parenting with respect: being kind and firm
It is important to be both kind and firm with our children. Kindness, in this context, means being respectful to your child and yourself. This might mean acknowledging that your child disagrees with the limit that you have set or empathizing with the challenge of being a child, who often has little say over the situations in their lives. However, this does not mean that we should rescue our children from hard feelings but acknowledge that those feelings are hard. It is also using kindness when we do not allow our children to treat us disrespectfully. This does not mean we will use anger and punishment to stop them from being disrespectful but instead find ways to treat ourselves with respect. This might mean walking away when your child says something unkind towards you and follow up later when everyone is calm or deciding what you will do in a situation, as opposed to what you would like your child to do.
Firmness, in this context, means holding appropriate and respectful boundaries for your child, yourself, and the situation. When there is too much firmness, parenting can be punitive. When there is too little firmness, parenting can be permissive. It is important to set limits and follow through with them but to do this respectfully. This might mean working collaboratively with a child on a limit that they disagree with (e.g. “I think you should have one hour of screen time after school and you think you should have two hours. How about we try one and a half hours and see how it goes?”) or being curious with a child when a limit is broken (e.g. “I wonder what happened there? What about that situation was hard for you?”).
Let’s put this into practice. Imagine working all day and putting together a nice dinner for the family. After dinner you ask your child, “Could you please bring your dishes to the sink?” and they respond with, “No, why can’t you do it?” It is instinctual for many to become upset and feel disrespected in a situation such as this. How might you respond? If you are using kindness and firmness, you would be focusing on making sure that you feel respected in this situation but that your child also feels respected. We do not know, at this time, why they responded the way they did and the assumption is that their feelings are valid but were expressed in an unfortunate manner. Some things you could try might be:
- “I would really appreciate if you could bring your dishes to the sink, thanks for being such a great helper."- “You’re usually such a great helper. I wonder if you had a rough day today?”- "Are you needing me to help you tonight with your dishes?”- Use silliness, for example, using a sing song rhythm “garbage in the garbage and our plate in the sink.”- “We’ll talk about this later, it’s time to start getting ready for bed.”
Here is another scenario. How might you feel and respond in a situation in which you have planned a fun day to bring your child to the park and it ended in tears? Maybe you took time out of work or you put aside your to-do list because of this outing. It is time to go home and you say to your child, “Okay, it’s time to go,” and your child responds with, “No, I don’t want to go! You're so mean!” and proceeds to cry and scream. A common feeling in response to this would be to feel unappreciated and angry or hurt. It is important to hold the limit that it is time to go because it is respectful to you and the situation. Maybe you have to get home for dinner or maybe it will be getting dark soon. It is also important to respond with kindness, respecting that this may be hard for your child to transition away from the park and head home. Some ways of responding might be:
- “I know it is hard to leave the park. It has been so much fun playing today. But it’s time to go.”- Sitting quietly with their disappointment and maybe offering, “Would you like a hug?”- “Oh, I see, you really wanted to go down the slide one more time. Okay, let’s do one more slide and head home, deal?”- Calmly and quietly guide the child to the car.- “Would you like to walk to the car on your own or should I hold your hand?”- Use silliness, unless it increases their frustration, “Let’s stomp and roar like dinosaurs all the way to the car!”
In both of these examples, the parent is setting the limit with firmness and following through but maintaining kindness. This does not mean that children will “obey” but that they will have their own reactions to things that likely disappoint them, upset them, or do not feel fair to them, just as adults would. If parents are able to accept their children’s reactions in these moments as valid, even if they disagree, they are demonstrating respect for their children and their feelings. It is also important that the parent remain firm, holding their limit in a respectful way and not changing it to rescue their children from their feelings, especially if there is an important reason for the limit. Using kindness and firmness combined in parenting encourages respect for self and for others through modeling respectful responses to their children when they are upset, by discouraging disrespectful behavior, and by parents holding their limits, not by force but through kindness and respect. This article is based on concepts from the Positive Discipline parenting style. You can get more in-depth information about this and other helpful parenting interventions by reading one of the many Positive Discipline books and through the website positivediscipline.com.
Nelson, J. (2006). Positive Discipline: The classic guide to helping children develop self-discipline, responsibility, cooperation, and problem-solving skills (3rd ed.). Ballantine Books. (Original work published 1981)
- Erica Schulz, Psy.D., CADC