Accentuate the Positive, Eliminate the Negative

You might have heard it said that children are as smart as adults but have no shame. Does this ring true for you? If it does, what do you do when you find yourself deadlocked in battle of wills with no end in sight?


I have been pulled into many of these struggles with my own child and I found myself left with increasing frequency, left with the feeling that each battle was escalating in both size and intensity. My child and I were actively building a negative, self-feeding behavior loop leaving me to wonder whether my daughter and I could ever break out of this script we were ironically writing together with alarming fluency.

The Infinite Loop

After finding myself out of my depths, I looked to the professionals for ideas. Fast-forward a few weeks: I had checked out a few books centered around “communicating with children.” Unfortunately, my child would cleverly find a “work around” to each new method I tried, stymying my efforts to up my parenting game. I was stuck like Bill Murray in Groundhog’s Day cycling through the same experiences over and over again. I felt doomed to repeat the same frustratingly familiar power struggles, and I was using up a lot of energy getting nowhere. I was exhausted.

We had tried reward systems, behavior charts, ticket consequences, natural consequences, and I was starting to question whether she was ever going to let me participate as her parent. I wanted so very badly to be able to teach her the things that I could, I wanted to be able to not have to walk on eggshells around her, I wanted our lives to not revolve around waiting for the next conflict to arise.

Many of the systems I had already tried, spoke of focusing on the positive or neutral behaviors of my child. Although theoretically they made sense, I was still skeptical. These were the very same systems that had just failed our family. Granted, I was open to admitting the possibility of user error, I was left with feeling like I was only being given part of the information I needed.

The Nurtured Heart Approach

I decided to dig a level deeper, this time bypassing the typical parenting books, and searched for books that specifically dealt with oppositional, defiant children. After wading through my fair share of these books, I came across Howard Glasser’s “Transforming the Difficult Child, The Nurtured Heart Approach”. Like many books I had read previously, Glasser’s book is also based around the idea of positive re-enforcement versus negative criticism.

I approached this book already more than a little jaded. Though I like the idea of positive parenting, is it really the best strategy for raising a strong kid? The stereotypical vision of positive parenting shows wide-eyed, grinning parents constantly showering their children in praise. The children can do no wrong and everything they do should be cause for major celebration. A part of me always feared the prospect of inadvertently raising a person who won’t be able to handle criticism, who will just crumble under the pressures of the adult world, or conversely (and equally scary), raising someone who is so egocentric that they are just insufferable to be around. It is wise to fear this. No one wants to be responsible for sending out another helpless, insecure, whiner out into the world. Howard Glasser frames the use of positivity not as perpetual, blind cheerleading, but as a powerful tool to accentuate the good or neutral behaviors exhibited by your child, and minimize attention given to negative actions.

Putting It Into Play

To boil it down to its bare bones, the base tenet of Glasser’s practice is to change where and how you as parents are placing your parenting energies. Our children want our attention and they have, most likely, shown us repeatedly that they will do just about anything to get it. So, what to do? Most of us, myself included, get annoyed at our children and yell or reprimand them. This results in stuck the infinite loop of negative actions leading to punishment. The parents who are more patient,( I am definitely NOT in this camp), talk at length to children about their unwanted behaviors. Both approaches give children a lot of attention surrounding their negative behaviors. This, in turn, gives them more incentive to get our attention by acting out, as they often do not distinguish between attention gained from negative or positive behaviors.

Does this mean that you shouldn’t call your kids out when they step over the line? No. It means that you want to start shifting where you are placing your parental emphasis. You don’t want to inadvertently “feed the monster” with large amounts of your time and attention when they do make bad choices. In order to NOT feed the monster, you need to start noticing when your child is not trying to get your attention, when they are playing happily on their own, or listening to music, or drawing of coloring contentedly, and make a little comment on how you appreciate what they are doing at that moment. This gives them your appreciative energy when they not asking for it, you are making them feel the familial bonds and encourages them to do more of why they were doing at the time you took notice of them.  For every time you need to give your child a “time out” or a consequence for a negative action, you must take time to notice 5 positive or neutral behaviors.

In noticing your child behaving neutrally or positively, you are creating a very simple opportunity for your child to feel “successful”. Over time your child gets their attention needs met through the process of you taking more time to call out the positive events, versus spending more direct attention only on the negatives. Ultimately, your child learns that they can get the attention they seek without going to the negative place to get noticed, and the motivation for engaging in negative behaviors fades away over time.

I have found that the most difficult part of this approach is retraining myself and how I react to the challenges or obstacles that my child presents. I’m busy. I am not a patient person. Nor am I used to paying close attention to what underlying emotions my child’s behavior might actually be communicating. What I’m saying here, is that despite the approach’s very simple foundation, it takes a while to shift gears. It’s a work in progress, but I have found it to be completely worth the effort.

Glasser’s book breaks the method down in great detail and gives many real-world examples of how it has been used with the many families he has worked with first-hand. It is very clearly written. Since reading “The Nurtured Heart Approach”, I purchased the companion workbook which handily condenses the contents of the book and acts as a quick reference guide for day to day usage. It breaks the basic approach down into simple steps to incorporate this philosophy in your parental toolbox. The bonus is that its basic principle is elegant and simple, and the best part- it seems to be working for our family!

The Outcome– so far

It has been a few months since starting “The Nurtured Heart Approach” with our daughter and within this span of time, I have found that everyone in the family is in a better place personally. I have found growth in my child’s ability to self-regulate her emotions and to recognize when she reacts inappropriately. She is more confident, knows the boundaries and rules, and knows she is valued for her positive contributions to our family. My husband and I are more relaxed and less tense because we are not placing undue attention on her bad behaviors, and we are able to appreciate her more because we are forcing ourselves to “notice” her when she is quiet and content. Are things perfect? No, but the beauty is that they don’t have to be.


Check it out:NurturedHeartBook

Since the book’s original publication in 1998, it has been revised in 2013. Building on the work he has done with “The Nurtured Heart Approach” Howard Glasser opened the Children’s Success Foundation. The foundation’s website offers seminar’s and webinar’s based on The Nurtured Heart Approach as well as other resources and support materials.

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  1. says: Tammy S

    My husband is a natural at positive reinforcement. I grew up in a overtly critical, demanding family – so I got to see first hand – how my negative approach and his way affected all of us – our kids, and us. The negativity REALLY does a number on children in general and I have to say that because of my upbringing and what we’ve seen now — that I am pro-positive approach though I think there still is a HUGE misunderstanding about what that really means — for me – the importance of making sure that rules followed for good reasons but not critically lashing out when the children do not behave perfectly.

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