Discipline with Kindness and Firmness

by Jane Nelsen

I was playing Rummy with my friend Mary and her nine-year-old daughter, Jenny, who became hyper and started acting silly. Mary asked her to stop several times, but Jenny just acted sillier. Finally my friend looked at me in total defeat and said, "You're the expert. What should I do?"

Fortunately, I was able to give her an answer. It's easy to come up with suggestions for someone else. (When I get emotionally involved with my children, I need a friend who can give me suggestions.) The suggestion I gave her was, "Decide what you will do instead of trying to make her do something (or stop doing something).

You might decide that you don't want to play cards with someone who behaves disrespectfully." Mary said, "That's a great idea." Then she turned to Jenny and said, "I don't want to play with you any more because you're acting silly; and I'm not going to let you play cards with my adult friends any more since you can't behave yourself." Whoops. I forgot to tell my friend to be kind and firm while implementing the suggestion. She was firm, but not kind.

The feeling behind what she did was more punitive with a lecture thrown in than kind. Her action was effective in that Jenny did settle down and pleaded with her mother to keep playing. She promised to stop acting silly. The problem was that Mary was still upset and angry. I could identify with Mary.

Under the circumstances, I'm sure I would have become "hooked" just as she did. When we get hooked, we lose our ability to act kindly and firmly at the same time, we lose our perspective and cease to be rational. After all, we are mothers, not saints.

So, is there any hope? How can we learn to be kind and firm at the same time? The first thing that will help is to become more aware of our "hook level." When we recognize that we are becoming hooked we can take a deep breath and back off (emotionally, if not physically).

Secondly, it will help if we have an advance plan and use it before we become hooked. Next time Jenny starts acting silly, Mary can tell her immediately (kindly and firmly) what she is going to do, "Jenny, I don't enjoy playing cards when you are acting silly. You can stop now, or I'll stop playing cards. It's up to you."

The third thing to do is say what you mean and mean what you say. In other words, say it once (no reminders) and then follow through with kindness and firmness. If Jenny keeps acting silly, Mom can quietly get up and leave the room. Notice the word "quietly." This means no lectures and no "I told you so's."

It's important not to say anything that sounds punitive. It would be nice to say something encouraging, such as, "We can try again tomorrow." When we are kind and firm, we give our children an opportunity to be accountable for the consequences of their choices with dignity and respect.

It is a valuable lesson for Jenny to learn that adults don't enjoy playing with her when she is disrespectful. However, if she is treated disrespectfully in the process, she is put in a double bind. She is being told to act respectfully while being treated disrespectfully.

We need to remember that our actions speak louder than our words. When we treat children with kindness and firmness, we teach them to stand up for their own desires to be treated with respect (firmness) in a way that is respectful to others (kindness). Every parenting tool can be used with kindness and firmness for the best short-term and long-range benefits. Remember, the feeling behind what you do is more important that what you do.