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Positive Discipline:Smarter Parenting Advice?

Posted Jan 04 2013 3:58pm
While I'm on a positive roll here, check out Smarter Ways to Discipline Children , a recent article over at the Wall Street Journal about the power of so-called positive discipline. 

Positive Discipline?

A misnomer of sorts. It isn't so much about discipline in the sense of on-the-spot punishment or stopping bad behavior as it happens but more of a long-term strategy designed to elicit good behavior and prevent temper tantrums, cussing and the like. Think of it as a life-style choice akin to eating organic or shopping local. Of course the approach is much more effortful and time-consuming than simply reacting (i.e.yelling, issuing empty threats, spanking) to isolated outbursts
The general strategy is this: Instead of just focusing on what happens when a child acts out, parents should first decide what behaviors they want to see in their kids (cleaning their room, getting ready for school on time, playing nicely with a sibling). Then they praise those behaviors when they see them. "You start praising them and it increases the frequency of good behavior," says Timothy Verduin, clinical assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the Child Study Center at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York. Smarter Ways to Discipline Children.
The article goes on to explain "hundreds" of studies bear out the benefits of this approach. A fair claim but whenever I read about positive discipline I wonder to what extent it "works" because the parents who practice it don't really need to resort to other measures, meaning they don't have as many unfavorable events in the household (or toy aisle) - their kids aren't acting up. However, a number of studies do demonstrate better behavior when parents start using these techniques. I'm a fan of this approach because I do think it does make life easier (and more enjoyable) in the long run but I often suspect the confounding factors aren't teased apart enough.

According to Andrea Petersen, the author of the article, positive discipline and its techniques "remain little known among the general public." Is this true? I think many if not most parents know the importance of a kind, loving, affectionate relationship with their children but they might not perceive this type of nurturing as discipline or behavior management per se. The How To Parent genre probably does not regularly spell it out so specifically. 

The positive/life-style approach might also explain why parents who produce lovely, well-behaved children (those you don't mind inviting into your home) often don't seem to know what it is they do specifically to produce such fine citizens - because they're doing it on a daily basis in small doses in nearly imperceptible ways, in listening and speaking to their children, setting limits, negotiating disparate needs and desires in a relatively relaxed and respectful environment.

Now I don't know of any research on this particular issue (parental awareness of their own successful parenting behavior) but it's a not uncommon theme among child psychologists. To outside observers (i.e. not the psychologists) and possibly even themselves, it looks and feels like these parents aren't doing much behavior management when in fact they are communicating positive behavior and expectations in subtle daily interactions including modeling (remember Albert Bandura from Psych 101?).

With all this talk of positive this and that not to mention the appeal of Positive Psychology , it should be noted there is still a place in modern parenting for the disapproving glare and swift reprimand. Don't count out the not-so-positive just yet (note the study cited in the WSJ article).

Positive discipline doesn't work well in the short-term. Does wonders in the long-term but not when your son torpedoes his sister's carefully arranged grouping of America Girl dolls and accessories. Go figure, this is not the time to praise young Dylan's large motor skills. But if you're reading this you likely already know it and don't even think about it too much.

Just how much positive are we talking? Alan E. Kazdin, a professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University recommends parents put out three or four praises for every time out. Or as the kid in Parental Guidance put it three put-ups for every put-down.  I wonder if that ratio is based on empirical evidence?

Clearly the forty-something movie parents here, Marisa Tomei and Tom Everett Scott know this ratio and practice Positive Parenting. Not so grandma Bette Midler. After daughter Marisa bad-mouths her mother's parenting approach, Bette muses "we have an approach?".  Best line of the movie the New York Times kindly described as  what families desperate to get out of the house watched over the holidays. It was a long winter break, thank you.

Now I really want to know about that three put-up rule. Cannot find it's source after a quick internet search. Screenwriters know it.  I've heard it before too but does it come from an empirical study? Anyone? I've tweeted the Yale Parenting center and emailed Dr. Kazdin, I'm not exactly holding my breath.

And no, you may not praise your kid's intelligences, natural athletic ability or kindness.  Praise the effort, the persistent work, in other words, not innate or perceived as innate abilities.  Why? Poor performance can then be attributed to not being smart, gifted, athletic, musical, etc and can lead to decreased effort, lower grades, poor self-esteem and one suspects, sulking and obsessive gaming.

P.S. I'm still finishing up my 2012 reads but will post the Best Parenting Books 2012 next week. I have been too busy reading the Best of 2012 to post on it. If you had a favorite contender this past year, email me or put a comment here.  Trying to put together a list of reader favorites too. 

UPDATE: I didn't have to hold my breath. I owe an apology to Alan Kazdin who quickly replied to my email about the 3 positive to 1 negative. I"ll post on it Monday.  Love to now but I'm too busymaintaining my zen while inserting compliments and affectionate glances (i.e. smiles) into the remaining hours until my children, hubby and I return to our normally spastic day to day life.  
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