Another title for this article could easily have been 'Prudential Parenting', for parenting is really about doing the right thing at the right time in the specific circumstances for the particular child. Sometimes that is stopping what he is doing, and sometimes it is encouraging him in the right activities. So it is sometimes negative and sometimes positive.
I often give an example of a time when we had just told our children that the discussion about whether or not to go to daily Mass, and their wrong behavior, was over. Their complaining about going to daily Mass had been considered, and rejected. I said to them,
"Here is the deal. From this point on you are not allowed to complain about going to Mass. It's a gift that we can go. There are people all over the world who can't. There have been people, and there still are, who risk their lives to go to Mass. All we have to do is get in the car and drive seven minutes. So, from now on, no complaints. I want you to love to go to Mass, but I can't make you love it. I can tell you, though, that you are not allowed to complain about it."
So that wasn't exactly a positive response to the children. But it did contain a reason for our decision to attend daily Mass, and I have found that is an important factor in 'prudential' parenting. From the time the children were little, we found that the rate of cooperation increased dramatically when they were given a reason for the decisions they were expected to live by. Children are reasoning beings. Their reason may not have perfect control of their actions, but their reason is active and wants to be satisfied. You do have reasons for what you ask of them; I find making those reasons explicit is helpful. This is not, however, asking the children for agreement, or explaining so that they will consider the course of action and decide if they want to do what you ask. Rather, it's part of showing that you are a leader and you know what you are doing. The children need to do what they are told because they are told to do it, and they need to know that you know what you are doing.
Children need clear expectations, simply and confidently stated. More words make you sound less sure. Confidence from the parent is key. Confidence in what you ask, confidence in your expectation that the children will do what you ask, confidence in the reasons you give. Explanation is not a plea. Be clear in your instructions and couch them in terms like "It's time to... " rather than "Let's do this..." "Take out this toy..." rather than "Would you like to play cars..." While explanation is a good thing, if you explain why in the mode of "I think this is a good idea, do you think it's a good idea, too?" the child is going to argue. It's an invitation to say no. "Because I decided this is the right time...", or "We have twenty minutes before dinner. That's a perfect amount of time for a quick pick up. Each of you go to your regular room for pick up and do what you can in fifteen minutes," are good types of explanation. They are positive instruction, not negative reaction. And always say what you have to say calmly, because leaders are in control; they don't yell.
The reason I titled this 'Positive Parenting' rather than 'Prudential Parenting', even though the latter is a truer title, was because I have found over the years, both in my own personal experience and in the experience of the many families I have worked with, two things: Positive interactions are generally so much better than negative interactions in getting the desired behavior from the children, and negative interactions ("Don't do that!" "What on earth were you thinking?" "Stop!!!" "You are driving me crazy!" "Do this right now, before I turn my head, or you are going to regret it!") all seem to happen, for many of us, more naturally and frequently than the positive interactions I described a minute ago.
The good news is that we can learn to have positive rather than negative interactions. When my oldest children were young I was a 'yeller', I am sorry to tell you. I realized, eventually, that it didn't work in getting the results I wanted. I took some steps: one notable one was asking a friend (who has eleven children) to let me have one of her children (who was the same age as one of my children) come and do school with us; I knew I would never yell in front of someone else's child. Another was using 'cognitive therapy' (thinking about what I should have said and done instead of what I did say and do, so that the next time the situation arose I would have a better behavior ready to go). I also talked to Jesus about helping me gain control of my actions and my emotions. All of these remediation techniques helped.
One day, when my children were largely grown, all six of them were sitting around the table; some were married so their spouses were there, too. They got to reminiscing, which is always dangerous. The three oldest, Margaret, Theresa, and John, were talking about how mad mom used to get. "Do you remember the time...?" I was embarrassed. But I couldn't say it didn't happen. My three younger children, however, turned, as one, to their older siblings and said, "What are you talking about? Mom? Mom never yells." I said in my heart, "Thank you, Jesus!" Because they were both right. I did yell at the older kids, and I didn't yell at the younger children. I learned that positive interaction works better generally speaking than negative interactions. So we can change our behavior from negative to positive. I have to say that I think this is one of the great blessings of homeschooling for the homeschooling mom. We all want to be conformed to Christ. We want to act as He would, and as He wants us to. But it's hard in the 'heat' of the moment. Yet God helps us achieve these virtues by showing us that we need to change for the sake of those we love best, for Him and for our family. You can do out of love what you can't do for the sake of the thing itself. I didn't stop yelling because I stopped feeling the need to express my frustration. I stopped because I love my children and I wanted what was best for them more than I wanted to vent my emotions. Curbing my emotions for their sake helped me control the emotions, and I honestly don't have the same reactions I once did. Positive parenting is often about changing our spontaneous reactions to stimuli to more thoughtful, reflective reactions.
I am going to talk about the different times of life, and some approaches I have learned that can be helpful to positive parenting at those stages. But first I want to emphasize that while prudence is the chief virtue in the moral order, children can't have prudence, because it requires experience. This is why obedience is central to the moral life of children. By obedience they participate in the prudence of their parents, who do have experience. It is essential to work on obedience in your children. They will be happier and you will be happier if they are obedient.
But, while obedience is central to their moral universe, obedience is finally no good unless you have their hearts – unless it's a willing obedience, a whole-hearted obedience, a loving obedience. So my primary advice, at every stage, is to make it your business to capture the hearts of your children. How do you do that?
There are many facets of that campaign, but the first is that you are going to need to talk to them. The first time I mentioned how important regular conversation with children is, it was as an aside in a talk I was giving at a conference. It wasn't at all the main point of the talk. But after that talk, not only was it the topic most frequently mentioned to me from the talk, but the other speakers at the conference came to me and said, "I'm going to go home and talk to my children." We homeschool, so we have our children at home with us, but I think many of us talk at our children instead of with them.
Enjoy being with them, and make an effort to spend time with them that is mutually pleasant. But above all, talk to them, and don't talk 'at' them. This is not the conversation you have when you are giving instruction. That should be done as I have already described. Clear expectations, with simple instructions, positively stated. But there should also be real conversation, as soon as the children are old enough. Four and five year olds can have real conversations, and for adolescents it's crucial.
In my experience, if you have those conversations faithfully, thoughtfully, and regularly, your children will come to view the world as you do. They will learn the principles of your decisions and make them their own principles. I think that to have such conversations take place in a one-on-one situation is a factor in their effectiveness. This is not a discussion, in the third person objective voice. This is a heart to heart conversation, that is, more than one-on-one, it is one heart to another heart. There is a natural inclination, when you are talking with only one other person, especially in that mode, to agree with that person. Use that. Talk to your children about the things that are going on in your life. Tell them about the decisions you have to make and how you have arrived at those decisions. Do this with respect to the decisions that affect them, but also those that don't. As you deal with the difficulties in your parish, or reflect on the goodness of one of your friends, or bemoan your inattention to something that you should have paid attention to, verbalize these things to your children. Don't gossip, don't talk about other people for the sake of talking about them, probably don't use the names of the people you are reflecting on, but use the occasions that arise as ways to pass on your understanding of reality.
Now, this kind of conversation with your children does not mean giving a speech. While you are initiating the conversation, it involves listening, and acknowledging that you understand. I was on a pregnancy hotline for nearly 20 years. When I was training to go on the hotline, I learned a very valuable procedure for conversations. Listen actively to what is said to you. Make eye contact if you can, so that the person you are talking to knows that you are listening. (One of my little children would try to assure my attention to his conversation by taking my chin and moving it till I was looking him in the eye. I don't encourage that behavior, but it does show that eye contact indicates interest.) Whether you can look at the person or not (I've had great conversations in the car, but we were both looking at the road), make the sounds of understanding, and follow what is being said well enough to ask questions when you don't understand. Make it clear, whether you agree with the position being presented or not, that you are listening with attention. Then say enough to show that you understand. Talk about your personal experience, if possible. "Yes, I was once in a similar situation, and it was sad, or confusing, or unnerving...". Now you are in a position to give advice, or help, or direction. You have listened, so that it is clear that you do know what the question or position is, and you have said enough to demonstrate your understanding; you have, in fact, established your credentials, so that your child has some reason to think you might really be able to give help.
Our conversations with our children are not always (in fact, they are not usually) in a crisis situation. But many parts of the procedure outlined above are helpful. You need to listen to your children, and you need to establish your interest in them and respect for their understanding, before you can expect them to listen to you. This respect for their understanding comes from a general respect for the children that we want to cultivate.
While your children are under your authority, you can tell that I found it helpful to think of them as friends, too. When one of my children was really struggling with math (he couldn't stay focused, it was taking forever to get done, he was unhappy about it, and as you can imagine, so was I) I found that two things helped. The first was to point to something positive in what he had done. That was good for both of us. ("Nice job on that '5,' honey!" It might not have been much, but it was real and it changed the nature of our interaction.) The second thing was to move the math to the evening when we could do it together. My son saw it as a comradely time; we would put the book between us and each work the lessons. We sort of raced, seeing who could finish the individual problems first and checking our answers against each other. If they agreed we immediately moved on. If they didn't, we figured out who was right. We both improved our math skills, my son saw me model focused attention, and we both enjoyed ourselves. We were comrades in education.
Also, I recommend that you pray for and with your children. That is part of positive parenting. You are both a leader, and a comrade. You are working together to achieve the final goal: the Vision of God. Talk about the importance of being virtuous, and the steps you have taken to achieve it. Ask them to work with you in this quest. One of my kids had real issues with anger. I took him aside and suggested that we pray together after the family's night prayers. We would pray for him, that he got his anger under control, and for me that I would learn to be kinder in my speech, that I would exercise more self-control. We did that together for years. I don't think the other children knew. But he told me, after he was an adult, that this had made a real difference in his life. It made a difference in mine, too. I think that sometimes, because we want to instill the virtue of obedience, which is central in life, we are tempted to be hard on our children in the wrong way. Please, don't misunderstand me. I had high standards and expectations for my own children. I wanted them to be polite, pleasant, honest, helpful, responsible, cooperative, and all the other qualities we try to instill in our children. And I thought it was my job to train them in these virtues. But I think we need to be careful not to humiliate the children.
I was once the witness to a painful situation. A good mother had introduced her fourteen-year-old son to an adult. The child had done well, looking the adult in the eye, shaking hands, and even conversing briefly. I was impressed. Then the adult's attention was claimed by another person. She turned away, and the child started to move off. As a kind of after thought the adult called out, "Goodbye, Sam, nice to meet you." The child sort of nodded, and kept going. The mother was not happy with this, and she called her child back: "Sam, you get back here, and say goodbye politely." She said it loudly enough so that everyone in the vicinity turned to look. The child was embarrassed, and so was the adult. The mom should have waited until they were in private and then suggested to her son that he could have said goodbye more politely. And she should have started out by praising his initial manners. If she had done that, he probably would have done better the next time. As it was, I don't think he would be too eager to be introduced again. If we want our children to be polite to others, they need to be treated with politeness. If we want them to respect us and our opinions, we need to respect them. This doesn't mean that we are not in charge. It means that we accord them the dignity that we should accord all people. This has another aspect. We are to protect our children, not only physically, but in other ways. Part of positive parenting is that the children know you have high and clear expectations for them, but you also 'have their back'. You are a team, and they know that. That is why, among other things, you protect their good name. It is not appropriate to talk negatively about our children to just anyone. It is, of course, appropriate to ask for good advice from those who might be expected to know, but that is not the same as to complain about the child who is being obnoxious to whomever happens to walk down the grocery aisle. These are all aspects of positive parenting.
A few more general observations: positive parenting includes affirmation. This does not mean telling your child what he is good at, though that is important, too, especially when what he is good at is working hard. But we often make the mistake of telling a child who is having trouble, or feeling inferior, that he is really good at something. "You have lots of talents! You make great bread! You are a good dancer! Don't think about how good your sibling is at school, you have other gifts!" While it is good to appreciate everyone's gifts, in this context you are essentially agreeing with the child that his worth is based on what he can do, not on what he is. I have learned, over these years, that it is more important to tell the children that you love them just as they are. That is essential.
Children need to be told that they are loveable and that they are loved. One of the problems, certainly at my house, and perhaps at yours, is that when the children are being good, it just allows us to get on with what has to be done. We often don't even notice, because we are so intent on getting the enormous number of tasks that we have to do done. It's only when the children are being bad that their behavior comes to our attention, because then we can't get on with our tasks. Of course, there's not much incentive for a child to be good if no one notices when he is being good. Also, there's quite a lot of incentive to be bad, because that gets attention.
Children need to be praised on a regular basis. They need to have their good behavior rewarded, much more than their native gifts. "You worked really hard at that, good for you," is so much better than, "You are really smart!" The first is something they have control over, something that is a matter of the will. The latter is outside of their control and can actually make them anxious. They often think, "Oh golly, what if she finds out I'm not really that smart?"
I suggest that you make part of your daily examination of conscience reflection on whether you have praised the children and about what. When you are going to bed at night, think about whether you have remembered to praise George, and Sue, and Tom. And if you haven't, make a resolution to start off tomorrow by doing so. Look for an occasion to praise. It has to be real, but it doesn't have to be large. I think you will find the level of cooperation goes up enormously if you can remember to praise your children regularly.
But more importantly, tell them that you love them, just the way they are, not because of what they do. I met and spent some time with a family that had young children. The oldest of these children was one of those lovely people who are good at everything they do. He was kind, helpful, sweet, intelligent, and perfect in every way. His next sister had a much harder time with life. She had difficulty in school, got angry quickly, was inclined to whine, and as a result had to deal with many corrections from her parents. I saw these children, now and then, as they were growing up, and the situation seemed to stay the same for many years. Then, one time when I visited them after a fairly long period away, I was amazed at the change I saw in the younger girl. She was now just like her older brother, sweet, kind, helpful, and happy. I wondered what had happened, but didn't like to ask, since it wouldn't sound too good to say, "What happened to Jane? She's so pleasant now."
However, I didn't have to ask, because the father, in our conversation, told me himself. He asked, "I don't know if you noticed a change in Jane?" I said, well, yes, I had. He told me that he had been concerned about her and praying for her, and it had come to him in prayer that he should tell her that he loved her. So from that day forward, he had, at some point every day, put his arm around her and told her that he loved her. He said, "Jane, I love you so much; nobody loves you more than I do, except Jesus."
It changed her whole attitude toward life. Reflecting on the situation, I can see why it would. She had probably felt unlovable, because her brother was so lovable. She needed to be assured that she was also loved, and her father did that. We all need to do that. Probably more than any other single thing we can do to help our children cooperate, we need to tell them that we love them more than anyone else does, except Jesus.
My most important insight for positive parenting for young children is the need to be a leader, not just an organizer. We need to be like Alexander the Great and work with the children, not just tell them where to go and what to do. Get involved in their activities, model the activity. Draw together, do a puzzle together, read together. Don't just send them off to do those things, at least not all the time, and not at the beginning of an activity. Little children need the kind of direction that can only be given by presence. They need the formation that comes from immediate responses in the moment, and that is only possible when they are with you in the moment. But, while one should be a leader and not just an organizer, one needs to be an organizer, too. I tell young moms that they need to have a plan for the day. Think of activities for the children (and for yourself) so that the children have direction, but be flexible so that if something is a great hit and the children love doing it, you can stick with that for a while, or if the children suggest a great activity that works, you can pick up on that. I suggest to young moms that they pretend this is a job that they are responsible for, like working at a preschool, and have activities prepared for the day, as they would for such a job, because it is their job.
Of course, with all children, but particularly young children, consistency and follow through are huge. Everyone does better in a universe where the rules are discernable and stable. Knowing what is expected and what to expect is key in developing virtue. So mom should know what her rules are and stick to them. Don't tell someone, for example, if you do that you will have to go to bed, and then not send the child to bed. All he learns from that is that you don't mean what you say. And being a rational person, he is going to want to know what the limits really are. So he will push you to find them.
This means that mom and dad should have some conversations about what their rules are going to be, and what the consequences should be. Harmony in the leadership is a big part of positive parenting. It's less important what the specific rules are than that they are clear, and they are consistently and universally applied. Over these many years now of watching different families grow up, I think I can say with some confidence that it matters much less where you draw your lines, as that you actually draw some lines. Families are different. What movies they think are acceptable, or books, or bedtimes, or food, or dress, are often not identical. But they can all have good results in guiding their children to cheerful virtue, if they have real judgments based on reasonable principles.
The principle of distraction is an important technique in positive parenting with young children. While you sometimes have to just stop bad behavior and make sure it registers as bad behavior, often with toddlers the best thing to do when they are demanding something they shouldn't, or yelling when they shouldn't, or reaching out to strike someone, is to distract them. Offer another toy, or tell them it's time for another activity, or offer to read a story, or show them how to pat someone rather than strike.
For all children, enjoying what you do with them is important. In terms of young children there are various activities that the whole family can enjoy. Read alouds are important. If the children like playing outside, make trips to the park an enjoyable family trip. Take regular walks together and talk about the beautiful features of nature. Go to the zoo together. Play with Play-Doh and Legos and watch good movies together. With young children those are the kinds of activities that are mutually enjoyable. As the children get older, the activities change, but the principle is the same. Have enjoyable time together with each of your children.
The best advice I have for positive parenting with adolescent children is to recognize that your mode has to change. They are older, and they need different kinds of guidance. They are interested in the reasons for things, which is why they keep asking "Why? Why should I do this? Why is that the rule? Why not do this instead?" It's not that they have developed a bad attitude; it's that they have entered a new phase of development.
It seems to me to be just like the baby who moves from sitting quietly in the middle of the blanket to crawling all over the room. In some ways it makes life harder, but we rejoice in the baby's new found ability nonetheless. Similarly, life with the student who has just learned about real, intellectual argument is harder in some ways, but it's very exciting. The children have to learn when and where and how to argue. They still need clear expectations and confident directions. You need rules consistently applied. But as a parent you need to solicit more input from your older children. You need to give more choices (always, of course, between alternatives that are acceptable). You need to really listen to their conversation.
I have found that there are certain elements that will help children, especially adolescent children, be happy. Some of them are what you would expect and some are surprising. For example, I have found that earning money can make a big difference to an adolescent's attitude. He has concerns about his ability to operate in the grown-up world that he is about to enter. Once he knows that he can make money, some of those fears are allayed, and his attitude reflects his increased confidence. Adolescents also need physical activity on a regular basis, and they need to have some interactions with friends. They don't need daily interaction with friends, and they don't need a large group of friends, but they do need a friend; God made us social animals, so we need company, and having a like-minded friend is affirming of one's own values. Most importantly, however, in my experience, for the happiness of your domestic community, is having time together doing something enjoyable.
More than once I have had the experience of counseling someone to make time for her difficult child. "Find something you can do together and that you both enjoy," I say. "Something that won't have you looking at your watch wondering when this quality time will end." I remember saying that to one mother who replied, "I don't think you have been listening to me, Laura. My daughter doesn't 'enjoy' anything, and if she did, I know it wouldn't be something I would enjoy." However, that mom and I came up with some ideas for things they could do together. They finally decided to go to a coffee shop and talk. The mom said later it changed their lives. She said she picked the coffee shop because she really liked coffee, and her daughter (who was about 14) liked going there because it made her feel grown up. They went, ostensibly to talk about literature, but it gave them a place to talk about life, which they hadn't been doing. They had been going to give up on homeschooling, but after a couple of months of weekly trips to the coffee shop neither of them wanted to.
Part of the reason for the success that mother had is that she now had a place in her relationship with her child where she could lay out her deliberation. She could give not only her conclusions, but the reasons for her conclusions. She could cultivate her friendship with her child, making it clear that she enjoyed the time together. She had a place to discuss the 'sticky' issues that sometimes come up in the family community. This practice is very important in achieving the heartfelt cooperation of your children.
Very briefly, I would like to mention two items for young adult children. When the students are in college, even though they can text you regularly, schedule time for conversations. Often with our young adult children the relationship becomes a crisis relationship. You hear from them in a crisis. You want them to continue to be part of the family, sharing your common life. You want them to share their new life with you. Regular scheduled conversations where one just has to chat, say what comes into the mind in order to fill up any 'dead time' on the phone, is a way to do that. Ask about what they do in their day, and follow up on mentions of individuals. With your young married children, my advice is to be ready with advice, but generally wait to give it until asked. Once your children are married, they are forging a new life, incorporating their spouse into their universe. It takes time for two to become one, and only those two can effect that unity. So step back to let them work it out. If you are asked for advice, of course, that's different.
What are some situations you have encountered where you substituted a positive approach for a negative approach and it worked?
What are some situations where you haven't tried a positive approach but you think you should?