Effective parenting has to be learnt

Now I understand that 'punishment' and 'discipline' are different. Our parents brought us up in certain ways, and that is how we raise our children. They used to beat us and made us believe that it was part of the disciplining process. Thus, it is a part of us. But from this training, we've learnt the difference between the two clearly; we have been punishing our children, not disciplining them. Sometimes they even run away from us due to punishment. We did not have the knowledge on any other discipline techniques. But our approach is going to change from now on."

This remark was made by a participant of Positive Discipline in Everyday Parenting training in Liberia. I have heard similar comments in other countries including Bangladesh. Children face high level of violence from their parents, teachers, and caregivers in homes, schools, institutions etc. Research has shown that physical punishment leads to impaired parent-child relationship, poor child mental health, child aggression and child delinquency. When children face such violence from the people they trust most (their parents), they also learn to be violent with loved ones. Many adults who punish their children have experienced punishment in their childhood. But this vicious cycle must be broken. 

Generally, we observe two extremes in parenting. Some say "yes" to everything the children demand without even thinking whether that will be in the best interest of the children; some others try to impose their views on their children without considering their opinions. Adults usually think that we will "spoil" children if we show too much love and affection and thus have to be very "strict". These are assumptions and not founded on any scientific evidence. All of the findings of the hundreds of studies on parenting, conducted over the past 30 years, can be summarised to two main findings: children need to live in an atmosphere of love and warmth, and children need structure to help them learn. Children are most likely to thrive when their parents are knowledgeable about child development and recognise how behaviour is related to a child's developmental stage and how they are able to emotionally self-regulate.  

The Positive Discipline programme was developed in response to the question, "If I don't hit my child, what else can I do?" It was pioneered by Dr. Joan Durrant, a child-clinical psychologist and Professor of Family Social Sciences at the University of Manitoba, Canada, in partnership with Save the Children. The programme brings together learnings on optimising healthy development of children, findings on effective parenting (which is informed by research in neurobiology, cognitive psychology, and emotional regulation), and child rights principles to give parents and other caregivers a framework for responding constructively to conflicts with children. 

Positive Discipline makes parents realise how children think and feel at different ages. It is interesting to note that most parents have very limited understanding on child development, which contribute to their conflict with children. For example, a parent may shout at a three- year-old child for not wearing warm clothes while going out, but the child at that age does not even understand the consequences of getting exposed to cold. Positive Discipline raises parental awareness that providing "warmth" and "structure" is the best route to achieving "long-term goals" for children (what type of persons they want their children to become and the qualities required for that), instead of shouting or hitting, which many parents practice in order to ensure that children comply with the short-term objectives (in the above example, making the child wear warm clothes could be the example). Providing warmth is about establishing trust, respect and communication. Structure is about information, guidance and teaching, which is completely different from punishment, control and coercion – which constitute the traditional views of parenting in many countries. The techniques help parents understand the temperament of their children, as well as themselves, and find the appropriate solutions in various situations. Positive Discipline gives them the knowledge and tools to perform parental responsibilities in an effective way.

Positive Discipline is based on two foundational pillars-the elimination of physical and emotional punishment of children, and the promotion of the rights of all children as outlined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Some people have misconceptions about child rights and think that it means taking away parental authority. In fact, the UNCRC is very clear about the importance of parental guidance. Article 5 of the Convention mentions, "States Parties shall respect the responsibilities, rights and duties of parents or, where applicable, the members of the extended family or community as provided for by local custom, legal guardians or other persons legally responsible for the child, to provide, in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child, appropriate direction and guidance in the exercise by the child of the rights recognized in the present Convention." These days I hear many parents complaining about their adolescent boys or girls spending too much time on the internet. It is the responsibility of the parents to provide the required "direction and guidance" on various aspects of their children's lives, which includes appropriate internet use.

Observations suggest that most of us are still unaware that parenting can be learnt and think that it comes naturally. The fact that one can become a parent biologically does not mean that the person will automatically have the capacity to be an effective parent. Parenting is joyous as well as challenging as an experience. To guide a human being toward adulthood, teaching them all they need to know to have a happy, successful life cannot be an easy task. There are times in all parents' lives when the challenges seems overwhelming. It would thus be rewarding if all parents recognised the need to learn about parenting, and there were resources and trainings to support them in the journey. Governments should consider offering universal parenting programmes to present and future parents.

The writer is Director of Child Protection, Save the Children.