People always say, “Children don’t come with handbooks.” That’s certainly true, leading many of us to turn to the model of our own upbringing to inform our parenting style, or the advice of our friends or the parenting section of the local bookstore. However, I recently learned about one parenting handbook, called Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen, who together with Lynn Lott and others, has written many books about this approach to parenting. There are even Certified Positive Discipline facilitators who lead experiential classes to help parents put this technique into practice. One such instructor is Mary Lynn Fiske. I first met Mary Lynn when I took her Bradley Method Childbirth class during my first pregnancy. In addition to birthing classes, she now offers Positive Discipline (PD) instruction. In part-one of this two-part series, Mary Lynn gives us an introduction to the concept of Positive Discipline Parenting.
What is Positive Discipline Parenting and how were you first introduced to it?
I was on holiday at my sister-in-law’s house looking for something to read and picked up a book about Positive Discipline from the bedside table. As I read, I thought, “Wow! This is unbelievable.” It was 1997. My daughter was five at the time and like every parent I came to a point where I was saying things I thought I’d never say. When you don’t know what to do, you do things that were done to you. I got so bowled over because I thought, “This is the answer!” It ‘s an approach to parenting based on Adlerian Psychology, the philosophies of Alfred Adler and Rudolf Dreikurs, who were active in the early and middle part of the 1900’s. It is a non-punitive way to raise children. Parents tend to be either too permissive or too authoritarian and don’t know how to find that middle ground. “I love you and… it’s time to brush your teeth and go to bed.” As parents we want to empower and encourage, to be kind and firm, with the emphasis on the “and”. It’s about learning life skills. The family is the laboratory for learning about life, everything from learning how to manage your emotions to learning how to set the table. In the laboratory of the family kids see how Mom and Dad treat each other and solve differences, particularly through the family meeting. When we go to work we have meetings to work on projects and solve problems. Well, at home, family meetings have the same purpose.
How is this technique different from other parenting techniques?
We don’t want to be the police. We want to be the guide. We teach that problems and mistakes are opportunities for learning, not for punishment. For example, my child came to me one day and asked: “What do you think is a really good mark in math?” I said, “Well, for you, since I know what you are capable of, I’d say the 85 is the bottom.” Then I realized what was happening, that maybe she was anxious about a poor grade, so I asked: “Are you telling me you had a test and it didn’t go so well?” She said, ”Yes, I got a 65.” So I said, “Well what’s your next step?” We looked at the test and saw what she got wrong. You don’t just put 65 in the closet and hide it from your parents. You say okay, I got this wrong, how can I do better? She realized peer tutoring was available, and that the teacher held an after-school help session once a week. To me, it was important for her to ask herself if the initial mark she got represented the best she could do. I didn’t want her to think: “Oh, my parents will be mad at me for doing poorly on a test.” At our house, we’re not punitive about marks because we want our kids to be self-directed. Kids with parents who are punitive about marks will hide their insufficiencies rather than learn from them.
What is Adlerian psychology?
Adlerian psychology maintains that kids are always looking for belonging and significance. They also want personal power and autonomy. They do everything they can to find this belonging and significance. Sometimes they choose misguided ways. In PD we call these mistaken goals. PD also aims to teach kids life skills, to help them become capable, competent adults. I have a story about that. We were visiting the family of a 12 year-old kid whose parents felt that everything was dangerous and never allowed their child to do anything for himself including plugging in the toaster. There was another child there, about 6 years old, who had parents who actually taught their kids how to do things. The older child said: “I want to make some toast, but I’m not allowed to plug in the toaster!” The 6 year-old came over and showed him how to do it, how to properly hold the plug and how to put it in and pull it out of the socket. Sounds crazy, right? But if you take time for training, you develop kids with skills, autonomy and confidence. There was a whole self-esteem movement for a while. With PD, we feel that true self-esteem comes from a sense of belonging and significance and being capable and having autonomy. I doesn’t come from someone constantly telling you: “You’re great!” That’s coming from outside. We want that to come from inside. We want kids who think and feel. “I know that I’m capable. I know I have value. I know how to do stuff: manage my homework, manage my feelings, manage my relationships, run the vacuum, make myself a sandwich or a cup of tea.” I had a friend whose roommate’s mother would come in to clean her university dorm room every Saturday. Think of it! That was a parent who couldn’t let go, of course; but it was also a kid who may never have been taught how to tidy her room or who felt she had a really good system going – or both! When we don’t teach our kids skills, don’t invite our kids in to do stuff, we are doing them a disservice because we are putting people out into the world who are incompetent or who are co-dependent.
Mary Lynn Fiske is a Certified Positive Discipline Parent Educator and Certified Positive Discipline Classroom Educator. She facilitates Positive Discipline classes for parents and for teachers. She also has over twenty years experience as a childbirth educator and doula. Mary Lynn has two children, ages 22 and 15.