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Kids These Days

Firmness Without Fear

Taking the sting out of saying no

When he was three, my youngest son insisted on having both shoes tied exactly the same. This was not a problem unless we were rushing to leave in the morning, which we usually were. But instead of being firm, I tied and retied until we both were late, he to day care and I to work. You see the same struggle going on everywhere—in restaurants, supermarkets, and anyplace else where hurried and hassled parents plead with and threaten their misbehaving children, or simply let them run wild.

For many parents, myself included, saying no is just plain difficult. Our natural inclination is to make our children happy, yet being firm requires that we make our children momentarily unhappy. It also tests our ability to lead. To lead, in this instance, is not to mechanically apply some management method. Nor is it to threaten and be mean. Nor is it to keep making rational arguments, hoping against hope that a child will eventually come to his or her senses. Leading instead means you adopt a serious and confident tone of voice, one that commands respect (not fear) and says, “I really mean it.” It’s very effective and, as I said, very difficult.

But there are ways to make it easier to be firm. One way is to share control with children. This happens all the time when children and parents play together, and it happens when parents negotiate some compromise, such as the exact minute when the TV goes off. When children have a say in certain things, they don’t feel they have to fight for their autonomy on those occasions when their parents need to be firm.

Another solution is to prevent situations that require you to be firm. Parents can be quite clever at this. My all-time favorite trick was invented by a mother of four children under the age of five. Tired of trying to control her children while waiting in line at McDonald’s, she would order food in the drive-through and then take the children inside. No lines, no squabbling, and hence no need to be firm.

I like to prevent the need to be firm through humor. On one particularly long road trip, for example, my two boys started calling each other names. They were really getting on each other’s nerves, as well as on mine. So I instituted a rule. For 59 minutes in each hour, they had to behave, but for one minute they could say any terrible thing they wanted to say about each other. When the one-minute mark came, they went at it, mostly with outrageous “your momma” jokes (much to my wife’s dismay). No need to be firm—we were all laughing too much.

Of course, even the cleverest parent will, at times, have to be firm. Think of it as a tribute to your parenting skills. After all, if you’ve done a really good job of parenting an infant, you are likely to have on your hands an entitled toddler, someone who thinks the world is there to serve him or her because that’s the way it has been until then. It takes years before that view of the self and of the world is replaced by another view that understands friendship, cooperation, and caring. During the transition, exercising firmness shows that the old, infantile ways won’t work anymore.

I once knew a delightful and energetic little boy who, by two-and-a-half, had invested great power in the word “need.” He needed more TV. He needed more candy. He needed to stay up later. Because his parents gave him what he really needed—an occasional firm no—he developed into a happy and self-confident older child. Being firm does not turn your child into a malcontent, a depressive, or a wimp. On the contrary, those feared side effects are more likely to happen when parents are never firm. In the long run, a little firmness makes everyone happier.

GEORGE SCARLETT is an assistant professor in, and deputy chair of, the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development. He teaches and writes about children’s play, behavior management, and spiritual development, and is often called upon by the media and parenting organizations to advise parents and address parenting issues. His latest book, Approaches to Behavior and Classroom Management (Sage Publications), is currently in press.
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