Refusing to acknowledge or punish a child's bad behaviour is not 'positive' parenting

There is a thoughtful article in the September edition of the Family Education Trust Bulletin entitled “The pitfalls of “positive parenting.”” It focuses on a recent article by Helen Reece, a Reader in Law at LSE who has challenged this notion in the journal Ethics and Education, 2013. I had not come across the phrase “positive parenting” before and by itself it sounds harmless enough – even a good thing. After all, who wants to support the idea of the seeming alternative, “negative parenting”?

It seems that the Department of Health parenting guidelines for birth to five-year-olds and the Department of Education-funded take the approach that all that is needed for parents to know about discipline is “Be nice.” Reece notes that the three components of this kind of positive parenting are: an absence of punishment, positive reinforcement and leading by example. Of these, the first sounds ominous and likely to undermine the good effects of the other two.

The Department of Health has quite a long history of deploring the idea of punishing children and is particularly against smacking. As the article I read emphasises, “positive parenting has no place for punishment of any kind, but rather encourages parents to focus on their child’s good behaviour and to praise and reward it.” Again, this is right up to a point; children flourish better when they are praised than when they are criticised. But sometimes a parent comes up again bad behaviour and no amount of explanations, psychological or otherwise, can disguise the fact. Then, just criticism is in order and to evade it is negligence or cowardice, however it might be dressed up as benevolence.

According to (and this is not a surprise), children do not misbehave. When children appear to be misbehaving, “it is because society has mislabelled their behaviour as naughty, they want your attention, parental demands are unreasonable or they are feeling sad about, for example “being bullied and do not have the words to express this.” Even if these other elements are present children have to learn right from wrong and what happens if they choose to misbehave. As parents know, each child is different; one might respond to a reprimand while another needs something stronger. I have known good parents who smack and good parents who don’t. Smacking isn’t “hitting”, whatever the state propaganda says, and loving parents know the difference.

Helen Reece makes the pertinent point that “If the child is incapable of bad behaviour, then he or she is incapable of any behaviour; being good presupposes the possibility of a different choice.” She adds that “it is impossible to tell somebody (how) to be nice, because the very essence of being nice is that it cannot be forced; coerced kindness is a contradiction.”

The Church has always recognised that young children are capable of wrong-doing and allows the Sacrament of Confession from the age of seven. How would such a serious view of childhood sit with the Department of Health? Badly, I fear – but then it has a sentimentalised view of childhood that flies in the face of the evidence. Its attitude is certainly not helpful to parents who lack the confidence of their own instincts and who might be swayed by “experts”, those modern gurus who cannot accept fallen human nature.

What does the Department of Health think of Lord of the Flies, Tom Brown’s Schooldays or Dickens? They are all parables of childhood in which “niceness” often doesn’t figure. Creative writers – and the Church – have greater understanding of childhood than all the civil servants in the Departments of health and education put together.