The Positive Parenting Approach: How to get your kids to listen
Updated: Feb 10
I opened the box from the “Instagram ad got me” purchase a few days ago and read the instructions for the “Time-In Toolkit”. One of the first sentences says “say goodbye to time outs”, and my stomach dropped. It was the height of the pandemic, my two young kids had been home for several months without any childcare support, and while both my husband and I were working full-time, time outs had become a regular occurrence for my three-year-old daughter. My first thought was “how am I going to discipline my child without time outs??”, and my second thought was “my husband is going to kill me.”
I am not going to lie, the conversation with my husband did not go super great. But, after 15 years together he is used to my sometimes off-the-wall ideas and agreed to go along with it. This started the journey for us of making the switch to a positive parenting household.
What is Positive Parenting?
In case you’re new to this idea as I was, positive parenting is a discipline model that focuses on the positive points of parenting, and the idea that all children are born good, altruistic, and desire to do the right thing. It contrasts distinctly with the approach that previous generations of parents were taught and passed down to many of us – the idea that bad behavior is a reflection of a bad child and needs to be corrected so that the child grows up to be a respectful human. The positive parenting approach sees traditional forms of punishment as offering little benefit and instilling feelings of shame and guilt in children that carries on throughout their lives. In fact, the positive parenting approach was popularized in the 1990’s as the positive psychology field began developing, and multiple studies have shown positive outcomes such as fewer behavior problems and lower levels of depression. Take the research, along with the fact that I saw immediate changes in my three-year-old once we started adopting this approach, and I became an instant advocate.
How Does Positive Parenting Work?
In order to know how to practice this style of parenting, it’s helpful to understand the three brains that we all have. Generation Mindful founder Suzanne Tucker labels the three brains as red, yellow, and green lights. The red light brain is the oldest, reptilian part of the brain, or the brain stem. This is the part of the brain that keeps us all alive and is responsible for the fight, flight, or freeze response. The most important thing for this part of the brain is to know that you are safe, and it perceives any dysregulating trigger as not safe. This part of the brain causes the extreme meltdowns that you often experience with children. The yellow light brain is the limbic brain, and it is where attachment happens. This is the state for children where they often become whiny, angry, or hyper. Not to a full-on tantrum, but not behavior that many of us like. The third brain is the green light brain. This is the prefrontal cortex and is where kids become open and rational. This part of the brain doesn’t even come on board until about the age of two and is developing all the way up to around the age of 26. All three brains put your child in a different state of mind, with the ability to take in different forms of communication. This is where the positive parenting approach becomes so useful. The basis of the approach is accepting whatever brain your child is currently in and working with them to move through what they are feeling in that moment. Here is how you would do that, based on the three lights:
Red light – kids are not able to take in any rational reasoning when they are in this brain state. Trying to talk or reason a child out of what they are feeling in this moment will not be useful and will often make matters worse. Have you ever tried to tell a child it’s ok that their food is touching, that it’s not a big deal when they are having a major meltdown? I have, and it is futile. The best thing you can do in this brain state is to either let them express whatever they need to if it’s not harming themselves or others, or use physical touch (such as a hug) to help them regulate. If it is a situation where they are so dysregulated that they want to hit, picking them up and taking them to a separate place to release those emotions can also be a good tool.
Yellow light – whining is often the bane of a parent’s existence, and no amount of knowing these approaches is going to completely remove your agitation with that. However, I have found that knowing how to address the whining in a way that is effective at diminishing it helps me to cope. In this brain state, children are emotional but not completely dysregulated. Emotions are new for little people, so it’s helpful for them when a parent or loved one can help them understand what they are feeling. The approach here is to narrate the story of what happened and how they can move through it. Take for example if your child hit another child because they took their favorite toy. Narrating the story might sound like “I noticed that you were really upset when Sally took your toy. You got angry and hit her. It is ok to be angry, but it wasn’t ok to hit Sally. Let’s take a few deep breaths together to calm your body, and then we will go apologize to her.” Narrating a story for your child helps them to understand what they are feeling, and eventually recognize the feelings for themselves.
Green light – the green light is the easiest place for parents, as it is where we spend a lot of our time as adults. This is where your child is calm and rational, and open to reasoning. There are often not a lot of conflicts between parent and child in this brain state, so it’s a great time to utilize to teach your child something new.
Other Resources to Get You Started
I’m not going to lie; this approach takes a great deal of energy and practice to master if you weren’t taught it growing up (which is my experience). The old adage says it takes a village to raise a child, and I agree with that wholeheartedly, not just in the form of a Saturday night babysitter but also in resources to help me on my parenting journey. If something about this parenting approach speaks to you, then my best advice is to explore additional resources to help you hone the skills required to make it work for you. My favorites are:
Janet Lansbury: her book, No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame, and podcast “Unruffled” have been extremely helpful for me in understanding the concepts and having some practical examples to turn to
Daniel J Siegel's book The Whole Brain Child
Generation Mindful: the company that makes the “Time-In Toolkit” I mentioned at the beginning of this post. This toolkit is a practical way to apply the parenting model, and they also have great articles on their website as well.
My favorite part of this switch in our household has been the change I’ve seen in my daughter. Even though she’s only four years old, every once in a while when she’s in a yellow light situation, she will tell me she wants to go to her calming corner (i.e. space created via the Time-In Toolkit). We will look at her poster and talk about which face she feels like, and why she might feel that way. Half the time she doesn’t really want to engage, but even the start of recognizing that she needs that space is such a win from a few months ago. I can’t wait to see how her awareness and resources unfold as she gets older. While this is the right choice for our household, know that no matter what form of parenting you choose, what a child really needs to succeed is a present parent; and if you’ve gotten to the end of this post then you most certainly are one!