The idea of parenting with kindness and firmness at the same time sounded so appealing when I first heard it. But I still struggled: what does kind and firm parenting look like, in the moment, when my child is driving me crazy and we have to get out the door? How do I hold limits firmly, but not sternly?
It’s easy to imagine parenting that is too kind: we don’t set or hold limits; there is little to no structure or routine in the day; when children beg, whine, or tantrum, they get what they want. On the other hand, there is plenty of affection, fun, and connection with our kids.
Parenting that is too firm is also easy to picture: we have many rules that don’t flex; children are made to pay for their misbehavior with blame, shame, isolation or pain. They will do what they’re told or else! On the positive side, children have structure, predictability, and know what’s expected.
You can also probably relate to bouncing back and forth between being too kind and too firm. It goes a little bit like this. . .
When we start out as parents, we want to be nice. We want to keep peace in the family and have happy experiences so we do a lot for our kids, we give them some latitude, and put our own needs last until . . . we can’t stand the kids.
So, we compensate by becoming firm: “That’s it, there are going to be some rules around this place! We need some order here and you’ve got to have some discipline!” And we parent from this place until . . . we can’t stand ourselves.
And then we then flip-flop back into a style of parenting that is too kind or permissive: “I’m sorry I yelled at you like that. Yes, you can have an ice cream tonight . . . OK fine, you can have two scoops . . . “
“What? Two scoops are not enough? You want another scoop of ice cream – are you kidding me? NO WAY! That’s it! No more ice cream for a week!”
And there we go, we’ve flip-flopped back into the “firm” style of parenting to compensate for that indulgent child that we created by giving too much kindness.
It’s a flip-flopping phenomenon that’s so very common among parents and me, too.
The trick is to find that sweet spot: that place in parenting that is both kind and firm at the same time. That’s what Positive Discipline is all about.
It’s not about balancing kind moments with firm moments. It’s the blend, not the balance that makes all the difference.
But most of us didn’t grow up with a model of this blend; so it’s hard to picture what it looks like in practice.
Here are a some example scripts that capture that kind and firm parenting blend. Most of these phrases come from an activity called, “The Language of Firmness” from Parenting the Positive Discipline Way Facilitator’s Guide by Jane Nelsen and Lynn Lott.
The scenario: a child has been given a clear limit of one hour of TV/day, and that hour has been used up already, but the child is begging for more.
- “I trust you to figure out a way to plan for the show you really want to watch in the future.” (show faith in child)
- “I wonder if you can figure out away to make sure you can follow the house rules and still watch your favorite show in the future?” (respond with a question)
- “In our house we only watch TV for one hour a day. You have already done that today. It is OK to be disappointed.” (state the house rule; allow feelings of disappointment)
- “What is our house rule about TV?” (check the child’s understanding)
- “I know you’d rather watch the TV show, it really is an exciting episode. And, your hour is used up. Would you like to record your show for later or just turn it off?” (Use ELC™: Empathy, Limit, Choice – read more about ELC here)
- “You could tape the show and watch it tomorrow as part of your TV time tomorrow, or you could just make a better plan for tomorrow.” (limited choice)
- “The answer is no. (brief pause) It is ok to be upset or feel disappointed.” (say what you mean with compassion)
- Put a gentle hand on child’s shoulder. Look at him/her in the eye (pause to notice the feeling) and then shake your head no. (use non verbal language)
And just for fun, here are some examples of the typical ways parents respond to a child’s request to bend the rules (either too kind, too firm or just whiny):
- “No honey, you know you can’t do that. Now don’t get upset. You can come to the store with me later and I’ll get you a toy.”
- (Exasperated) “No. You know better. If you are going to pout about it you can just go to your room.”
- “Well, you know you’ve already watched an hour already, but if you help me with the laundry later, I’ll let you watch now.”
- “Well, you’ve been pretty good today, so I guess it is ok.”
- (With a tone of exasperation) “Well OK, just this once. But tomorrow you have to plan better.”
- “Oh honey, I know you love the show. OK, I’ll make an exception today.”
- (Annoyed voice) “No, and you need to stop nagging me N O W or you will REALLY have something to complain about.”
- (Exasperated and a little angry) “OK FINE! Go watch your stupid show!”
Can you hear yourself in any of those examples? Shoot, I can!
In Positive Discipline, the trick is to be both kind and firm where . . .
Kindness = respect for child – their thoughts, feelings, developmental stage and abilities
And firmness = respect for yourself and the situation
When we are parenting with both kindness and firmness at the same time, we are modeling mutual respect.
Click here for a great story of kind and firm parenting in practice (I tell it on video.)
Read another example about when my daughter was begging for food at bedtime here.
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