Positive reinforcement has become one of the most important and fundamental traits of my parenting style. Being a positive parent builds and benefits the relationship that I have with my daughter. It benefits my daughters’ emotional intelligence and builds her self awareness, which only makes our life easier and more enjoyable. She learns more about me, about us, about herself and how feelings work. For understanding sake, I consider positive reinforcement a form of discipline. This is how I see it:
“Discipline” is not a thing that I do to my daughter. It is a relationship that helps us to move through our days smoothly. I try to keep it positive. The more positive interactions I have with my daughter the easier it is to have more, because she works toward them as much as I do. In any given situation where I feel our interactions escalating toward conflict I try to assess what my goals are. Example: She won’t get her shoes on, and we need to go. I ask her to. I ask again, and I tell her. Then I tell her firmly. At that point I need to do an assessment. Do I want her to put her shoes on, or do I want her to listen to me? I want her to put her shoes on so we can leave. So, if she’s resisting, I move positively around the conflict and try another approach. (Children seem to love conflict and will butt heads any chance they can get. – it’s not true, but that’s how it feels in the moment) Instead of raising my voice and making her listen to me, I turn the shoe into a monster who is hungry for feet and indulge the chasing game. Outcome: I got her shoes on, and we’re both happy; we can go. The goal was met. The fact that she was not “listening” to me when I asked her to get her shoes on was only a conflict when I had pride and power over her. I do not seek for her to obey. I seek for her to cooperate, and cooperation must be taught. Or rather, skills toward cooperation must be taught. She didn’t misbehave, she just responded better to a different approach—the one that felt happy and easy. That means that I can choose to see that interaction as a learning point for me, not negative point for her. After that interaction, we can walk out the door, having worked together to get there. It was a positive experience and she feels good about having put her shoes on and about listening to mommy. Kids want to please, it feels good. The next time I ask her to put her shoes on, and she knows she can have fun at it, the conflict is even easier to avoid because she’s learned from the last positive experience we had. Even better: Positive reinforcement doesn’t end in the moment of the interaction. It’s about making positive things outweigh the negative ones. After we get in the car, I thank her for the fun time getting shoes on today. I can replay our game with words and tell her why it made me smile. I can ask her if she liked it and why. Our chances of having another happy experience go way up. (Disclaimer: This is a very simplified story to demonstrate an approach of positive parenting, not an example of how smoothly parenting ever really goes. Also, it is not to say that foot monster must be played forever more just to get shoes on. But it is a good start.).
Laying a history of positive actions and reactions is like gold to a parent child relationship. It is like the essential oil to any well running machine. Sure, you could get your child to obey by escalating every conflict to the battle that you will win through power. But what is that really teaching your child? They can only do things according to how you say. They will not be heard/ considered. They should never question anything. In order to maintain peace and order they should not think or feel; only do, and do right. According to how you say. To stop trying. It seems harsh, but its reality. Every interaction with a child is teaching them how you think of them and what is expected of them. It translates directly to how they feel about themselves. It gives them information about how capable they are, and how interesting they are. It teaches them how to exist with and manage their emotions… or not. In that way, positive reinforcement is vital to any childs’ healthy development.
The key part of a positive parenting relationship is emotions. Most of the actions in a child’s day are motivated by some emotion or another. Be they good happy emotions or dark scary ones, they can be and are often very overwhelming. The more your child knows about their feelings and how to manage (not contain) them, the easier it is to teach and guide them. Yesterday, my daughter tried and tried to talk to her friend about a conflict they were having. She was trying to do the right thing. When he didn’t listen, she began raising her voice. “Listen to me!!!” Of course, that made him yell too “You aren’t listening to ME!!” Unfortunately, that interaction didn’t go how they wanted it to and they both became too overwhelmed with frustration to “talk”. My daughter kicked him and walked away. Did she “misbehave”? Well, yea. She kicked him. She also knows that I care and that she can look to me for help when she’s out of control. She came to me and I sat her on my lap. I asked her to tell me what happened. Then I told her what I’d heard. (They were in the adjacent hallway). I played out the whole thing in a way that made sense to her. I complimented her on trying and pointed out what she’d done right. I told her she’d had the right idea. Also that talking while you’re angry and to someone who is angry is a very hard thing to do. At the end I, very seriously, addressed the kicking. I confirmed with her that no matter how frustrated you get trying to talk to your friends, you should never kick them. She really got it. She already knew that, and she got it again. I could have “thrown” her into a time out which would have escalated her emotions to being completely uncontrollable. Imagine that level of frustration and no support or skills to help you manage? Imagine being that lost and angry and isolated. I’d have a “tantrum” too! I couldn’t do that to her. She knows that she has a positive place in me and a safe place to learn. She didn’t want to kick him. I know that. One of my jobs as a mother is to help her learn to navigate her relationships and emotions in a way that feels good for her and creates the outcomes she wants. My job is definitely not to make her stifle her feelings and feel lost and scared with no tools at her disposal.