7 Principles for Responsive Parenting

GoodTherapy | 7 Principles for Responsive ParentingI have 5-year-old twin daughters. For the sake of privacy, I’ll call them Mary and Martha. Mary is sensitive, nurturing, deeply compassionate, and easily distracted. Martha is industrious and won’t stop until the job is done. She is brave and matter-of-fact. I love my girls to the moon. And they often drive me nuts.

They are both very bold with their Daddy when he is impatient and impertinent. Mary delivers an emotional appeal—“Daddy, you hurt my feelings”—with wobbly intonation. Martha pronounces a directive—“Daddy, you should not talk rough to me!”—with assertive decree.

In moments of irritability, I react impulsively and act at the whim of my own anxiety. I still have a long way to grow. As parents, we must remember that the most effective discipline is disciplined parenting.

The Harvard Family Research Project defines responsive parenting as “the use of warm and accepting behaviors to respond to children’s needs and signals” (2012). Becoming increasingly responsive as a parent requires not only an incredible dose of humility but a fullness of perspective.

Responsive parenting requires attunement to your unique child. Yet here I propose seven general principles which I believe are consistently applicable to children of any age or temperament.

1. Show Love, Without Condition

First things first—make sure, without a shadow of a doubt, that your children know that you love them unconditionally, that no matter what they do or how circumstances change, you love them. Providing unconditional love is a prerequisite to the success of rules, expectations, and all the rest.

I am grateful to Dr. Gary Chapman for the simple profundity of his “five love languages.” There are five basic ways we give and receive affection: time, touch, words, acts, and gifts; we are each wired more or less in ways that affect which of these modes of affection mean the most to us.

I find there is always fantastic nuance in the linguistics of love. My daughter Mary feels highly connected to me when I give her nurturing massage. Martha feels highly connected to me when I block her karate chop, swipe her legs out from under her, and tackle her to the ground.

When we show love in our child’s unique language, we maximize the impact of our affections and fortify a secure base. Be a scientist, and experiment to learn what fills your child’s bucket. Then multiply to infinity.

2. Order Up Expectations, Sans the Egotism

Share your convictions firmly but without unnecessary rigidity. Remain open-minded, and share your thought process, even aspects of your own ambivalence. Your children will come to respect your authenticity and gain in cognitive and emotional depth. When you do choose to pick a battle, the credibility you may have gained in the process of compromising on nonessentials may be leveraged against a non-negotiable.

3. More Carrot, Less Stick

Catch your children doing the right thing, and do not miss opportunities to affirm a child’s acts of love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. Cultivate virtue by feeding, watering, and lighting the growth of character and integrity.

Also, work hard to nurture your bond with them, and you may find yourself less on the proverbial parenting soap box and less engaged in punitive discipline.

Mary and Martha love when I read them stories. We’re currently halfway through The Horse and His Boy on a quest to finish all seven books of The Chronicles of Narnia this summer. They know that if they have any chance for an extra chapter or two tonight, most of their toys must be neatly stored by bedtime hour.

4. Feed Connection, Starve Reaction

Your children want to know and to be connected with you, to know that you know them and want to be connected with them. It’s easy to miss this simple yet weighty truth as we grind out the day-to-day. Pour out affirmation and interest, and slow down reaction to mistakes and misbehavior.

Confront your children about issues for which you find yourself curious or concerned. Have direct and open conversations. Prioritize relationship over reaction, connection over compliance.

Do not present yourself as aggressive or unmovable. Observe and respond to your children’s perceptions and perspective. Do not just listen to yourself think and talk. Listen to them. Then, if necessary, remain resolute in clarifying limits and reassert your love.

5. Be Playful, Ditch the Digital

Let’s face it: we live in the digital age. And, whatever its virtues, it has waned our capacity for responsive attunement to our children’s tireless energies and budding desires. It is undeniable that learning as well as bonding best occurs when there is a significant component of play and reciprocal interaction.

A few weeks ago, my daughters were restless for fun, so I turned a couple of couches on their side and engineered a magnificent tent with an assortment of rods, a ladder, blankets, pillows, and a string of lights. That tent stayed up for weeks and prompted our adventure into Narnia. They will remember this forever.

6. Foster Wonder, Deter Gloom

We must teach our children how to think and feel, connect and create, and incite their wonder. We must find the time to attempt real answers to their insatiable questions and pose our own in return. Let us fearlessly lead our children in conversations of beauty and purpose and death. Life itself is the essence of wonder.

We don’t teach our children how to play. Rather, an innate curiosity and creativity drives their wildly imaginative masquerades into make-believe. Such creativity is a catalyst for competency. It deters boredom and gloom and promotes resilience. Yet many of us inhibit our children’s play, to their detriment.

7. Reward Competence, Discourage Vanity

Your children want to be awesome, just like you. Teach them everything you can about the world so that they will gain insight, and teach them everything you can about how the world works so that they will gain skill. Insight and skill are precursors to self-worth. Baseless praise is not. Neither is praise of outer appearance.

For instance, that Mary and Martha are pretty girls is a distraction from Mary’s early promotion in swim class and Martha’s success in cooking up scrambled eggs all by herself. Praise of externals risks an infusion of vanity. When I praise what they have genuinely done well, I excite self-worth and stir courage for more.

Landry, S. H., Smith, K. E., Swank, P. R., Zucker, T., Crawford, A. D., and Solari, E. F. (2012, March 15). The effects of a responsive parenting intervention on parent–child interactions during shared book reading. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0026400. Retrieved from http://www.hfrp.org/family-involvement/publications-resources/the-effects-of-a-responsive-parenting-intervention-on-parent-child-interactions-during-shared-book-reading

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Janie

    July 15th, 2014 at 11:22 AM

    There are too many “parents” today who wnat to be friends with their kids instead of a mom or dad.
    I think that there is a time for us once the children get older but to me when they are young they have friends- what they need more than anything is discipline and routine and someone to show them the kind of things that they need, friendship can come later

  • brecken

    July 15th, 2014 at 1:27 PM

    I grew up with parents where everything felt conditional.
    they would love me more if my room was clean
    if I did my homework
    made good grades
    excelled in sports
    went to college
    fast tracked to a great career.
    Can you see where I am going with this? There always felt like there was this huge amount of pressure on me even from a very early age and I set myself up for these expectations, and they did too, that no one could ever meet and maintain sanity!
    I see myself making the same mistakes, like I want a lot for my kids and I know that the only way for them to achieve them is to work hard, all of this stuff, but I never want them to feel like me loving them is all based on how well they do these other things, and I try to tell them this all the time.

  • Melissa

    July 16th, 2014 at 9:08 AM

    I have a very quick temper and I know that but I do try to make sure that the kids know I love them even when or if I am upset with them. It isn’t always easy and I won’t say that I always manage to do it the right way, but I do hope that through it all I am able to show them that I am upset with the situation, not necessarily with them, and that they know that this too shall pass.

  • Lisette

    July 17th, 2014 at 6:14 AM

    You know, I have thought about this a lot since having kids and I think that if more people realized just how hard being a parent, a good parent actually is, then fewer people would make mistakes and just get pregnant for the heck of it.

    I too never quite got just how intense being a mom would be until I had my own children. There is a lot of work that goes into it that I don’t think you become aware of until you are right there in the middle of it all.

    Maybe we should have this conversation more- tell people that it IS great to be a good parent but is is evenn harder to be a GOOD parent. Tell them what it is all about, openly and honestly, and then maybe some people would think twice before deciding that this is their goal in life, especially younger kids who really have no business having kids that young.

  • Michelle

    July 18th, 2014 at 9:17 AM

    Some parents do need to rein it in a little. That is why I think that there are a lot of kids today who look to praise all the time because some of us have kind of overdone things a bit. Not every one always deserves a “good job” or a trophy at the end pf the season and yet this is the kind of nature we have cultivated.

  • sughey

    September 15th, 2021 at 8:04 AM

    When a child is able to say, “Daddy, you hurt my feelings.” or “Daddy, you shouldn’t talk to me rough” it reinforces narcissistic thinking. Always thinking about how someone else effects you and not the other way round is the problem. Most human reactions have nothing to do with the conversation or situation they are dealing with in that moment. Teaching a child that the deserve respect but we need to be gracious because other people are dealing with things we may not know or understand it better than always making it about “Me”. You might think think they spoke to you roughly but that is just how they speak. Something may have hurt your feelings but the intention was not such. We have to teach our children compassion but give them a strong constitution to know, life isn’t only about their feelings.

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