Director's note

International Day of Families: Four pillars of parenting

Family is the heart of the society both today and before. Each family is unique, but at their fundamental core, all of them are bound by love and sharing. Modern times bring many changes and challenges to family life. Today, there are different types of families – parents living together, divorced parents, parents who have never been married, one of the parents having a new partner, families with same sex partners, widowed families, foster families, adoptive families, and so on.

Regardless of the family type, if there are children, they are the centre of family life. No matter which family type they live in and what their different life circumstances are, all children have the same rights and basic needs. The responsibility of parents, of all adult members of the society and professionals working in child protection, is to take care that children’s rights are respected and that children’s needs are fulfilled.

Modern approach to upbringing

In the past the child was believed not to be ‘good’ by nature and parental or carer’s role was to influence the child to change from the ‘bad’ to the ‘good’. Modern approach to upbringing emphasises that it is all about mutual activity – both parties (the parent/carer and the child) give and receive, communicate and feel, and both change in the relationship. Modern approach emphasises that children are ‘good’, while their behaviours may be good or bad. There is much talk about children’s rights and responsibilities, and about parents’ and educators’ responsibilities. Parents and educators are offered a series of guidelines in working with children. Among these, those issued by the Council of Europe are especially useful. They are called ‘Four pillars of parenting’ and they define responsible parenting as behaviours based on the best interests of the child:

1. Care and nurture

2. Provide structure, boundaries and guidance

3. Respect the child as a person

4. Enable child empowerment

Accepting the child

The first pillar of parenting is related to parental behaviours responding to the child’s needs for love, safety, belonging and acceptance of the child for what s/he is. That means that the parent behaves as a safe basis from which the child can explore the world around him/her, but can always return to, in case s/he feels fear, sadness, fatigue, or any other unpleasant emotion.

Parents should be sensitive to child’s messages and respond appropriately, showing warmth and love for the child – by words, hugs, quality time together, by providing comfort, protection and support to the child in challenging situations. It is important that parents are consequent in providing warmth and respond to child’s needs.

Such behaviour is a basis for secure attachment, which is fundamental to all other relationships in child’s life. A lack of care, as well as inconsistent care, too often justified with being busy and a fast pace of life, as well as an extreme level of child protection and prevention of any unpleasant emotions may disturb a healthy child development.

Setting boundaries

The second pillar of parenting is related to providing structure, setting boundaries, taking the child’s opinion into account and guiding the child’s behaviour. Providing structure means organising the space and time and guiding the child’s behaviour. These result in a feeling of safety and predictability in the child and in the development of competences.

Creating a neat (not too strict) daily schedule with patterns of the child’s and family activities helps the development of the child’s feeling of structure. While the child is growing, the flexibility in structuring his/her time and activities increases, in order to be as attuned to the child’s individual needs as possible. Guiding the child’s behaviour, or so-called ‘setting boundaries’, is carried out through communication with the child about what is and what is not acceptable behaviour, through expressing parental expectations and clear and specific requirements  from the child, in a non-violent way.

The following can be recommended for everyday life:

  • agree on some family rules with the child in advance, to avoid a conflict with the child in some important situation: “Today we are going to spend some time in the nearest park till lunchtime. Some other time we can spend more time outside and go to the big park.”;
  • agreed rules should be formulated in positive terms – in the form of some reward, and not a threat: “We can watch the cartoons together when you finish putting your toys in place”, instead of “No TV today if you do not tidy up after yourself”;
  • use natural consequences of the child’s behaviours: “If you go out without your jacket, you will be cold!” It is not good to emphasise some bad consequences which may not happen and say, e.g.: “If you climb that chair, you will fall and get hurt!” but  “You might fall and get hurt!”
  • children should be allowed some age-appropriate choices, e.g. at the age of four or five, we can ask the child: “Do you want to put on your red or blue T-shirt?”; We certainly should not ask the child if s/he wants to go to the kindergarten or to the doctor’s;
  • instead of constantly repeating “No”, “Stop”, “Enough”, “Don’t”, we can redirect and guide the child to some other, more acceptable activity;
  • more emphasis should be put on acknowledging and praising adequate behaviours, than on reacting to inadequate ones;
  • The child is more likely to develop some behaviour after it has been praised, because s/he wants to please his/her parents, that to stop with some behaviour we criticize. Criticizing also places attention ob the child, but for inappropriate behaviours. That is the reason why it is much more efficient to acknowledge and praise acceptable behaviours.
  • agree on family rules together – children are capable of participating in such agreements and they will feel proud for being involved in family life.

Abusive parental behaviours, like corporal punishment of the child, calling the child names or shaming, teach the child that s/he should be afraid of his/her parents, that it is right to beat the people they love and that s/he is not valuable as a person. It may lead to an inability to control anger with frequent and intense reactions to frustration, aggression towards other children, things, and sometimes even parents.

Building child’s self-confidence and self-awareness

The third pillar of parenting is respecting the child as a person. In the traditional upbringing this child’s need was often neglected. It is about respecting the child’s right to be seen, heard and respected as a person who has his/her own opinions, ideas and plans. Parents and educators achieve this by showing interest in the child’s everyday experience, listening and understanding the child and by respecting the child’s opinion in matters of his/her and family life.

In practice we sometimes see extreme parental attitudes – some parents believe that children understand very little and that they are not capable of forming opinions on many matters, while some give children too much responsibility expecting them to make decisions on their own and take care of themselves in emotionally difficult situations. E.g. a five-year-old child can express an opinion about the juice s/he would prefer, but it is too difficult for him/her to decide which parent is right in a parental argument.

Today we are aware of the child’s abilities and values, but we often value the child exclusively through his/her a activity and achieved success. That is how we build the child’s self-confidence – his/her understanding about what s/he can achieve, but not the child’s self-awareness – awareness who s/he is and that s/he is valuable just because s/he exists. Self-awareness can be built by praise and encouraging the child to enjoy the process and not only the result of some activity, e.g. by praising the effort invested in some activity, encouraging the child to describe his/her activities and showing interest in them, as well as by expressing love for the child regardless of the success achieved.

Trusting the child and believing in him/her

The fourth pillar of parenting is empowering the child, and it is related to creating conditions for developing the child’s feeling of enablement, personal control and the ability to influence other people and the surrounding world, depending on his/her age and maturity. It is important that parents are responsive to the child’s needs, open for the cooperation with the child and mutual influence.

Parents are responsible for creating opportunities in which the child learns and gains new experience, as well as for allowing the child’s feeling of independence. It is important to allow the child to feel capable appropriate to his/her age. The child needs the message from the parents that they trust and believe in him/her. If not, the child may withdraw from attempting new activities and become passive. E.g., if the child can unwrap a present, although s/he may need longer time to do that than adults, it is good to let the child do it, instead of taking the present from the child’s hands and unwrap it. After the child has done that, we can praise him/her for the effort and patience s/he put in unwrapping the present.

The responsibilities of the child and the parents

Modern parenting approach encourages parents to take responsibility for changes, instead of feeling guilty for possible failures. Guilt is an unpleasant emotion which may push the parents into passivity and into the past. The feeling of responsibility encourages the parents in seeking solutions.

We define personal responsibility as a responsibility and will of a person to take responsibility for oneself, his/her actions and both small and big life decisions ensuing thereof. Parents need to take some responsibilities just like the child needs to take responsibility, e.g. for doing his/her homework. However, while the child bears responsibility only for him/herself, parents are responsible for themselves, for their child’s development and for the quality of their relationship with the child.

The four pillars of positive parenting are the basis of a healthy relationship with the child. Being a responsible parent does not mean satisfying every child’s desire, but a consistent response to the child’s need for care, structure, respect and empowerment. Regardless of the family type, parents are responsible for supporting their children, providing an adequate model and doing their best to develop as parents every day.