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Positive Parenting and Children's Cognitive Development

New research finds that positive parenting improves kids’ cognitive functioning.

Key points

  • Positive parenting supports parents in building loving relationships with children, supporting strengths rather than focusing on problems.
  • Recent research shows positive parenting enhances children's cognitive development and language skills.
  • Children's cognitive development is a foundation for competence, self-esteem, and success in adult health, wealth, and well-being.
Eye for Ebony/Unsplash
Eye for Ebony/Unsplash

Positive psychology is a movement that puts the focus on happiness and thriving rather than problems and mental illness. According to Psychology Today, "Positive psychology is a branch of psychology focused on the character strengths and behaviors that allow individuals to build a life of meaning and purpose—to move beyond surviving to flourishing. Theorists and researchers in the field have sought to identify the elements of a good life. They have also proposed and tested practices for improving life satisfaction and well-being."

How Does Positive Parenting Align With Positive Psychology?

Positive parenting, like positive psychology, works to support optimal functioning and resilience, putting the emphasis on children’s and parents’ strengths rather than their weaknesses, disabilities, and failures. It asks parents to catch their kids being good and pay less attention to what the parent considers bad.

Building on the principles of positive psychology, advocates of positive parenting encourage parents to build strong relationships with their children; listen to them with empathy; and be sensitive, warm, and accepting as they seek to understand their children’s feelings and needs. It recognizes that children’s and parents’ needs change over time and vary across temperament, culture, and neurological differences.

Positive parenting is not the same as laissez-faire parenting, in which parents allow kids to do whatever they want without consequences. It includes limit-setting and appropriate, reasonable consequences. It also supports parents in taking care of their own needs, establishing realistic expectations, modeling the behavior they want to see in their children, and staying lovingly connected to their children through thick and thin.

To proponents of more traditional parenting attitudes (parents should set the rules and enforce them; children need to experience consequences for "bad" behavior; children should experience how the "real world" works), positive parenting can seem soft, ineffective, and time-consuming.

Positive Parenting and Children's Cognitive Development

Children’s cognitive development is important in itself, but it also impacts many other dimensions of a person’s life. As Heather Prime and colleagues write in their recent major review of the research on positive parenting:

Early cognition is an important marker for readiness at school entry, relatively stable across development, and predictive of several adult outcomes in critical domains of education, occupation, health, and well-being.

Recognizing that the term “positive parenting” is used in many different ways, Prime and colleagues defined it for purposes of their study as characterized by sensitivity, warmth, acceptance, nurturance, and consideration of a child’s intentions, thoughts, and emotions. It also includes cognitive responsivity, such as maintaining children’s focus of attention and responding to infants’ exploratory and communicative actions, as well as positive behavioral guidance.

Positive parenting changes over time as the child develops, and it varies with temperament, neurodevelopmental differences, culture, and other factors. The foundation of positive parenting is the relationship a parent builds with their child.

To be included in Prime et al.'s analysis of hundreds of research studies on this topic, a study had to include children anywhere from birth to age six and use randomized controlled trials, thus allowing conclusions about causality, in this case, that any differences found were a result of the positive parenting intervention.

The researchers concluded that “positive parenting interventions were effective in enhancing mental abilities and language.” Perhaps surprisingly, positive parenting not only leads to a happier home environment but improves children’s cognitive functioning and literacy skills, thereby giving parents more good reasons to move toward it from traditional parenting methods.


Positive Parenting and Early Childhood Cognition: A Systematic Review and Meta‐Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials,” by Heather Prime, Krysta Andrews, Alexandra Markwell, Andrea Gonzalez, Magdalena Janus, Andrea Tricco, Teresa Bennett, and Leslie Atkinson. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review.

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