Gentle parenting: Assuming positive intent
Hello friends! A little nugget post for y’all today about something that I have found really helpful when it comes to gentle parenting.
It is this: Assume positive intent.
Assuming positive intent is a great way to see things from your child’s point of view, and to have more awareness of why they do
really annoying things, and also to come at situations from a place of being calm and positive rather than cross and annoyed.
What ‘assuming positive intent’ is
Assuming positive intent means that as parents we look at all behaviour as communication, even the behaviour that we really don’t like. Behaviour is communication; when a kid ‘acts out’, they are communicating that they need help to navigate social boundaries from a more experienced person, as well as to fulfil potentially unmet needs of their own (think HALT to start: Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired).
Assuming positive intent, at first, doesn’t change our children’s behaviour, but it does mean that situations can be handled more calmly and positively than if we charge into them with the assumption that our kids are just trying to get up our nose. (This doesn’t apply literally in a situation like the one I had about three months ago with Elfie, where I woke up to her with her finger carefully inserted up my nose. That wasn’t my favourite.)
What ‘assuming positive intent’ is NOT
Assuming positive intent does not mean you look at your kid pounding the head of their next-door-neighbour with a plant pot, and sit back, and think, “oh, what a poppet, he’s probably trying to play”. It doesn’t mean that you squeal in joy when you find your grandma’s antique necklace carefully taken apart and PVA-glued onto the balloon piñata you spent the morning making with the kids, or that you beam with pride as you watch your credit cards being carefully posted in the gaps between the floorboards. It just means that you take a moment before you lose your mind, (or to pretend that you’re not) and think about what’s going on for the kids, in the bigger picture.
An example of assuming positive intent
An example is probably a good idea. I had a lady email me recently asking for advice on how to handle a situation where her daughter had started spitting food out at the dinner table, despite repeated requests not to.
There are various ways to explore this, but before the parent even says anything to the child, how they approach the child and the behaviour will have a world of difference on the outcome.
On one hand, she could assume negative intent- her child was ‘being naughty’, and knowing very well that spitting wasn’t good manners, she was trying to gross the family out / annoy her Mum / get out of eating her dinner / attention seek in a negative way.
Perhaps, one or all of those things was technically true- but, if we go behind that, we can ask why– and that is where the positive intent comes in.
Children are not born trying to make a hard life for themselves. They are hard-wired to connect, to attach, to explore and understand. Their job is to test boundaries in order to see where the limits of love lie and which boundaries are flexible or here to stay, and which ones change in different contexts. This can make our job as parents harder, but really kids are doing their best to grow into healthy, happy, secure people.
When we approach a behaviour with this in mind, we can think “ok, she’s gobbing a sausage onto her plate, again, laughing- has she seen this somewhere? Is she copying someone on TV, at nursery or school? Have we spent enough time together lately; is she looking for attention because she’s not getting as much as she needs when she’s ‘behaving’? How can I approach this is a way that doesn’t make her feel like crap, but results in a win-win outcome for both her and I?”
And suddenly, it goes from “for goodness sake, that’s disgusting, do that again and I’ll take your dinner away”, to “oh, wow! I guess you saw that somewhere, huh? Do you know what ‘etiquette’ means? We’ll chat about it later- anyway, how about I run you a bath and I’ll give you some water. You can spit it as much as you want, like a whale? Yes? Great! In the meantime, I don’t mind if you don’t eat those sausages but please don’t spit them out as it makes me feel yuck, ok, and I’d really love to finish this yummy dinner!”
And in a heartbeat she knows that you’re on her side, and that exploring boundaries is OK, and that there are some things that aren’t great at the dinner table but that you’ve taken notice of what she needs, and that you’ll do your best to provide that for her.
How assuming positive intent works long-term
It might not change kids’ behaviour in the short term; but as they grow to understand that you are reasonable and on their side, and that you are willing to listen to them and not jump down their throats at the first opportunity, ‘acting out’ will seem more and more futile and boring, and will result in a more connected and harmonious relationship for parent and child.
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