Your four-step plan to enjoyable and successful parenting

Being a parent is not always easy. At times you may feel anxious, exhausted, and frustrated, and feeling as though it’s the children who are in control, not you. Things are particularly challenging for parents now, as many have to juggle home-schooling with working from home.

People walking in a wood

But being a parent can be truly rewarding and great fun. We've  put together some tips (based on evidence about what works in parenting) so you can have more of the better times together.

We've got some key strategies, drawing on research from the highly regarded book The Parent/Child Game, by the leading clinical psychologist, Sue Jenner (1999, Bloomsbury). We hope you find them useful. Scroll to the bottom for perhaps the most important tips of all:  how to look after yourself!

Step one - Be positive!

Mum and daugher looking at fridgeHow does positive parenting work?
There is a basic equation behind parenting in a positive way: if you can increase the time your child spends behaving in a friendly and co-operative way, it will leave less time for them to behave in a way you dislike!

Encourage your child to behave well for more of the time by rewarding them when they behave in a way that you like and wish to encourage. If a behaviour is followed by something positive, the behaviour is strengthened and is more likely to be repeated in the future.

There are different ways of rewarding children:

  • Giving them positive attention
  • Rewarding them with an activity
  • Rewarding them with a toy or treat

Rewarding your child with positive attention

By giving your child positive attention when they behave in a way you like, you will reinforce that behaviour, and make it more likely that it will be repeated in the future.

You can give positive attention to your children in these sorts of ways:

  • Praise them
  • Give them smiles
  • Give them positive touches
  • Give ‘attends’ (find out more below)
  • Imitate your child

People walking in a wood

Positive attention is what is known as a social reward. Social rewards are very useful for encouraging and maintaining desirable behaviour from your child, and also for developing a positive relationship with them. The reward a child receives from small, but frequent responses to what they say or do is immediate, and they will feel approved of, loved and will want to please you.

Rewarding your child with praise

When a child receives praise for something they’ve done, it's far more likely they'll do it again. But giving praise can sometimes feel awkward in real life, so we’ve given you some examples of how to do it, below.

Here’s how to do it:

Give labelled verbal praise
This includes statements of exactly what your child did that you liked, e.g:

  • Thanks for tidying up the books.”
  • “You’ve got yourself dressed, that’s brilliant!”
  • Well done for eating your dinner without leaving the table once.”

Giving labelled verbal praise helps your child to know exactly what they did that you liked and makes them more likely to do it again. This should be used as often as you can and more often than unlabelled verbal praise.

Give unlabelled verbal praise
This does not tell your child exactly what behaviour is being praised, but it is still a reward e.g:

  • “That’s great!”
  • “Wow! Fantastic!” 
  • Good job!”

Think about how you are giving your child praise

If you want to use praise effectively, you need to consider not only what you are saying, but also how you are saying it. You need to think about your tone of voice and also your facial expressions. Don’t give praise when you look or sound bored or critical. Give praise in a pleased, enthusiastic way - and smile!

What are 'attends' and how can you give them to your child?

You give your child ‘attends’ by describing their positive behaviour and letting them know that you are really interested in the positive things they do. Attends are a very powerful way of giving your child attention and are also really rewarding.

Here’s how to do it:
You can give attends by describing out loud, with warmth and enthusiasm what your child is doing, where they are or their appearance. 

Describe the child’s activity:
  • “You’ve got a blue brick.”
  • “You found me.“
  • “You’re pushing the car under the bridge.”
  • “You’re playing quietly.”

The following don’t mention the child specifically, but they comment on what the child is playing with at the moment:

  • “Here comes the bus.” 
  • “That’s a long road.”
  • “The tower’s getting bigger.”
  • “Oh you’ve got the book,” as the child picks up the book.
  • “That’s 10 pence,” as the child registers 10p on a play till.
  • “You will have used all the bricks up soon,” as the child builds a tower with bricks.

Describe where the child is:

  • “There you are.” 
  • “You’re hiding behind the curtain.” 
  • “You’re sitting by the doll’s house.”

Describe the child’s appearance:

  • “You’re smiling so much today.” 
  • “You’re wearing your blue coat.”

Step 2: Be playful!

Family playing patacake

This is all about encouraging you to have some fun!

Regularly playing or listening to your child can also help to build a more positive relationship. The key to doing this successfully, however, is always to let the child lead the way. Avoid taking over and giving instructions or commands when playing, or interrupting and being distracted when listening. Don’t use this ‘together’ time as an opportunity to ask questions and teach. Let them lead it!

Imitation and 'attends'

For young children (up to the age of about 5)

Imitating what children are saying or doing is a way of attending to their positive behaviour. By imitating your children when you’re talking or playing with them, you will let them know that you’re really paying them lots of attention. This also encourages conversations to take place in which the parent does not need to ask lots of questions (which children don’t like)

Here’s how to do it: 

Copy your child’s actions or words so that they can tell you are interested. Use genuine enthusiasm. Imitate the noises they make while playing, repeat what they say:

  • “Brrummm.” as the child racing a car says "Brrummm."
  • “You’re making a bridge”, as the child says they’re making a bridge
  • “You love strawberries”, as the child says they love strawberries.

Imitation also really helps with younger children’s language development – echo the words that they say, gently correcting any mistakes without drawing attention to these in a negative way.

Ask to play. Allow your child to choose and lead the play:

  • What would you like me to do?
  • What shall I do next?
  • Can I play with you?

For older children – age 5 upwards

Older children really appreciate you listening to them – whether they’re telling you about their fears and worries, or their achievements.

People walking in a wood

Being a good listener can take practice, especially in our busy, hectic lives, but it is a triple win: it boosts children’s confidence, boosts your relationship with them and as a result improves their behaviour.

Here are some tried and tested ways to improve your listening skills:

  • Try to make some time just to listen, without doing another job.
  • Show this by sitting down with your child and giving eye contact.
  • Speak only to encourage them to continue, not to give an opinion.
  • Try ‘mirroring’ and ‘affirming’ what they are saying (e.g. if child says ‘I felt a bit confused’, say ‘You felt confused; yes I can understand that.’)

Encourage a child to come up with solutions, e.g. ‘What do you think you could do about that?’ or ‘What could you say to your friend when she talks like that?’ using a gentle voice.


Step 3: Pick your battles!

This section gives you tips on you how to pick your battles!

There are times when parenting gets challenging – it’s not all smiles and encouragement! Sometimes you have to set boundaries, and this is where some parents struggle the most. Here are our two top tips for you on discipline, based on research.

Ignore Minor Naughtiness

If you follow our steps to enjoyable and successful parenting, including giving your child positive attention when they behave well, ignoring minor naughtiness, and giving only necessary commands followed by immediate praise - your child will feel approved of and loved and will want to please you and do as you ask.

Here’s what to do if a child behaves inappropriately:

  • Obviously lose interest when the child starts to be silly
  • Noticeably ignore the child when they are doing something that’s naughty in a minor way.
  • Make no comment.
  • Look away; half turn your shoulder or body.
  • Return your attention only when your child’s behaviour is once more acceptable.

Reading with children

Be Consistent

When you are inconsistent you might sometimes reward undesirable behaviour and give in to children’s demands and sometimes not.  Inconsistency encourages a child to continue behaving in an undesirable way because they know that at some point they’re going to be rewarded for it – by getting attention.

To the child it seems quite random, and random rewards are very powerful in reinforcing behaviour. Children don’t know when they will be rewarded for undesirable behaviour, so they will keep behaving in an undesirable way until the parent does give in and rewards their crying, whining or unreasonable demands with attention, a later bedtime, sweets etc.

Think about playing on a slot machine; the person doesn’t know when the machine will pay out and is encouraged to keep putting more money in until it does. It’s the same with children!

Of course it is very difficult to be consistent all of the time, but it is easier to be consistent if we aren’t tired or stressed. Prioritising looking after yourself will help you to be less tired, less stressed and more consistent. Step 4 looks at ways to do this, so read on!

Step 4: Look after yourself!

This final step is all about how to look after yourself! 

Parents tell us that they find it most difficult to be positive with their children, manage their children’s behaviour effectively, and be consistent, while they feel tired or stressed. And at the moment, this is probably more the case than ever before.

Parenting is a tough job. So it’s really important to put as much effort into looking after yourself as you do into looking after your child and to prioritise your own physical and mental health and wellbeing. It’s also important to reward yourself for learning new skills and being a positive parent, because remember that if a person is rewarded for a behaviour, then they are more likely to repeat that behaviour.

Ways to put effort into Looking after YOU 

Eat a healthy diet

Eating a balanced diet with at least five portions per day of fruit and vegetables will help keep you feeling fit and well, with enough energy to look after your family and yourself. If you feel the need to diet, do it gradually in a balanced way, to avoid putting stress on your mind and body.

Do some exercise

Doing exercise gives us more energy, relieves stress and releases chemicals called endorphins that make us feel really great. As little as 30 minutes walking a day has been proven to have significant effects on people’s wellbeing, so try and incorporate it into your everyday routine. 

Pamper, indulge and find as much time for yourself as you can. 

Take time out to do something that relaxes and refreshes you, from reading your favourite book, cuddling up and watching a movie to getting out and working out. This will leave you revitalised, re-charged, and ready for another day of positive parenting! 

We hope you have enjoyed our four-point plan to successful parenting. Each of the topics we have covered is just as important as the other, so remember not to forget the last one – looking after yourself. We know how tough it can be, which is why we have brought you these tips – based on research and experience – in bite-sized chunks.

Good luck with putting them into practice. Look out for more tips and advice from Coram Life Education and MarvellousMe in the future. We’d love to hear your feedback, email cle@coram and tell us what you think!

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