Is Positive Discipline Body Positive?
Updated: Jul 31, 2021
The Positive Discipline Association doesn’t define or address body positivity. As a HAES-aligned nanny, I chose to get certified to teach Positive Discipline to parents because PD materials include body positive ideals, such as:
No one can define health for anyone else. One of the main draws of Positive Discipline, for me, is that it encourages child participation in household decision making and invites parents and caregivers to look deeply at the motivations behind their child's behavior. It's not about forcing anyone to do something they don't want to do. We’ve all experienced that yucky feeling of receiving unsolicited guidance that put us on the defensive. Positive Discipline tools prioritize connection to help us guide children in alignment with their genuine needs.
Integration of mind and body. Positive Discipline encourages physical movement as a tool for moving stress through the body, specifically in the chapters about problem-solving skills, and fortunately not as the only option or a "have to" command -- child's body, child's choice. I believe the locus on movement should be on how it makes us feel, so I find this practice encouraging! PD is primarily a social-emotional learning platform, so mental health is held with care throughout. Mental health cannot be separated from physical health, and likewise must be included in any definition of body positivity.
Respectful mealtimes. There isn’t much content about child feeding in Positive Discipline literature. However, the main lesson PD teaches about mealtime success is to treat your child the way you would treat a dinner guest. I believe this to be a good foundation to build upon. As a PD facilitator with a special interest in preventing picky eating and supporting parents and caregivers to raise children to have a loving relationship with food and body, I find the "treat them like a dinner guest" idea serves as a non-offensive prompt to invite further anti-diet child feeding discussions.
Avoiding stigmatizing language. There are no mentions of weight or the “o” words (ob*sity, ov*rwe*ght) in the Positive Discipline books or their website content. I appreciate that PD treats children with respect regardless of body size to the extent that body size is never mentioned. There's no reason it should be! (Except when necessary to call out oppression, or as a celebration of diversity.)
Personal Autonomy. This connects to the point about no one being able to define health for anyone else. It's worth repeating. When I first discovered PD, I was working with a child who was often disinterested in the outings I planned. My bias was that it was "better" for this child to get out and do things and saw the child's desire to stay home to play video games as something to set a boundary around.
Cue power struggles. Adults will routinely need to set boundaries in a child’s best interest (or household's!), but in this case, I was missing a lot about “best interest”: a need to be seen and understood by me, a need for time to recharge from school and hardships, a need for social connection with local friends who played the game, a creative outlet -- in short, a need for agency over their own life, or at least agency over an afternoon now and again. I got parent permission to loosen up and stop making the child come out with me and the other children. (This was an older child, of course, and my outings were short and local.) Immediately there was a shift in our relationship. They knew I was on their side, and it became easier to plan days that supported all of our needs. By not forcing my version of fun and wellbeing on this child, I created space for them to join in authentically when they were ready. I believe Positive Discipline adds a lot of great tools to the Body Positive Parent's toolbox.
Areas for caution:
I have come across some harmful language moralizing foods in PD workshops I've attended and in the written materials -- usually as an analogy for something not related to food -- and will not be repeating them in my parent coaching work. (Ex. “Praise is like a sometimes treat. Genuine encouragement is like a wholesome meal.” I don’t condone “sometimes” foods. Food is food. We can find a safer analogy.)
Other facilitators are free to interpret Positive Discipline materials through a diet culture lens. It's a platform that's intentionally designed to support diverse family systems, and that's a good thing. Find a coach or workshop facilitator that shares your values.
Please contact me if I've missed anything in regards to stigmatizing language in Positive Discipline materials, or anything that ought to be addressed, and remember to sign up for my newsletter below to receive blogs posts like this one directly in your email inbox.