniently, what I want is for Delphine to conform to societal norms. When she's older she can go to parties dressed like a slob, but she's still young enough that I don't think she fully understands the messages that dressing inappropriately sends.)

Finally I wish we had started the whole thing earlier. One of Alfie Kohn's parenting guidelines is "Don't be in a hurry", and it's great advice if you can manage it. So much household tension is caused by running short of time. If I had left more time, we might still have had the drama but at least it wouldn't have forced us to rush out the door after Delphine got changed.

In the end, Delphine got to the party on time, in nice clean clothes, and hopefully we all learned something.