You may have guessed that I’m not referring to material items in the title – this post is not about providing food, shelter, or clothing for our kids. I’m not talking about love, either, although undoubtedly children need that as well. Most parents love their children deeply, even though they may be struggling to parent effectively.
What children need
In the parenting approach known as Positive Discipline, developed by psychologist and educator Jane Nelsen, and based on the work of Alfred Adler and Rudolf Dreikers, all people need to feel both a sense of belonging and significance. They need to feel that they are part of a family, group, or community – that they belong – and that they have something special to contribute to the larger whole – that they are unique and significant.
In her book Positive Discipline, which updates Adler’s and Dreikur’s philosophy for a modern audience, Nelsen contends that, in addition to a sense of belonging and significance, children need:
- Perceptions of capability
- Personal power and autonomy
- Social and life skills
Part of our role as parents is to create opportunities for our children to develop these skills and perceptions. Positive Discipline offers a variety of tools and strategies to help parents do just that.
When children don’t get what they need
When children don’t feel like they belong or are significant, they “misbehave” in order to attain those feelings. The nature of the “misbehavior” can be a reflection of what children have learned in their families. For example, a child who does not feel significant may learn that whining will eventually result in getting attention from mom or dad (negative attention is still attention).
Using rewards, punishment, shame, or blame to get rid of unwanted behavior does not address the underlying function of that behavior, and ultimately does not help our children feel capable or empowered. According to Nelsen, those approaches tend to create children who become rebellious, revengeful, sneaky, or people pleasers – in other words, who continue to use maladaptive strategies to attain a sense of belonging and significance.
What you can do
Addressing a child’s core needs – to feel a sense of belonging, significance, and capability – becomes the path to correcting “misbehavior.” Positive Discipline offers a myriad of ways to do this, using tools such as routine charts, family meetings, communication strategies.
Shifting our focus from the “misbehavior” to the underlying need for belonging and significance will result in more effective parenting. Recent studies indicate that children who feel they belong have a greater sense of meaning in their lives. And meaningfulness, it turns out, may be more important than the pursuit of happiness for a fulfilling life (check out Emily Esfahani Smith’s TED Talk There’s more to life than being happy).
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