1. Begin With the End in Mind
Imagine it’s your funeral and your kids are around your grave. They’re talking about the good times and the bad. What would you like them to say about you as a parent?
Beyond people saying how much they love you, this part gets hard for a lot of people including me. But think about it, what is it about you that the kids love the most?
For me, I want my kids to say that I was always fully engaged when I was with them. They felt like there was lots of positive energy, and they were the most important thing in the world at that moment. If I value being fully engaged, how do I make this a ritual so it’s there when the kids need it? For me, it’s my energy levels when I’m with the kids.
Our lives are a mixture of complex energy drains, so I have to be responsible for ensuring that when I’m with the kids, I’m joyful. I do this by being aware when I’m feeling low and having a plan ready to help.
This can be as simple as having your favorite songs on a Spotify playlist to help bounce back to being more focused or something more organized like having days off in your diary to recharge the batteries. If you can take 2 minutes to write down what you would like your children to talk about when they visit you at your tombstone, you’ll have a map that points to the type of parent you aspire to be.
When you’re clear on this, you can design the habits needed to help you become the best version of yourself.
My childhood was very different—not your typical family environment. I grew up in a hotel in a seaside town, with my parents working more hours than they should. They were tired, busy, and angry more often than most parents because every day was a struggle to keep the business running as it was a tough time and a tougher clientele.
But the happiest memories I have of my parents were when they would play with me. This did not happen often enough, but we had a computer game table in the bar. It was an electronic pool game, and I loved to play against my dad in this 8-bit challenge. Remember, this was even before Nintendo consoles! Dad would get me a Pepsi from the bar, and we did not even talk. We were just both fully present in the moment and the game.
There’s a lot of bad press in the media about games and screen time. But you can make it a positive experience if you can immerse yourself when sharing this time.
One day, my dad came home with a big black bin bag full of Legos. I had never seen Legos before as it was not on TV adverts and school was for work, not play. Dad emptied the bag on the floor and we just played. No rules, no small talk, and nobody explained what to do. You just instinctively know.
It was probably the best day ever. Games and Legos are timeless. So, find the time, and just play. This is the step towards proper positive parenting.
3. Try Not to Bring “No” Into Play
This is a small thing, but when you bring no into play with your kids, it can feel like a win-lose situation, even if you are trying to keep them safe or just showing that you care. Instead, seek a win-win situation.
There is this balance between positive parenting and preparing kids for the real world. But probably the hardest of all positive parenting techniques is “avoiding bringing no into play” (ABNITP).
Going a little further, the technique has two parts—ABNITP and the use of positive language.
It does not mean never to use the word ‘no.’ But in the rare cases that it slips out, it’s more powerful and the kids are more wired to accept it.
Here’s an example. Have you ever been on the phone and the kids wanted to talk to you? When you have a child asking you questions and trying to get your attention, it’s easy to say ‘no’ straight away. But rephrasing this to ‘when I finish the call, we’ll talk’ is a win-win mindset. When we feel most tired is when we’re most open to going into a win-lose mindset.
One small phrase had a big impact on my parenting, especially for those days when I felt drained:
“My coffee mug is drained, can you help me fill it up.”
I could get less resistance if I genuinely needed a little time or the kids would come up with a way to help. As the kids got older, this also turned into a great habit of them making me coffee in return for some time—a nice win-win situation.
As a black belt in martial arts and growing up with busy parents, emotional intelligence was never that high on my radar, mostly because I never experienced much empathy growing up. There probably were not opportunities for it. Life was practical and you picked yourself up if you fell over, shook it off, and got on with life.
But as a martial arts coach in charge of a large number of kids aged 4 to 6 years, I’m not serving my students if I don’t have empathy. Young kids understand more words than they can communicate. Their view of the world is very different to us as adults, and they can teach us a lot if we are open to listening.
When your coaching a class and a 4-year-old is talking about their pet dinosaur, it’s not necessarily disruptive. It may be their way of communicating with you.
Taking a little time to communicate back pays dividends for your relationships. This can be the same for parenting.
For example, when your child falls over and cuts their knee, they can instantly start crying, sniffing, sobbing—you get the picture. As dads, we like strong cars, strong houses, and tough kids. Telling them to grow up, stop complaining, and be quiet can be our first thoughts. But it’s never constructive—and neither is cooing them.
Remember, young children understand more than they can articulate. Letting them know that “they’re brave as it must hurt, but they’ll be alright when they stand up” shows empathy and understanding of our child’s stage of development. Empathy is an essential aspect of positive parenting.
What have you ever done together for other people? When my kids were young, we raised money for a children’s hospice. At the time, they did not really understand what a hospice was, but they understood that they were helping other children.
As a martial arts club, we had several volunteer children and parents spend an afternoon at a supermarket packing people’s bags. Many people would then donate some money to charity. It was a great experience for the kids as they got to help, which they enjoyed more than I thought they would.
The shoppers were really positive towards them for helping, and we all went to the hospice together to hand over the money. When we were in the hospice, we were allowed a tour of the parts that had no kids.
As a parent, this hit me more than a right cross. We’re going back 19 years, and I can still remember the smell from the sterile environment. It was a fun experience and a nice way to build habits with the kids to think about helping and giving back. Plus, this example helped me reflect on how lucky I was to be a parent. Teaching your children gratitude is key to positive parenting.
Most kids love being active and having an adventure. We forget that a lot of the things that we may do or take for granted can be an adventure for the kids, such as meeting our friends, shopping for a car, fixing computers, etc. Involving your kids in these activities can be a change in their routine and fun.
Looking for a car had a big impact on my son. He would flick through the used car magazine while potty training. He would visit the showroom and sit in the passenger seat to let me know if it was comfortable. He was quite cute and would usually get a few treats from the sales team as well for asking good questions.
To this day, my son loves to remind me about the time he had to get help as I got stuck in the seat of a Lotus Elise. He also drives a sports car now that he’s grown up, and he was so proud to take me with him when he purchased it. Effective positive parenting should involve adventures.
7. Not All Strangers Are Bad
This comes from a place of opinion, so feel free to disagree, but I wanted my kids to talk to strangers.
Within this technique are many skills that will teach my kids to become strong in life and help keep them safe, too. The problem is that many kids think that they should not talk to strangers—that they are all bad and dangerous people. But I’ve always taught my kids that they can speak to strangers if they want to.
My kids grew up watching me talk to strangers all the time. From watching this activity, they’ve learned how to make friends. They’ve learned about the good questions to ask. They watched me listen, smile, and use my body to help communicate. Teaching kids that there is good in most people is a positive way of building their confidence and teaching them a nicer way to live.
I’m not suggesting letting kids wander around unsupervised, being trusting, and chatting with everyone. There are real dangers in the world, from cars on the road, sharp objects, hot things, and—especially where my kids have grown up—the sea.
I see a danger in everyone I meet, but my kids did not need to see the world this way when they were young. Most people would awe me with kindness to our kids. There was a time when a lovely German lady held my son while I had my head over the deck of a ship from seasickness.
I believe our kids will grow up happier with less judgment if we start teaching our children not to fear what they don’t understand but to approach it with curiosity.
They also should know how to trust their instincts and—if something is not typical or does not feel right—to go with that intuition immediately.
There have been times that strangers have wanted to do me harm in life. But more times, they’ve helped me when I’ve been lost, in need of kindness, or in need of someone to talk to. This is why I believe that we should face our fears as a parent every day and let our children talk to strangers if we want them to grow up happy.
I hope to be a granddad one day and continue the techniques I started with my own kids. The Danes have a great word that expresses how I think—”hygge.”
This is about the power that being fully present brings to being a great parent. It’s a drama-free way to be together.
It’s not easy to be a parent in today’s crazy world, but if you begin with the end in mind, you can try to craft this into your daily routines until it becomes the habit of raising happy kids. And this is what positive parenting is all about.