This is an interview of Dr. Victoria Nolasco, developmental and behavioral pediatrician and positive parenting coach, by Amy Bronkhost, parent educator, school teacher, and mom.
Positive parenting. Mindful parenting. Gentle Parenting. Conscious parenting. Intentional Parenting.
We hear these terms thrown around all over the place these days. What do they mean? Are they so different that they warrant all the heated debates over the different strategies?
In this interview with Dr Victoria of Discerning Parenting, we discuss how to sift through the different parenting strategies we’re faced with and all the parenting advice to find what’s best for you and your child.
You can listen to the audio here or read the transcript below.
The Craziness Stops Here
Amy: Welcome, Victoria. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your profession?
Victoria: Hi, Amy. I’m a developmental and behavioral pediatrician and I’m also a positive parenting coach. I started Discerning Parenting to help parents, because I saw that a lot of people were getting confused with all the pieces of advice they were getting about parenting.
I felt this when I became a mom, I had hundreds of people giving me parenting advice. Somebody would tell me I need to pick up my child the moment he cries. And then there are people who would tell me to let him cry it out.
So from the moment that people find out you’re pregnant, they’re all giving you unsolicited parenting advice. It can be really confusing and stressful. Parents end up second guessing themselves. And sometimes parents feel that no matter what they do, they’re always doing something wrong. Or they would scroll through their feed and then somebody will say they shouldn’t be doing that.
I thought, the craziness has to stop here. We have to have a way of knowing what is right and wrong in parenting. So we combine the research with the family situation and with our own parental instinct. But with all of the parenting advice around us, sometimes we end up questioning our instinct. We end up thinking that what is right for one situation is right for every situation. So I was hoping to help parents with that through my articles.
A: I love that so much because, especially with social media and everyone on the internet, everybody has an opinion, everyone’s giving parenting advice. And like you said, nobody knows what’s right or wrong. We all hear so many conflicting things.
Four Parenting Styles
I’ve heard you talk a lot about positive parenting, and that’s something that I’ve been focusing on in my work as well. We hear a lot of terms like gentle parenting, positive parenting, conscious parenting, mindful parenting. There are just so many. Is there a difference between all of those or are they pretty much one and the same?
V: The thing is I realized that all of the definitions got muddled up because of all the people talking about them. But, the original definition of positive parenting is actually a parenting style that we call authoritative parenting.
There are many programs by a lot of institutions like World Health Organization, or even UNICEF or the American Academy of Pediatrics, their early brain and child development programs that teach positive parenting to parents.
There are evidence based programs about this, that show that it actually works. It’s an authoritative parenting style. There are four parenting styles that are based on whether a parent is responsive and has a lot of expectations on the child’s behavior:
- If you have a parent who is not responsive and who has low expectations, that’s what we call uninvolved parenting. If you’re reading this blog, if you’re listening to this, I’m pretty sure you’re not an uninvolved parent. So I don’t think we have anything to worry about there.
- If you are high in responsiveness, you’re quite responsive to your kids, but you have very low expectations on how they should behave, then that’s considered permissive parenting.
- On the other hand, the opposite parenting style would be those who have very high expectations on their kids’ behaviors or they’re very demanding, but they’re not responsive. That’s the authoritarian parenting style. In previous generations, the majority of us were raised in an authoritarian parenting style. These are the parents who would spank and who would say, “Because I said so.”
- And what the research found is that if you have both high responsiveness and at the same time you also have high expectations of how your kids should behave and you do it in a positive way, that’s the authoritative parenting style. They found out that actually produces the best outcomes.
How Your Beliefs Define Your Parenting Style
I can send you the links to the research. It’s actually very interesting, and another interesting thing here is how they conducted this research. They actually did questionnaires on parents on what their beliefs were.
So for example, they would ask if the parent believes spanking is the best way to help a child behave well. If a parent would answer “strongly agree” in that statement, then they’re more likely to be classified as authoritarian.
Or they would ask the parent if they are afraid to discipline their child. If they strongly agree with that, then they’re more likely to be classified as permissive.
If there’s a statement like, “I will teach my child respect,” then they’re more likely to be classified as an authoritative parent. This is quite simplified; there are many, many questions here.
I get parents who worry, they may say, “I want to be an authoritative parent, but I ended up scolding my child.” But you know what? I realized that in these researches, they classified the parents based on their beliefs. They didn’t classify parents on how many times they scolded their child that day.
I think that’s comforting for us parents that it’s actually our beliefs on how we relate with our kids that matters in their outcomes. So in general, that’s what positive parenting is. It’s the authoritative parenting style.
The Different Interpretations of Gentle Parenting
Originally, gentle parenting meant being respectful to your child while still setting limits that are respectful to the parent and to others – which is also the authoritative parenting style.
Somewhere along the way, people had different interpretations of it, and sometimes the interpretation can border on permissive parenting.
For example, many gentle parenting advocates on social media will say you should never say no to your child, or you should never do anything that will make your child cry. If that happens, then it becomes permissive parenting and it’s no longer the positive parenting that was studied in all of the research.
A: I think that’s really good because I’ve heard people say that toddlers and young children actually need you to be a guide for them.
It may actually stress out young kids if they feel like no one’s in charge. It may seem like kids want to be in control, but they actually need a parent to be their guide.
V: Yes, definitely. That’s true. We do want the child to lead in some situations. For example, we advocate child led-play. When kids play, we’re not supposed to be directing them, like, “You have to cut here, you have to glue this, you have to color it this way.”
But it actually comforts toddlers when you set limits. Sometimes we think that if we allow kids to do everything they want, that’s when they’re happy. But that’s not actually supported by the research.
Studying the Research
A: I love that you talk about the research a lot, because I think people just want to go with their heart, or what they feel, or what one or two people said works for them. But looking at the research is so important because that’s where we’re going to learn what will be the best outcome in the end.
I have a quote from you that says, “The human brain is wired to believe in stories rather than data. Even if research evidence sounds boring compared with juicy stories, research that’s well-conducted and accurately analyzed would be a better guide.”
So I really appreciate that you look at that. It’s not as fun or exciting for people to look at the research, but it’s really what’s going to give them the best answers for parenting, and what’s going to clear up a lot of the confusion.
V: Yes, that’s true. But you know, the funny thing is if we really look at what the research says, a lot of times we’ll find that it actually appeals to our gut feel as parents.
The Research Often Matches Your Gut Instinct
For example, there was a time that the parenting advice was that you shouldn’t pick up your kids when they cry. So there was this whole generation of babies that when they cried, they were just left to cry alone. And that was what “people” were saying.
But that wasn’t really based on research. They did not conduct a research study comparing all of the babies who were left to cry and all the babies who weren’t. It was just something that somebody came up with, and it went against the instincts of the parents.
There are stories of parents who really, really wanted to go and comfort their kids and their babies, but they had to stop themselves because that’s what the parenting advice told them to do.
And then later on, the research started coming out that from the time they’re born, babies need nurturing relationships. They need parents to respond to them for healthy brain development. And that is exactly what the parents’ gut instinct will tell them to do.
The authoritative parenting style is actually a very balanced parenting style. And I believe that if we all reflect and look inside ourselves, that’s really also what we’ll be called to do.
Setting Limits in a Gentle and Responsive Way
A: I like that you’re using the term authoritative, because I feel like it’s gotten a bad rap. A lot of people compare it to authoritarian, which we know is not the right parenting style.
They see the two as too closely related, so they try to move away from it. So I’m glad that you’re using that term and you’re not afraid to use that term because I think a lot of people are these days.
You’re talking about the importance of responsiveness. And if you also have gentle limits, setting limits in a gentle and responsive way, that’s really what it’s all about in the end.
Three Myths About Discipline
What would you say are the basic tenants of positive parenting? I feel like you’ve sort of laid that out throughout here, but are there specific guidelines or rules besides those you’ve talked about, such as responsiveness and the setting limits? Is there anything else you would put in that category of positive parenting?
V: Yes, I’m going to quote Jane Nelson, from the book Positive Discipline. But before we talk about that, I’d like to discuss the term “discipline.”
I know that a lot of people want to shy away from the term discipline. So that’s why from positive discipline, it became positive parenting. But the thing is, discipline isn’t a bad word.
A lot of people will think, when you say discipline, “What? I should discipline my child?” So before I answer the five tenets of positive discipline, I just want to talk about three myths about discipline.
- The first myth is that people think discipline means punishment. “I’m going to discipline my child. I’m going to punish.” But that’s not the case. The purpose of discipline is to teach your child.
- Second, discipline isn’t something that you do just when a child does something wrong. Parents will ask, “How do I discipline my child? Because my child hits a sibling.” But discipline isn’t just something that you do when your child starts to hit. It’s something that you do all the time.
- And third, discipline is not a set of methods or strategies. Sometimes you hear people talk about scripts. It’s not a script that you say when your child does something wrong, but it’s your entire relationship with your child.
Connection, Mindfulness, and Being Present
So whether you call it positive parenting, positive discipline, mindful parenting, conscious parenting, or gentle parenting – the important thing is to start by connecting with your child.
That’s where mindful parenting comes in. Mindful parenting is being present with your child in the moment.
A lot of people think that for mindful parenting or intentional parenting, you have to line up all of these activities. You have to do all of these things. You have to set up your home in a certain way. There are all of these rules that you have to follow.
No, mindful parenting is actually forgetting all of those things and just being in the moment. Actually, if you think of all of those things, you’re going to end up not being mindful because you have all of these rules.
Mindful parenting is really just being present with your child. Getting to know your child as a person.
A: I really appreciate that. I think a lot of people are starting to understand now that discipline just actually means to teach. And that’s what we’re doing is teaching and guiding our children.
But a lot of times it’s been equated with punishment, and that’s why people kind of shy away because they think punishment is bad.
Jane Nelsen’s Five Tenets of Positive Parenting
A: So, the five principles of positive parenting or authoritative parenting, we could just call it that, couldn’t we? Authoritative parenting.
V: Yes. It’s actually the five tenets of positive discipline, by Jane Nelsen.
First, be both kind and firm
First, it has to be both kind and firm at the same time. So it has to be both respectful and also encouraging. I see this being lost sometimes in some of the advice that parents get. For example, somebody will talk about a behavior their child is struggling with. There will be parents who say you should punish your child, don’t let them get away with it, show them who’s boss. That response is firm, but it’s not kind.
And there’s the other, and again, I say this with empathy, not with judgment. There are other parents who don’t advocate setting boundaries with the kids. That may be kind, but it’s definitely not firm. Both of them have to be present.
Second, give the child a sense of belonging and significance
And then the second criteria is it helps children feel a sense of belonging and significance, and the way we establish that is through connection. According to positive parenting, the reason kids misbehave is that they don’t feel a sense of belong and significance. They say a misbehaving child is a discouraged child.
As adults, how often do we tell our kids things like, go to the corner and play, you’re not part of this. We need to connect with them first. We definitely advocate independent play, but before we do that, they will have to connect with us first.
Third, it is effective long-term
The third is that it’s effective long-term. Punishment will work for the short term. Maybe they will stop the behavior, but what will happen for the long term?
Fourth, teach valuable social and life skills
The fourth tenet of positive parenting is teaching valuable social and life skills. We teach respect and how to solve problems. A lot of positive parenting will not just leave a child to do whatever they want, but will talk things through. “Today, you felt upset and this is what you did. Next time, what are better things to do when you’re upset?”
And then you also teach them. We don’t just tell them what they’re doing wrong, but we help them develop the skills that they need. And I always emphasize that’s it’s very important to do this in a way that’s age appropriate. Toddlers’ brains are still developing. The prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that is responsible for behavior control, does not fully develop until the mid 20’s.
So that’s why at that age, it’s very important that we help them regulate. They regulate with us, by a process called co-regulation. When we stay calm even if they’re having a tantrum or they’re kicking or crying, then that will help them regulate. Now I know that’s a very tall order for us parents. That’s why parenting really starts with taking care of ourselves as parents so that we can do that.
Fifth, invite children to discover how capable they are
Finally, the fifth principle of positive parenting is it invites children to discover how capable they are, and to behave constructively. So it’s all about teaching the child their capability. The goal is for the child to develop a sense that they are capable.
That’s what the other parenting styles miss. If we’re authoritarian, if we don’t allow any autonomy, it’s going to kill their capability. But at the same time, if we take away all of their problems for them, if we never let them cry, if we never say no to them, they also don’t learn that they’re capable. Then they get out and realize that everybody else isn’t giving them everything they want and it doesn’t build resilience.
It’s All About Balance
A: Yes. I think that, again, it’s about balance, isn’t it?
It’s so important to start teaching kids as young as toddlers about emotions and how to handle their emotions.
I know that probably every parent has at some point had a tantrum along with their toddlers. But we also need to give ourselves grace, because we’re not perfect and we’re going to make mistakes. But it’s super important to continue to grow and do better in that.
Growing Through Mistakes
V: Yes, exactly. We’re not going to be perfect all the time. There are times we’re going to be tired and that’s okay.
That’s one of the wonderful things about positive parenting. It also recognizes that we all make mistakes and it shows that mistakes are opportunities to learn. And part of that is also what we as parents do when we make mistakes. How we handle it is empowering for everybody. And we also help our kids learn from the experience.
A: Absolutely. And that shows them that their mistakes are a chance to learn just like our mistakes are a chance to learn.
Well, thank you so much for all these awesome things you’ve shared. Is there anything else before we wrap up and talk about your site, that you wanted to say about authoritative parenting, positive parenting, or other parenting advice?
It All Starts With Our Relationship
V: Well, I know that there are so many things that people are saying about it and sometimes it can get confusing and overwhelming.
Somebody will say, “I did this,” and then people are going to give their parenting advice: “You did the wrong thing. You should not have said that. You should say this.” There is no research that actually says that you have to use these certain phrases.
The research about positive parenting is about teaching them the methods and the general principles. But there’s actually no evidence that this phrase is bad or this phrase is good.
It really starts with our relationship with our kids. If we have a good relationship with our kids, we’re going to know what is the appropriate thing to say and how to say it.
And then also really listening to them with empathy, even if they’re young. We can try to reflect what they’re saying, we can label what they are doing. That is the start of connection.
If we really know our kids, that is going to guide us. So let’s try not to get too stressed about all of the parenting advice and people telling us that we should or shouldn’t do.
We don’t have to be perfect. As they say, there’s no way to be a perfect parent, but there are a million ways to be a good one.
Also, you mentioned a while ago, something about time out. In positive parenting, time out is used differently. It’s not used as a punishment, but it’s a way to help a child regulate emotionally.
The reason we give a time out in positive parenting is for example, if a child is having a tantrum, maybe the child is experiencing sensory overwhelm or cannot handle the situation. So we can remove the child from the situation, bring him or her to a more calming space. So it’s more of a positive time out to help the child regulate, and not as a punishment.
A: Or a time in where they’re with you and you’re teaching them how to regulate.
And the other thing is, you can do the same thing with your child, but just frame it in a different way. Like if they’re struggling at the park and over and over, they’re hurting other kids, you could say, “You’re so naughty, we’re leaving right now!” Or you could say, “You’re really struggling today. And I just don’t think that the park is the best place for you. Maybe we should do something else.”
You have the same exact thing happening, you’re pulling them away, but you’re framing it in a whole different way.
V: Exactly. Or for example, if a child uses a toy to hit somebody else, you can take away the toy and say, “I’m punishing you by confiscating your toy.” Or you can say, “We’ll keep this for now. You can have it back when you show me that you know how to play with it properly.”
A: Right. “We’re keeping everyone safe. The toy needs to go away for a while.” So important.
Connection and firm limits in a kind way are basically the two things that are most important. And all those other things we put on it, and put all the pressure on ourselves, is just not as important as we think it is.
Building a Foundation For Learning
A: I really like how you talk about the importance of building a relationship instead of focusing so strongly on academics in the early years.
I remember way back when my youngest son was three years old, someone asked me, “Is he in preschool?” I said, “No.” They said, “Oh, are you homeschooling?” And I’m like, can’t he just play? Can’t he just learn through play as a three year old? Do I have to homeschool him or send him to preschool?
And a lot of that is building executive function skills so that when they get to the age where they need to start learning academics, their mind will be ready for it and it will be easy for them. So, it’s not about getting ahead. It’s about building that solid foundation before they get to the academics.
V: Yeah, that’s true. And this actually rocked a lot of people when the results came out. Last year the results of a long-term research study from Vanderbilt University came out.
Before this research there had been mixed results of preschool programs and kids who went to preschool. There were some who showed an advantage, and then there were others that showed no advantage.
The problem with those researches is, they were not what you call randomized. They just compared kids who happened to be in preschool and kids who happened to not be in preschool. So we don’t know, maybe it was really families who valued education more who sent them to preschool, and that was what led to their success.
We don’t know which of those factors actually led to the better performance. Was it the preschool or was it something else? Maybe the kids who were better off were actually the ones who were able to go to preschool or those who were in better situations.
But the Vanderbilt study was the first randomized research about this, because that preschool program had more applicants than slots. They randomized which children joined the preschool. Before, maybe they would just get the top students, and the top students got to go to preschool, so that was already a confounding factor. But here they had equal chance.
So I can just imagine, if I was one of the parents whose child didn’t get chosen, I’m going to think it’s so unfair.
So what happened? They found out that by the time the kids reached fourth or fifth grade, not only was there no advantage, but those who went to preschool were actually worse off.
They didn’t do as well on achievement tests academically. And they also had more behavior and discipline issues.
Of course, this is not an attack on preschools. When they examined that program, they found that it may be because of “low-quality programs.” These pre-K programs may also have given too much focus on academics.
But I guess the point is we really have to look at what the research says first. And second, we have to let our kids play.
That’s something that even pediatricians are worried about. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics is telling pediatricians, you have to prescribe play to your kids.
We actually have to prescribe play because kids aren’t playing enough, and we’re getting alarmed at this trend. And also we have to look at what is age appropriate. I can go on and on about this.!
As an example, kids are asked to write at age three or four, the letters of the alphabet. But observational studies of kids over several decades showed that for fine motor skills, they would typically write maybe a triangle nearing the age of five, which is similar to the letter A.
So if a three year old cannot write the letter A, that child is not being lazy, but that’s what their hand skills are. And that has to do with the pathways of the brain getting the certain coding called the myelin sheathe, which makes it more mature and able to do those skills.
I’m sorry, I got a bit technical there, but these are actual neurologic and physical factors that affect whether or not a child is ready.
A: I think that’s so important. And my little one is in kindergarten this year; she’s actually just turning seven. So I kept her back a year, and I think it was the best thing ever because she just wasn’t ready socially, she was timid, her fine motor skills weren’t there yet.
And she’s just blossoming in kindergarten, where I think if she had gone last year, she wouldn’t have blossomed like she is now.
I think a lot more parents are starting to do that now than in the past. But I think also that schools have become so much more academic. What she’s doing in kindergarten is a lot of what I taught in first grade 25 years ago when I was a first grade teacher. So that’s probably another reason that it’s not a bad thing to wait a year to send your little ones to school, if you have any doubts about that.
Consult the Experts About Your Child’s Development
V: And I always say, if you’re worried about your child’s development, don’t compare with other parents. Don’t post in a Facebook group and ask something like, “My child can’t do this yet.” I’m sure you’re going to get a lot of different parenting advice there. You compare with objective standards.
You can speak with a pediatrician, you can consult a developmental and behavioral pediatrician. Because if you just compare with other people, two things can happen.
Either first, you actually don’t need to worry but you end up getting alarmed. You get so stressed and pressured and then pressure your child, and that will come out in behavior.
Or the other thing is you’re going to be complacent because you’re going to hear a parent say, “My child didn’t talk until age four, so don’t worry.” That’s why it’s very important to really look at the objective standards.
A: Yes, definitely. And here in the US, we have a lot of programs for early childhood, like Birth to Three, where you can have your child evaluated by professionals and they can help you through that.
Victoria, thank you so much for joining me today. This has been so enlightening. I love all the things we talked about and especially all the things that I learned about authoritative and positive parenting. That was super helpful!