Skip to Main Content

Positive Parenting by Dr Penelope Leach


The central issue in any discussion about discipline and punishment is children’s rights to the same protection from interpersonal violence enjoyed by everyone else.

Forty countries have made this law with several more to come. The UK is still not among them but there are signs of change in Northern Ireland and worldwide. Firstly the establishment of the Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland, pledged to uphold the principles of the United Nations commission on the Rights of the Child and to serve as a helpful umbrella for member agencies, including CiNI and Children Are Unbeatable, is hugely important. And the establishment of Creative Learning Centres where young people can use animation, film and graphics to develop messgaes on the need for legal reform of parents' rights to use physical punishment, and in favour of positive parenting methods, is really exciting.

Secondly, the last decade has seen a boom in research into infant brain development which is transforming our understanding of child development. We've discovered that more brain development takes place in the first year than all the rest put together and we’ve found out a lot about what stimulates brain growth and development both positively and negatively. And the most important of those is parents.

It’s easy to understand, even obvious, that a baby’s environment and the way he is treated affects his physical health and his behaviour, but your parenting affects something much more basic than a baby’s behaviour: it affects the actual structure and functioning of his brain. And that isn’t obvious at all. From the moment of birth – and in the last couple of antenatal months as well - babies attach themselves emotionally to their mothers or, after birth, to whoever mothers them, and the tuned-in-ness and responsiveness of mothers to their babies, is crucial to all aspects of lifelong development: to emotional stability and mental health and to physical health as well, as a child and as an adult.

When a baby is born his brain is an unfinished project: the parents’ project. At least three quarters of his upper brain – (that’s the cerebral cortex whose great size and complexity is what makes humans different from all other animals) is going to grow and develop after birth: extremely rapidly during the first year, rapidly in the second year and only somewhat more slowly in the third. How that brain develops and weaves itself together during those years is not due only to his overall growth or to the genes parents passed on, but also to the relationship each develops with him.

At birth the left hand "thinking" part of the brain is in the future so a young baby doesn't think; he reacts. And that means he cannot learn he can only experience. His right brain (and newly separated body) experiences and reacts to deep primitive feelings: to fear and anger, to excitement and joy, but because he himself does not have the brain capacity to 'regulate' those overwhelming feelings he relies on his "primary attachment figure", to lend his brain to keeping him in balance, bringing him back from terror or excitement to calm.

That attachment is a two-way street. The mother finds herself tuned in to her baby's feelings and those feelings produce a response in her, which in turn produces a response in the baby whose instinctive behaviours, such as clinging and sucking and eventually smiling help her attunement along. A tuned-in mother has her baby always somewhere in her mind whatever else she is doing, and responds to him without consciously thinking about it. You'll probably find that when your baby cries you don't need to use your adult, developed left brain to think about what you've heard or plan what to do; you simply respond, leave the TV and start towards the cot before you're even aware of having heard the baby cry.

A baby's brain development has depended on interaction with the mother ever since he was in the womb. It’s not only environmental pollution, or the mother smoking or drinking, that can delay or distort a foetus’ brain development: acute stress in the mother can do it too. If you are really upset or anxious, the hormonal environment your baby is floating in will pick it up and pass it on. So for the sake of their babies, everybody should be nice to pregnant women – and that’s not a joke.

Once he or she has been delivered, the baby's brain absolutely and immediately requires these human intimate experiences for its optimal growth. A new baby cannot remain in limbo while her mother takes a couple of days to recover from the birth or her father settles things at work before starting paternity leave and getting into parenting. Worldwide research is showing that a secure attachment to their mothers is crucial to all aspects of babies’ lifelong development. And that secure attachment is promoted by mothers who are sensitive and responsive to their babies, and protect them as far as possible from stress.

It's easy to see (and hear) that it's very stressful for a baby to be left crying hard and alone. What can't be seen - and research has only recently explained - is that acute stress is never good for babies and too much of it can actually be damaging to their brains and their development. When researchers compare children of any age on any aspect of development - learning language, resilience when things go wrong, sociable play with other children - the tuned-in-ness and responsiveness of their mothers in the first year explains more of the difference between children’s achievements than anything else.

I don’t want to hold things up with a long explanation of extremely complicated brain research but here’s a summary of what happens when a baby experiences acute and continuing distress. A hormonal chain reaction begins and stimulates the adrenal glands into releasing a ‘stress hormone’ called Cortisol. The stress response system, (known as the HPA axis) goes on pumping out Cortisol, flooding the baby's body and brain, until someone turns it off by comforting him. High levels of Cortisol that build up over time because nobody does come to him can be literally toxic to a young baby's rapidly developing brain. Repeated episodes can permanently affect his response system so that it becomes hypersensitive and he over-reacts to minor stress with major fear and anxiety, not only as a baby but as a child and an adult too. So people who say things like this: “There’s nothing wrong with training a two-month h­old baby to sleep through at night. Mothers need their sleep and a bit of crying doesn't hurt a baby” should be careful. It may hurt him and certainly isn’t good for him. And it probably isn’t good for his parents to have to listen to him crying either. Sometimes a baby cries and nothing seems to help but it’s always worth keeping on trying because it’s not crying that is so stressful for babies but crying that gets no response.

Trying to give babies what they seem to need will give parents more of what they need too. A baby’s needs can seem to be - and at the beginning often are - non-stop so that being alert and responsive to them all the time isn’t easy. But babies are not out to ‘get at’ parents. Responding to them as quickly and positively as possible doesn’t turn babies into bullies or parents into victims. On the contrary, this is the beginning of positive parenting. British and Danish researchers comparing the behaviour of babies in the first three months of life found that babies on parent-led scheduled routines spent 50% more time crying than those whose care was baby-centred, e.g. at five weeks, 121 minutes per 24 hours as compared with 82 minutes.

Now brand new research - and the first of its kind - has shown that the impact of feeding routines in the first year continues throughout childhood. 10,000 American parents of children aged 14 were divided into those who demand fed or scheduled their babies in the first year. The children’s records, examined for ages 2 & 4 & 8 & 12 years old, showed that at each age and irrespective of family background, children who had been demand fed did notably much better in all school assessments than children who had been fed on schedule. In the last months of the first year babies are often so intensely attached to parents that they’re reluctant to be separated from them - for minutes, let alone hours. Unfortunately this is often also a stage in parents' lives when maternity leave finally runs out and they are expected (and may want) to re-orientate themselves away from the nursery and towards the adult world. The baby clings, the outside world beckons and parents are caught in the middle.

It can be a difficult time, but the more calmly, cheerfully, companionably parents can help babies work their way through the end of babyhood, the readier they'll be to say that “two is terrific” rather than terrible. Being positive now is what will carry you through the next year or two so try to find ways of staying on your baby's side whatever he does; making the most of the good bits of each day, seeing the funny side of some of the other bits and never letting yourself, or any adult who is involved with him, see your baby as your enemy.

The trick is to try to look at life from his point of view as well as your own and to laugh (gently) at yourselves and each other when you get small irritations out of proportion. Everyone has bad days and good days, but the balance between the two for parents is really important especially when your child is crossing the long bridge between baby and toddler. The happier you all are overall, the more inclined you’ll be to welcome signs that he is growing up even when you don’t actually like a particular new behaviour: when you’re ten months old spitting on purpose isn’t naughty but very clever!

On his feet, clad in a very small pair of jeans and looking at you with what can only be described as a cheeky expression, your baby-come-toddler may suddenly seem much more grownup (and a lot less biddable!) than he did last week. It's at this stage in babies' lives, and in the context of those bad days, that many parents – and sometimes their parents too - begin to think and talk about discipline. The timing is fine but the bad-day context is not because your nearly-mobile, almost-talking baby is only just beginning to be able to understand some of the things you want him to do and some of the things that are forbidden. He can understand what ‘no’ means, for example, provided the context is clear, but he’s still nowhere near to understanding why you approve and disapprove of particular behaviours and that means that he is nowhere near ready to learn anything from your anger or disappointment when he doesn't cooperate, or when he breaks something or makes a mess.

He can see that Grandma likes it when he ‘waves bye-bye’ and it’s because he likes her being pleased with him that he’s likely to do it again next time. But that doesn’t mean that he understands why she is pleased or why granddad is displeased when he’s refused a kiss. Those adult reactions will certainly upset him but they’ll teach him nothing useful because he does not yet have the brainpower to learn from them. Adult anger seems to him to gather out of nothing: an act of god; a thunderbolt. How would you feel if the beloved family dog suddenly got up and savaged you? Your baby feels something like that when you are cross with him.

The saddest mistake a parent of a baby this age can make is to think that he actually is, or should be, as grownup as he seems and to treat him that way. Think through one of those “bad days”. Your baby woke with the kind of dirty nappy that meant cleaning him up had you running behind schedule before you ever got him and yourself dressed. When you got down to the kitchen for breakfast he had no way of knowing that grabbing your arm in its clean shirt with a hand covered in yoghurt - was the "last straw" on a really bad morning. He didn’t know the hand-yoghurt-shirt combo was a really bad idea or that it was a bad morning or what that means. If he sensed anything at all as you raced around the kitchen, late and multi-tasking, it will only have been your general tension. He won’t have liked it but he won’t have understood it either.

Try not to be one of the many parents whom research suggests say “Stop that”; and “don’t touch” every nine minutes on average, or one of the more than 50% who still smack babies under two. Those figures are depressing, in the year 2014 when we really do know that scolding and punishing isn’t a good way to deal with undesirable (or inconvenient and irritating) behaviour and that smacking is just plain wrong.

Twenty years ago those might have been matters of opinion: now they are scientific facts. The people who say things like: “It’s never too soon for discipline: start as you mean to go on.” “ Don’t let that child rule the roost” and “giving in to him is just making a rod for your own back.” are actually wrong. Try not to take any notice.

You cannot discipline a baby in the true sense of teaching him how to behave, as you can and should when he is a child. However hard you try to teach him he won’t learn to control his behaviour in this first eighteen months. He won’t because he can’t. He can’t because the part of his brain that controls his social understanding and behaviour – the orbitofrontal cortex – only began to develop after he was born and won’t be fully functional for another year or two. Unfortunately, though, this is a time in your child’s life when it’s all too easy to start being negative, and once you’ve started it’s really hard to stop. That’s why you need to make being positive a deliberate policy.

We all bring up children according to the customs and beliefs of our own families and society, so we can’t assume that what feels right to us– whoever we may be –will necessarily seem good – or even acceptable - in others. But although your neighbour may have very different ideas about children than you have, one of the basics of childrearing that we all share, is ‘discipline’; every parent has to be concerned about discipline because that word really means teaching children how to behave and while WHAT is taught – how parents want their children to behave - will vary from community to community, teaching something is universal.

The ideal stimulus for human brain growth and development is being talked to by adults. This isn't just a new take on the well-known fact that babies who are talked to a lot learn to talk faster and better than others. This is about babies who are talked to a lot (and listened to when they respond) having more and richer interconnections in their brains and therefore being brighter overall. That early developmental advantage seems to last too. Recent studies have shown that children who got the most talk in babyhood have higher IQ scores at three years and at nine. It works something like this: stimulated by being talked to and played with and smiled at and all the rest, a baby’s brain grows a truly fantastic number of neurones and connections between neurones during his first few months – more than he’ll ever need to use. Over the next year or more there’s a sort of pruning process: the neurones that are used get more and more interconnected but the neurones that aren’t used just drop out. So the baby’s daily experiences, and the use he makes of his brain in making sense of them, actually dictate its physical structure and complexity. And the people doing the talking are responsible not just for the way children use their brains but literally for building them. By the way it must be people because the talk that helps interconnect the most neurones has to be human talk, not TV, or infant education DVDs, or baby computers. Do the manufacturers of Hi-Tec baby toys who advertise their products as ‘educational’ know this and ignore it or just not realise? Even one-to-one, though, some adults talk to babies three times as much as others (measured, literally, as words per hour). Maybe chattiness is something we should add to the list of qualities we look for in a child minder?

If arguments based on children’s rights can’t convert households to positive discipline, children’s behaviour might. Large studies using new statistical techniques do now show that whatever behaviour a particular family in a particular community wants from their children, they are more likely to get it by using positive disciplinary techniques. And if we want good kids who are also as smart as they can be, we need positive rather than negative discipline. So what is that? The main difference between positive and negative discipline is in the motives adults ascribe to children. The positive kind assumes (rightly) that children love us as we love them; that they want to please us and that it’s our job to show them how. The negative kind assumes (wrongly) that children are born bad, or at least selfish and uncaring, and have to be forced to toe the line. The crux of positive discipline is to make sure children have a nicer time - that usually means get more attention from adults - when they’re a pleasure than when they’re a pain. Part of being positive is telling kids how we want them to behave and praising them when they do well rather than waiting till they make a mistake and then telling them off. And, crucially, setting a good example, because if there’s any conflict between what you do and what you say, kids will copy the action rather than obey the words. “You are not to hit your sister”, growls Dad, giving Jamey a good smack on the bottom.

Punishments make children angry instead of sorry. It’s rewards that motivate them to try to please.The peculiar thing is that modern business management knows all this but it doesn’t get applied to family management. Can you imagine a line-manager being as rude to his staff for being late to work as parents often are to their children for being slow out of bed?

Spanking is still taken-for-granted in some households and some parents make the point that when a toddler or preschool child is doing something you’ve told her not to, or goes on doing something when she’s been warned to stop, a quick smack will stop her. But large studies do now show that while a smack may stop a child doing something daft or dangerous right now, (because he’s busy crying) it does NOT help him learn how to behave. On the contrary, latest studies show that frequently spanked toddlers are five times as bolshy as others; that spanked six years olds are twice as likely to be physically aggressive in the school playground; that older children who are spanked are more likely to become violent teenagers and criminal adults. And, most recently, that spanking doesn't only make children more aggressive and difficult than children who were similar in every other way, it may also tend to reduce their school performance.

Just as talk is good for brain development so violence is bad. It’s thought that experience of violence, especially repeated violence, in the first three years, can provoke profound, possibly permanent distortions of growth in different areas of the brain. We're not talking here of physical brain damage caused by being shaken or hit around the head; we're talking about damage to the way the brain’s neurones and nerve-impulses join up. An experience of violence – such as being in a major car smash, or seeing his mother being beaten up by his father or being hit himself – makes a neural pathway in the baby's brain, rather as walking over a frozen lawn makes muddy footprints that quickly turn into a path. That first walk across the muddy lawn only left temporary footprints, but do it all winter and by spring there’s a permanent mud-path. Likewise once violence has made a neural pathway, much lesser experiences of violence can deepen it. And the more violence or fear of violence is repeated, the more deeply that baby brain is affected. Young brains such as these are said to be ‘hyper vigilant’. They have their ‘fight or flight’ reactions permanently switched on ‘in case’ so they can’t devote so much brainpower to learning or thinking.

Although smacking and other physical punishments are the most negative kinds of discipline of all, just not hitting or physically hurting a child doesn’t make your discipline positive. Even without overt violence, parental anger, disapproval, or rejection can cause stress and fear that risk distorting a young child’s rapidly developing brain. Repeated episodes can permanently affect his response system so that it becomes hyper­sensitive and the child over-reacts to minor stress with major fear and anxiety, not only as a baby but as a child and as an adult too.

If you want children to be good, make them feel good. Children of positive parents seldom get formally punished. If they’re punished at all it’s usually by the results of their own actions and the effect of those actions on you. They wouldn’t come in from the garden and now there isn’t time to make the promised muffins for tea.

In the same way those children often get 'rewarded' not with sweets or gifts but by the results of their own actions, often by pleasing you and putting you in a good mood. “You were a real help bringing in all those shopping bags. Now we’re in time for your programme and I’m going to make you a hot chocolate to have with it.” That kind of 'reward' is the positive way to go. In fact the real alternative to punishing children who do wrong so that they feel bad, is rewarding children who do right so that they feel good. If you want a child to behave in a more grownup way, don't tell him he’s babyish; it's feeling competent that will make him feel able to become so.

Whatever the issue - toilet training or table manners, learning to read or learning to swim, being a bully or not, standing up for himself - making children feel good works far better than making them feel bad. The same applies to older children and even to those who have definitely been 'bad': humiliating a child who is caught cheating in a game or a test or exam almost guarantees that she will continue to cheat even if she takes more trouble not to be caught. Help her take pride in what she can honestly do, and she will not need to cheat.

Your own attention is your most powerful tool in positive discipline. Remember I spoke about the enormous importance of babies’ attachment to their mothers before and after birth, and increasingly to their fathers when they become toddlers? Well, if small children could have their way they'd mostly have their parents’ attention all the time and all to themselves. They can't have their way, of course, parents have other things to do and perhaps other children to pay attention to. But the more strictly the attention they can have is rationed, the more they want it and the less they care what kind it is. Your toddler who's holding up her arms to you and saying "uppy-uppy Mum, uppy", would like you to pick her up and give her a hug, but if you try to ignore her because you're in the middle of cooking tea, she’ll start whining to attract your attention even if you scold her. She’d rather you scolded her than ignored her. In fact if your small children are like most small children, they'd rather anything than be ignored.

That makes parents’ attention a powerful force in family life but it’s not often used positively: If children want our attention, it stands to reason that getting attention is a reward and being ignored is a punishment, right? Logically that means that children should get more attention when they behave well and less - or none - when they behave badly, but do they? A lot of busy parents and teachers operate on a sort of ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ principle, ignoring children when they are no trouble and paying attention only when they have to. Which of your children do you keep checking on: not the child who is peacefully playing but the one who is playing up.

And which child’s hand do you always hold when you go out? Not the sensible, cooperative child, but the one who can't be trusted to stay safe unless you keep warning and grabbing. Used in that way your attention rewards children for being a pain instead of for being a pleasure, and it often leaves children who are being ‘good’ wondering what they have to do to get their share of your attention.

Reversing the way you use your attention is an important step on the way to positive discipline. If you redistribute it from times when a child is ‘behaving badly’ to times when she is being ‘good’, you’ll find you can save time on scolding and spend it on praising instead.

So how does it work? What happens to the child who expected to get scolded? Nothing: she gets ignored. And what happens to the no-trouble child who’s just getting on with playing? She may find that you’re admiring her picture or her puzzle. This doesn't always work, of course, because you can't ignore all bad behaviour. You can’t let your eight-year old son hit the four year old over the head with a fire truck, for instance. But even if you have to pay attention to bad behaviour you can still make sure that the child who’s doing wrong gets less attention than the child who isn’t. Concentrate first on comforting the hurt child rather than on punishing the one who did the hurting.

Sometimes parents worry that rewarding good behaviour with extra attention will ‘spoil’ their child. That's a sad misunderstanding of what ‘spoiling’ is. ‘Spoiling’ isn't about what a child gets, it’s about how he gets it.You can't spoil children with too much talk, play and laughter; too many smiles and hugs, or even, dare I say it, too many presents, provided you give them because you want to. Spoiling is about giving in to children who are bullying and blackmailing you to give when you don’t want to. Your child will not get spoiled because you buy sweets at the supermarket checkout, but he may get spoiled if you tell him ‘no sweets’ and he then finds he can blackmail you into reversing that decision by throwing a tantrum or just going on and on and on. In other words children don’t get spoiled if parents have the courage of their convictions and the energy to carry them through. And that applies to setting limits and enforcing them. Limits aren’t just something adults impose on children. We all have to observe certain limits because they mark out our space from other people’s. You can buy any car you can afford but where and how you drive it is limited; speed limits, seat belt and drink-driving laws are the price we pay for being part of society. Children need parents and other adults to set extra limits, to keep them safe while they learn to keep themselves safe; to control them while they develop self-control, and to make sure they don't lose their own space or trespass on other people's while they learn vital lessons for socialised living like ‘do as you would be done by’.

A limit is only an effective and positive tool if a child cannot break it. So a vital tip for staying positive about children’s behaviour is "Don't set a limit unless you intend to do whatever it takes to keep it secure." however boring it may be. Your eighteen month-old keeps heading for the stairs. A stair gate is an effective physical limit but it’s a bore for adults to have to keep stepping over it. Playing up in the supermarket is commonplace but if obviously positive things like sitting a toddler in the trolley or getting an older child to find the things you need off the shelves don’t work, you could leave. OK, you don’t want to. You’d have to come back another time. It would all be very tiresome, but you will have stuck to your guns and the child will have learned something about how to behave. I’m sorry to have to say that a lot of trouble over discipline is due to parents’ boredom or tiredness or shortage of time rather than children’s naughtiness.

In fact many commonplace issues in family discipline, are easy to deal with if parents can find the energy for positive participation. Suppose you want your child to spend less time looking at a screen and more time being active outdoors. You can make rules about screen-time but however hard you try to enforce them they’ll get broken when you’re not looking or when you yourself suddenly fancy playing a computer game or when you just can’t face another squabble. The way to make a child do less of one thing that he enjoys is to provide him with more of another. So what can you offer him that will tempt him up and out? Football in the garden with you the minute you get home from work? The grown-up privilege of taking the dog for a walk? Different things will work in different families but the principle is the same for all: offer do this instead of don’t do that.

Children model their own behaviour on their parents, so the more positive your parenting and your approach to discipline has been, the sooner your child will begin to behave as you wish because he knows he should rather than because you make him.

It works the other way around too, though. The more negative you have been, the more resistant and even aggressive your child will be. And being hit always risks aggression becoming violent. Some of the other traditional ways we’ve all dealt with children’s aggression in the past were misguided, too. We know and can do better now. Violent toys really do increase aggression. It used to be said that it’s not worth banning toy guns and so forth because even if you don't buy guns, boys will use Lego constructions or sticks (or bananas) instead.

It’s true that they will but not true that you might as well buy the gun, because a banana and a cap pistol aren’t the same. The Lego or the stick can be many things, (including a gun) but the play weapon can only be a gun so by giving it to him adults tell the child ‘it's OK to play fight-games’.

Research shows that groups of 2-6 years olds using play weapons play more aggressively than children with only do-it-yourself armaments - and what's more the children stay aggressive and hyped up for nearly twice as long. However reluctant people may be to believe it, violence on TV or in TV games does give children an appetite for more. People sometimes say that when children play violent video games, they ‘get it out of their systems’. But research suggests that the more they see and play, the more violence they can tolerate and eventually enjoy. Some children in primary school actually work at building up their own tolerance for more and more horrific games.

You can’t get rid of aggression by walloping pillows, either (or even learning to box). Anger is a feeling. Feelings don't get used up. You can’t get them over with. Children need to learn how to recognise their own feelings - including anger, frustration and sadness - how to cope with the way they feel inside, and how to express feelings non-violently: using words, not blows. The more you have done all that for them, through trying always to be positive, the more quickly and easily they will learn to do it for themselves. It’s positive discipline from the beginning that will build self-discipline as your child grows up and it’s self-discipline that will probably save all of you from the worst battles of the teen years.

Dr Penelope Leach is a research psychologist, specialising in child development, a passionate advocate for parents, and a mother of two and grandmother of six.

Leave a Reply

© Copyright 2021 Children In Northern Ireland