Kindness and Firmness: It Works!

by Jody McVittie, M.D.

My husband Dan and I shared our concerns with a school counselor about how sibling rivalry had escalated when our oldest child started school. The counselor recommended a parenting class taught by Dr. Bob Bradbury. Bob taught a class called "Sanity Circus" for the Seattle schools. We were amazed to find over 100 people attending the class. He used Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen as the text for his class.

Dr. Bradbury had all sorts of sayings that he would tape up in the front of the room. One of his favorites was kindness and firmness. He shared a lot of stories about how to be kind and firm at the same time. It was really hard for me to believe that it would work. In my family there had been plenty of firmness -- but very little kindness, and it was hard for me to believe that they could work together.

One day, after about three sessions of the parenting class, I had the opportunity to try it. I don't remember why, but I happened to be feeling particularly good that day (we always do better when we feel better), so when trouble brewed I was able to try something new. In our house we have a rule that the bath water stays in the bathtub and when it escapes, bath time is over. You can splash and have fun, but you have to pull the shower curtain so the water stays in.

Aaron, age 4-1/2 at the time, loved to test that rule. We had a big beer-making funnel in the tub because it was such a great toy. (Turn it upside down quickly over the bubble bath and you can shoot the bubbles to the ceiling.) Aaron loved to fill the funnel with water and dump it outside the tub. My usual response was to say in a voice somewhere between annoyed and angry, "That's it! Out of the tub. Time out!" I would then pick him up and put him in his room. The rest of the evening would be spent with him pushing my or Dan's buttons in some other way (bugging a sister, refusing to get in his jammies, etc.) I had begun to recognize this as a revenge cycle, but was baffled about how to stop it.

On this particular night, I was feeling inspired. When the water flew out of the tub, I decided to test this kindness and firmness thing. I remember hoping that it would work, but being very skeptical. Aaron poured the water out and I did not go ballistic. Instead, I gently picked Aaron up out of the tub, wrapped him in a towel, sat down on the toilet.

I kindly said, "Bath time is over. You can go get on your jammies or play with your Legos™."

Aaron was upset. "I won't do it again. Let me back in the tub." He squirmed and wiggled.

I calmly repeated, "Bath time is over."

This scenario went on for about a minute during which time Dan walked in to get our two-year-old's toothbrush and rolled his eyes at me. I could tell that he was thinking, "This is not going to work."

I finally told Aaron (calmly) that I was not going to argue with him. I would not talk about the bath, but that we would sit here together until he was ready to do something else. Aaron got quiet. After about another minute I could tell that something clicked in him. He slid off my lap and disappeared. I was speechless. No big fuss. No stomping. No argument. After a few moments, I quietly got up to see what he was doing. He was already in his jammies and into a game on the floor of his room. It did work!

The part that continued to amaze me is that we did not get picked on all evening -- and the tub water stayed in the tub for six months before he tested the rule again. I became an instant believer in kindness and firmness and Positive Discipline.

Sometimes when I tell this story, people asked if he cleaned up his own bath water. No, he did not. I did. It was all I could do to try one new thing at a time. Now I feel more confident setting limits with kindness and firmness and all of our family cleans up their own messes. But back then I was just beginning to learn.

Jody McVittle, M.D., MFTJody McVittie received her M.D. from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in 1981. She completed her residency in Family Medicine in Modesto, California (1984) and worked as a family doctor until 1996. Her favorite part of being a doctor was working with families and guiding them to find ways that they could work together. She has been teaching parenting more formally since 1995. In 1996, she began collaborating with another educator to explore ways to teach Positive Discipline in the Classroom. Jody and her husband Dan Goodman live in Everett, Washington. They have three children (now 12, 10, and 7). This story about their middle child, Aaron, took place six years ago when they were first trying Positive Discipline.

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