The Problem with Positive Parenting

It seems like positive parenting is everywhere all of a sudden, but maybe I’m just paying more attention as I write about parenting, and get farther away from the all-consuming, brain-mushing infant and toddler years. The super-short version: Positive parenting emphasizes responsiveness over reactivity, tuning into the emotional needs of our children, using “firm compassion” in our discipline, looking beneath the surface for the WHY of problem behaviors, and focusing on how our interactions now are shaping a lifelong relationship with our children. No pressure. No problem. Except one big one . . . there are monumental reasons this can feel impossible, leading us to feel more like we are failing. But we’re not.

I recently shared an article from a positive parenting advocate who wrote about ideas for how to respond more effectively to sibling fighting. At a birthday dinner that night, a friend confessed she had clicked on the article and started to feel like an incompetent parent, thinking: “Does Emily really do all this? How does she do this?”  She realized it was not my blog post, and felt immediate relief.

As I immerse myself more in the world of online parenting, I have noticed how pervasive positive parenting headlines and articles are, and that I wasn’t reading them because the headlines themselves made me feel guilty or like I was failing.

I persevered, though, and began reading the articles, listening to writers and parents alike trumpeting the many transformational aspects of positive parenting. I wavered between feeling vindicated that much of what I read was a natural part of my parenting, and feeling inferior because other parts seemed downright impossible and unrealistic.

So here’s my final take (for now at least – who knows how more years of parenting may change my mind!): there is one central problem with the philosophy of positive parenting. It’s exhausting.

The problem with positive parenting is parents don’t have enough support in our modern world of parenting to do it well, while staying healthy and balanced ourselves.

You know how much calm and patience those toddler tantrums require when we are remembering that our response is part of building a lifelong relationship with them as human beings? That restraint can suck the life out of us, especially when we are already depleted.

As a child psychologist I am totally on board with empathy for our children and taking time to consider where they are coming from in an intense moment. That approach has absolutely helped me parent more effectively and helped my children express themselves more appropriately in the moment and over time.

I have also hit an emotional wall where what feels like hours of staying calm, patient, and responsive instead of reactive (when it’s probably more like 20 minutes) ends with me finally exploding because I just can’t anymore. Cue a more upset child and a very guilty mom.

Not long ago, I had possibly the worst preschool pick-up in my 9 plus years of parenting, but maybe I have just blocked out some other doozies. Anyways, my 4-year-old son greeted me with resistance every step of the process to get out the door. I remained calm, reflecting his frustrations, showing him I was trying to understand him, encouraging us to come up with solutions together.

When we finally started driving, some unmemorable grievance set him off and the screaming started. I stayed steady. His snow boots flew around the car, which of course triggered a stern reminder about safety. We picked up his sisters and the screaming continued. When we got home, I scooped him up and took him to his room to rock him while he cried. I cried too.

It had been an especially rough couple weeks, likely because of returning to school after the 2-week winter break, and adjusting to a new teacher because his main teacher was on maternity leave. I truly understood these transitions challenged my sensitive son, yet I felt so helpless to help him.

I share this because these kinds of episodes – which happen more or less often depending on your child’s temperament – take an inordinate amount of emotional energy.

The problem with positive parenting is parents don’t have enough support in our modern world of parenting to do it well, while staying healthy and balanced ourselves.

Internalizing or repressing our emotions is considered unhealthy psychologically, and is a risk for depression and anxiety, which are pervasive especially for women and mothers. I’m in no way suggesting we express our more intense emotions toward our children, but there is a cumulative effect of swallowing anger and frustration.

I’m guessing the positive parenting advocates would argue that putting into practice their approaches actually makes parenting easier and less emotionally taxing. They might be right, but it sure doesn’t happen right away.

Because the fluid reality is many of us have more than one child, so we face the early year challenges again (and again . . . and again), each child is their own personality puzzle to work out, and developmental milestones wreak havoc on what we finally mastered. I could go on and on about the moving target that is parenting – figure something out, and it’s guaranteed to change the next day. This does not even account for the toll on co-parenting relationships, whether maritally joined or not. And all of these examples are just the internal parts of parenting that challenge us every day – the inner lives of ourselves and our families.

Then there is the world of demands outside of parenting. Terrible maternity and paternity leave policies. Subpar maternal and postpartum health care. The most demanding work weeks in the developed world. Unprecedented financial pressures thanks to exorbitant student loans and skyrocketing health care costs. All of this matters to our health and well-being.

Positive Parenting

Positive Parenting

I will share that I have lived the difference between a stressed-to-the-max mother and a medium-stressed mother. In the five years I had my three children, I worked in academic medical settings with very high expectations of basically doing three jobs in one work week: clinical services, research, and teaching. My work was emotionally draining and I always had a long list of what I did not accomplish each day, all while the pressure of doing enough to be promoted on the faculty track hung heavy and constant, like a weighted shadow. 

I can still see in my mind the long hallway of the daily preschool pick-up, as I would summon every ounce of energy to shift from my work day to my second “job” of being a great Mom. Each night, I had absolutely nothing left, only to start again at 6 am the next morning.

Then life changed. We moved for my husband’s job opportunity. I found a very different type of job, starting part-time, and it took about a year to lose that nagging anxiety that I had to do more, that I was missing something.

But here’s the secret: I am doing those positive parenting things so much more naturally now that I have a more balanced life.  I didn’t really know it was positive parenting until I paid more attention to it, but it became so much easier to slow down with my kids, stay in the moment, and tune into their emotions and needs, which has made parenting easier.

I could do it because I am sleeping again. I have time by myself. I can exercise several times a week. I have time and space to take care of myself.

I don’t share all this very often because I know many parents don’t have this option, and it’s not fair to say, “Just get a different job! Have a more balanced life! Practice self-care! Parenting will be so much easier!”

The reality is many of us are barely treading water. I know because I was there. And I will tell you I flat out did not have the energy or resources to truly do positive parenting, no matter how much I believed in parts of it, or agreed it would help my kids. I had close to nothing left in me, and was running on fumes for years.

What positive parenting is missing is that we need to change a whole bunch about our current external realities. Changing within only goes so far when so many demands and pressures push right against the actualization of our ideal parent selves. We need these outer layers of support in place to enable all of us to be calmer and more grounded with our children, whether we identify as doing “positive parenting,” “attachment parenting,” or “whatever-I’m-doing-is-my-type” parenting (my personal category).

At the birthday dinner of true mom confessions about losing patience with our kids, we laughed and commiserated about our own lack of “positive parenting.”

But a note to all of you who could have been sitting with us at that table, when I look at our children and how we interact with them lovingly and authentically, I know we are building real and beautiful relationships by being who we are. I see these relationships all around me in my village of friends, family, and community.

When we really look at what we do have and what we are creating, rather than focus so much on what we are not doing, then I think we can see and BE the positive . . . while we wait/advocate for/insist on the culture valuing us and our children as much as we do.