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Positive discipline

Kind and Firm Parenting

by Jane Nelsen, Ed.D.
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A foundation of positive discipline is to be kind and firm at the same time. Many parents know how to be kind — until they get upset. Then they know how to be firm without being kind. Some parents vacillate between the two — being kind until they can't stand their kids (who develop an entitlement attitude), and then being firm until they can't stand themselves (feeling like tyrants).

Putting kind and firm together is the challenge. One of my favorite examples of kind and firm at the same time is, "I love you, and the answer is no."

Another example is to validate a child's feelings and then allow her to recover from those feelings. "I can see you are very disappointed that you didn't get a better grade." Then comes the tough part — no rescuing and no lectures. Simply allow her to discover that she can get over her disappointment and figure out what might increase her chances of getting what she wants in the future.

Kind and Firm Parenting Tips

The mother bird knows instinctively when it is time to push her baby bird from the nest so it will learn to fly. If we didn't know better we might think this is not very nice of the mother bird. If the baby bird could talk, it might be saying, "No. I don't want to leave the nest. Don't be so mean. That's not fair." However, we know the baby bird would not learn to fly if the mother bird did not provide that important push.

Kind is not always nice. It would be very unkind to allow her baby to be handicapped for life by pampering — an unkindness practiced by many parents today.

We all know the mistakes made in the name of firmness without kindness. In a word, it is punishment. However, many do not know the mistakes made in the name of kindness such as:
  • Pleasing
  • Rescuing
  • Over-protecting
  • Pampering — providing all "wants"
  • Micromanaging in the name of love
  • Giving too many choices
  • Making sure children never suffer
All of theses parenting methods create weakness.

Why Kindness Is Not Always Kind

You may be surprised to see, "making sure children never suffer," as a mistake in the name of kindness. The following story of the little boy and the butterfly may help you understand how rescuing children from all suffering creates weakness.

A little boy felt sorry for a butterfly struggling to emerge from its chrysalis. He decided to help so he could save the butterfly from the struggle. So he peeled the chrysalis open for the butterfly. The little boy was so excited to watch the butterfly spread its wings and fly off into the sky. Then he was horrified as he watched the butterfly drift to the ground and die because it did not have the muscle strength to keep flying.

Like the little boy, parents too often want to protect their children from struggle in the name of love. They don't realize that their children need to struggle, to deal with disappointment and to solve their own problems so they can develop their emotional muscles and the necessary skills for the even bigger struggles they will encounter throughout their lives.

It is important that parents do not make children suffer, but sometimes it is most helpful to "allow" them to suffer. For example, suppose a child "suffers" because she can't have the toy she wants. Allowing her to suffer through this experience can help her develop her resiliency muscles. She learns that she can survive the ups and downs of life — leading to a sense of capability and competency.

Of course it isn't helpful when parents engage in "piggy backing" — adding lectures, blame and shame to what the child is experiencing. "Stop crying and acting like a spoiled brat. You can't always have what you want. Do you think I'm made of money? And besides, all I got in my Christmas stocking was nuts and an orange."

Instead, parents can offer loving support. "I can see this is very upsetting to you. It can be very disappointing when we don't get what we want." Period. I say, "period," because some parents even overdo validating feelings — going on and on in the hopes that validating feelings will take away the suffering.

Have faith in your children that they can learn and grow from suffering — especially in a supportive environment. Understand that, in the short term, kind is not always nice. True kindness and firmness together provides an environment where children can develop the "wings" they need to soar through life.  
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Meet Our Expert
Jane Nelsen, Ed.D.
Family and Child Therapist
Dr. Jane Nelsen is a California licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and author or co-author of 18 books, including Positive Discipline, Raising Self-Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent World, and 12 other books in the Positive Discipline Series, among others. She earned her Ed.D. from the University of San Francisco, but her formal training has been secondary to her hands-on training as the mother of seven and grandmother of 20. She now shares this wealth of knowledge and experience as a popular keynote speaker and workshop leader throughout the country.

Dr. Nelsen has also appeared on numerous radio and TV shows, including Oprah, Sally Jessy Raphael, and Twin Cities Live and is frequently quoted in parenting magazines.
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