In our search for a friendlier and more open relationship with our kids, we sometimes get into a parenting pickle of niceness. How do we know when we are being too nice?

  • When we give direction but end the sentence by asking for our child’s approval, as in: “It’s time to leave the park, ok?” “We are having pasta for dinner tonight, ok?” “If you stop hitting your brother you can have an ice cream sundae, ok?”

  • When we rescue our kids from ordinary consequences, allowing ourselves to become a daily delivery system by swooping in to save them when they don’t have a coat on a 40-degree day, forget to take homework to school or neglect to pack their lunch.

  • When we consistently respond to outrageous behavior by making excuses for it: “Suzy isn’t good at transitions” or “Joe didn’t get a good night's sleep.”

The parental urge to be “nice” can create families in which the day is dictated by the child’s whims and fleeting emotions. We have a niggling feeling we are supporting a tiny tyrant and we have become the big servant cleaning up her messes and doing her bidding. Our actions are well intended, but are they good for the child?

Positive parenting vs. “nice” parenting

Many “nice” parents believe they are improving on the old, autocratic model of parenting, in which parents were the tyrants and kids were the servants. Parenting expert and author of “Honey I Wrecked the Kids,” Alyson Schafer, compares this to using new software with the same operating system. We get the new style of “nice” (i.e., permissive) parenting, but create the same flawed relationship of tyrants vs. servants.

Schafer suggests an entirely new operating system called Positive Parenting. Positive Parenting literally gets rid of the “Who’s the boss” parenting model – no more tyrant, no more servant. Instead of thinking in terms of being “nice” or “mean,” Schaefer says, “We need to turn to entirely new reference points which are mutual respect and the needs of the situation.”

For many families, positive parenting requires the adoption of a whole new paradigm, which can be difficult for parents to understand and implement. We all have experienced how confusing, time-consuming and cumbersome it can be to adjust to a new computer, phone or other device. We know how we want it to work, we know it’s possible to get it to work, but we just can’t quite figure out how. Similarly, Patti Cancellier, Education Director for the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP), notes that changing our permissive ways “takes a really long time and a lot of experimentation. It’s easier to stick with business as usual. A piece of the problem is that when we talk respect and encouragement it sounds nice. People think this is all about being nice.”

Short- and long-term benefits of positive parenting

What parents often overlook is that being nice in the short term isn’t always nice in the long term. Cancellier suggests that our job is to raise children so that “by the time they are launched they can make decisions and learn to live with the consequences of them.” Children need practice in making mistakes, using bad judgment, being bored, having friend problems, meeting the needs of the situation and showing respect for others as well as themselves. If we “nice” our children throughout childhood they will go off and expect other adults to “nice” them as well, which isn’t very realistic.

When Schaefer helps parents who are permissive she might say to them gently, “Do you realize you have a low opinion of your child?” If we don’t think the child can handle age-appropriate limitations and expectations and we behave as if he is not up to the task, we have effectively given him a vote of non-confidence.

Becoming a “positive” parent

In action, this means if our children are acting up in a restaurant we no longer let them go on and on, nor do we try to control them through threats and punishment. Instead, we turn to our new reference points:

  1. Mutual respect: Is this behavior respectful to the kids, ourselves, the staff and other patrons in the restaurant?

  2. Needs of the situation: Does this behavior meet the requirements of the time, place and activity?

In the above example, the answer to both questions is a resounding “no.” Therefore, to create mutual respect and meet the needs of the situation, the children either have to be quiet and behave in the way that other patrons in a restaurant are expected to behave, or the family needs to leave.

The importance of respect

The new operating system dictates parents uphold mutual respect by modeling respect themselves. That means adopting a firm and friendly tone and not acting devastated at having to leave the restaurant. It means giving children ample opportunities to practice their restaurant behavior in the future.

When kids respect themselves, others and the needs of the situation, they are learning what Cancellier describes as the goal of Positive Parenting: “Having respect for all human beings of all ages and experience levels. This includes respect for self (the parent) and not allowing ourselves to be manipulated.”

Together with our kids, we can navigate the world with these two new touchpoints of mutual respect and the needs of the situation. With this new paradigm we can expect to find more cooperation, creative solutions and closer relationships. Now doesn’t that sound nice?


Paige Trevor is a certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program and a leader of PEP's "Parenting 5 to 12-Year-Olds" classes. Find additional tips on effective parenting skills at PEPparent.org.