With all this touchy-feely, focus on relationships stuff, it might make us confused and cause us to think that we should be best pals with our children and just let them do whatever they want so that we can prevent unpleasant meltdowns. When you have a “lively” child (also referred to as “spirited” and “strong-willed” in parenting literature), it is tempting to make every day a do-whatever-the-kid-wants day. Granted, it’s wise to choose your battles and only take a cold, hard stand on stuff when it’s really important for whatever reason you deem appropriate (meaning that, from the outside, you might be viewed as a permissive parent in need of assertiveness training or something), but also remember that you are the parent and should act like it. Not simply to throw your weight around and show everyone who’s boss, but so that your children can learn to trust you as their loving authority in their life, someone who will protect them and have their best interest in mind, even if they don’t understand all the ins and outs of why you made the call that you made.
So with this said, say no when you should say no. Set limits and enforce them. Follow-through with consequences. Resist acting on your anger (though, you might still feel the anger), which means resisting, as much as possible but for the most part without exception, yelling, name-calling, guilting, shaming, threatening, withdrawing love and acceptance, and being physically rough. These are examples of things that might be effective in the moment but rarely reap any long-term benefits. We’re going for the long-haul, here. We want to be effective now and later. We want the big prize, proverbially. What is more, we want to be a respectable authority figure in our children’s lives. Therefore, we’re not going to resort to coercion or manipulation to get our way.
We can be heard, listened to, submitted to, and respected by simply having the confidence to draw the lines and to do so with gentleness yet firmness. The big thing to remember is to stay cool, calm, and collected. Do not be moved by your children’s unpleasant response to your boundary-drawing. Don’t fight, period. And don’t give in, period. Have the confidence to believe in your own authority. You never need to act on your anger and frustration in order to “make” your children do what you say. You sure might feel like a hot volcano on the inside, but don’t let yourself erupt. You’ll just make a mess and burn everything in your path. Just keep reminding yourself that you are the parent and that your child not only expects you to enforce the “rules” but also needs you to.
There are two distinctions that need to be made here. On one side, you have the scenario where you just want your kid to have fun and so you don’t ever tell them “no” to anything for fear you’ll crush their joy in life. In this case, an effort should be made to introduce some healthy and helpful limitations in life (for instance, limiting the intake of unhealthy food while increasing healthy options, setting and enforcing a regular bedtime, monitoring the maturity level of entertainment content, or controlling where and how your child plays (doing somersaults off the bed might not be the safest thing in the world)). This helps provide your child with an environment in which to stay safe and healthy and, thus, allows your child to better enjoy life.
On the other side, you have the scenario where there is too much control being done in too harsh of a way. Perhaps anger is getting the best of the mom. In this case, where “no” is already being said, just in doses that are hard to digest at least and harmful to the system at most, the “confident” part about being the parent needs to shine through. Act like a parent, not a child. Don’t throw your own temper tantrum when your child is throwing his. By being more self-controlled as you deliver your “no” verdict, you’ll model for your child what a respectable adult looks like. Even if you feel like you’re not coming across strong enough, remind yourself that it’s a win-win situation for all involved. You’re still getting your message across (just in a more effective way if you stay consistent), and your child is learning how to both live within the limits and become a self-controlled respectable adult and parent like you.
Now there is one thing that is worth mentioning. Men sometimes have it easier when it comes to delivering discipline simply because they are taller and their voices are deeper than ours (in general). As women (by nature of being female), we might have to be more strategic and creative in how we communicate discipline to our children (without resorting to manipulation). Otherwise, we run the risk of becoming the stereo-typical nagging, yell-y mom that no one ever listens to and that everyone makes fun of. The point, of course, is not to avoid ridicule but to garner support and attract allegiance from our children. As mothers, it is up to us if we want our family to have a thread of tenderness in it (which is not to say that men are off the hook about the tenderness thing, just to say that the archetype of the mother carries with it images of motherly-ness which is (should?) be synonymous with tenderness). We are the ones on whose shoulders the responsibility lies to lovingly guide our children in the better paths of life (which is, again, not to say that men don’t have this responsibility or that they can’t do it, just to say that our role of mother is more than just a title—it’s a wonderful privilege and special honor that requires us to see things from a higher perspective if we want to truly succeed in this role).
Some men could sure stand to learn something from some of us women every now and then on the subject of nurturing, but we women could also stand to learn a thing or two about it as well. Nothing grows well if you’re rough with it, harsh to it, and hard on it. A little love-kindness and compassion go a long way, and some tenderness and gentleness go even further. This is all while saying “no” in addition to the times of comforting. Discipline doesn’t have to be mean and nasty. In fact, it will be counter-productive at some point, if not the entire way through, if we rely on mean and nasty tactics to get our children to behave well.
So proceed with gentleness, but still proceed. Avoiding saying “no” (even if you’re not actually saying the word no, which is a smart strategy so that you don’t wear the word out)—or, better put, avoiding enforcing the expectations, limits, rules, and boundaries, however that enforcement looks and sounds so long as it’s happening—doesn’t qualify as being “nice” and “gentle.” It’s called avoidance, plain and simple, and this passivity is destructive to relationships and personal discipline.
Tell the truth (e.g., “That’s not okay”; “We don’t throw food on the floor”; “No throwing food”; “We eat food, not throw it”; “In this house, we don’t do that”) but with grace (e.g., say the message firmly, controlled-ly, and matter-of-factly, but do so in a way that doesn’t unnecessarily provoke backlash).
Do things like crouch down to get on the child’s level (integrate sight through maintaining close and intimate proximity), ask for eye contact and lovingly hold their chin in your hand to direct their gaze to you if they need assistance (integrate sight through making a personal connection), lovingly put your hands on their shoulders or touch their back, arm, or hand as you talk to them (integrate physical touch), and use a low, soft, and comforting tone of voice even if you have to say things that they might not want to hear (integrate sound).
The message you are sending, now, is that you value them as a person and are treating them as a human being. This contrasts greatly against shouting from across the room and then allowing their rebellious tactics, like ignoring, to make you more and more frustrated. As the parent, you control the situation. That doesn’t mean that we have to be controlling about it. It just means that we don’t have to allow ourselves to be moved or outwardly affected by our child’s childish behavior.
Have the confidence to stay in control of yourself and the situation even if things are out of your control and, indeed, out of control. Your child might not always respond immediately the way you most desire them to, but with consistency and longevity, we will receive from them what we are teaching them: respect! It’s hard to respect someone who doesn’t respect you in the first place. So let’s learn to respect our children as real human beings and commit ourselves to showing them, with our words and actions, that we love them, accept them no matter what, care about their well-being, and want the best for them—even when we have to be the parent and set the limits.
So this is what it means to be the parent: that we step up and be the adult in our children’s lives. We, ourselves, might have to put away our own childish behaviors (which hurts in its own way), but it’s the necessary thing to do so that our children can have a good example of what a respectable adult looks like (how they behave) and sounds like (what they say and how they say it). This encourages our children, then, to grow up to be respectable adults, themselves. So let’s teach and lead our children in the most effective way possible: by example.
This writing is also included in Loved: Writings on Motherhood and Caregiving, a collection of reflective and expository writings by Tiffany Tyndall.