Parenting with Firmness and Kindness…and Firmness

March 23, 2012 at 6:07 am (Positive Discipline)

It’s all about finding a balance, isn’t it? It’s awfully easy to provide the kindness…wouldn’t everyday be bliss if all we had to do was love and cuddle and play and joke and laugh? And we give directions to our kids and they say, “OK mom. Of course I’ll do that.”? And they jump right up to get it done? And we could exhibit nothing but kindness with our young children all the time?

Kindness is the easy part. It’s the manifestation of the closeness and connection that is the foundation of our relationship.

Firmness comes with some challenges. It becomes a challenge to parent with firmness while still maintaining the positive, loving, connected, kind interactions. But firmness is necessary for the balance in a thriving parent-child relationship.

Without firmness, there is no element of authority to balance the one of connection.

Yesterday, a cleaning-up incident called some firmness into play for us. I’ll transcribe how it went; I always appreciate examples of dialogue so I can decide if it might work for me. Or not.

4:00 pm

Me: It’s time to pick up the living room, let’s all work together to get it done.

JJ: I don’t want to.

Me: It needs to get cleaned. We all have some stuff down here, and everyone is responsible for putting their own things away. I’ll do all the blankets, all the books, and all of my stuff. Then I’ll move to the kitchen.

[I start working.]

4:05 pm

Me: When I find stuff that’s yours, I’m putting Elia’s in this chair, and JJ’s in this chair. Now it’s super easy to gather your toys and take them upstairs. When everyone’s stuff is put away, we’ll move on to doing something fun.

4:15 pm

[Elia carries her things upstairs]

4:20 pm

[I’m done in the living room, and I start cleaning the kitchen]

4:30 pm

Elia: Mom will you play a game with me?

Me: I need to finish the kitchen. You get the game out and I’ll meet you in 5 minutes when I’m done.

4:35 pm

JJ: I want to play!

Me: When your stuff is put away, feel free to join us.

JJ: NOOOO! I want to play! I think Elia should put my stuff away! Somebody should help me!

Me: You know where everything goes and nothing’s too heavy. You’re very capable of getting it done. I appreciate your help in keeping our house clean.

4:35-4:45 pm

[JJ cries on the floor in front of his pile of toys.]

5:00 pm

Me: Dinner will be ready in 8 minutes. Please come eat when your toys are put away.

JJ: I don’t like doing work!

Me: I know you don’t. It takes time away from the fun stuff . I wish I could have someone else do my work for me, too.

5:10-5:30 pm

[We eat dinner; JJ sits on the couch.]

Me: I will wrap up your dinner and put it in the oven so it stays warm for you when you’re ready for it.

5:35 pm

[JJ gets off the couch, bundles up his toys in a blanket and carries them upstairs.]

JJ: I’m hungry.

Me: I bet you are. Dad’s in the kitchen; he can get your plate out of the oven for you. Would you like milk or water to drink?

So about an hour-and-a-half after clean-up time, JJ puts his stuff away and has a still-hot dinner. After he finished, he cleared his plate, grabbed a book from the shelf and crawled up next to me to read.

And that was it. Too firm?  I think a lot depends on context. On a daily basis, we work on helpful contributions and appropriate expectations. I know that my 5 1/2 year old is capable of carrying an armful of toys up to his room.

In our situation last night, the expectations were reasonable and set with kindness and firmness. JJ had his feelings about it and I accepted them with understanding. There was no yelling, no shaming, no threatening, no ultimatums. It took a while, but he got his contribution done. His dinner was there for him for when he was ready for it. We communicated our gratitude for JJ’s help with the family work.

Finding a comfort level of firmness and kindness is a challenge. It’s definitely a balance that is as unique as the family is.


  1. valleygirl said,

    If I had never read another post here before I could tell you that JJ is 5 years old! This is my 5 year old EVERY NIGHT about picking up her things. LOL She keeps thinking she’ll get around it but is slowly seeing that the darn responsibility just isn’t going away so she’s starting to give in to it and understand it’s easier to just do it when asked. I started listing her chores on popsicle sticks in a cup so instead of “pick up your room” I can break it down to “put away books”, “pick up stuffed animals”, “make your bed” etc etc and it is much less overwhelming and she has a sense of accomplishment when done. Now that she is doing well with that we have added extra jobs for which she can earn 5 cents for each and she is sooo excited that she flies through her other “chores” (which are her responsibilities, not actual chores) just to start earning. It’s working great!

  2. Danielle said,

    I feel like it was perfect. That is just the kind of tone I strive to set when I have to be firm…calm and reasonable but unbudgeable (yes, not a word!). I also loved how you made putting away the toys it’s own issue, you didn’t let it spill over into anything else. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Jennifer said,

    Thanks for the dialogue – I really appreciate the real world examples.

  4. Meggin D said,

    that sounds perfect to me! 🙂

  5. tiffany said,

    Yes but what happens if JJ decides to have a screMing whining fit because he didn’t get to play or est etc. How do you combat that positively?

    • Kelly said,

      I let him have his feelings about it. He certainly did cry and carry on when he missed the game because he hadn’t picked up his stuff yet! I think it’s important for kids to have their tears about their frustrations…only after they’ve expressed themselves fully can their brains get to a point of “recovery” where they can calm down and decide how to solve their problem. Tears are an important part of developing resiliency.

      The keys with doing this–with letting kids express their feelings–is 1) accepting it for what it is (an expression of anger and frustration: 2 very normal emotions), and 2) not taking it personally (staying calm). If I can do that, the tantrum runs its course, and we’re ready to problem solve together. Plus, I’ve communicated that it’s OK to express any feelings, and they’ve learned that they’re capable of handling them.

    • valleygirl said,

      His behavior would not change anything. The original request remains for him to take his toys up. He could cry and scream all he wants and for me personally I would ask my child to do that in their room until they were ready to talk about it. Since the majority of the time, at least in my house, the crying is for attention, it ends pretty fast while in their room. When they come out it’s talk it out, empathy, understanding, expectations, yadda yadda and back to the original request.

  6. Sandy said,

    I don’t think it was too firm at all. You set a clear expectation, making sure it was a task he could do without help, and made him do his part. I’m a firm believer in chores, and had a similar response from my 6yo son about taking an armful of toys down the hall to his room – often after he already carried them all out in one armload, lol.

    Children who are not expected to follow through on their share if chores come to have a sense of entitlement. I work in a grade school and it is painfully obvious which children have parents who do not hold them accountable for their actions. The whining is not something children grow out of when they find it works.

    • alivingfamily said,

      I have to say my experience with middle schoolers was the same. Children with chores naturally felt responsibility in the classroom. They would tell me their whining works at home, why won’t I do what they want? I just did with them what I do with my two year old. I’ll wait till you’re ready to tell me in a normal voice; I am ready to listen.

  7. nicole said,

    sounds great but what about if they neec to get ready for school and its already late?

    • Kelly said,

      Nicole, you’re right…we had no plans that day and plenty of time to deal with my son’s feelings. Getting ready for school would be a different situation & would call for some different tools.

      A lot depends on the age of the child…a 3-year old getting ready is very different from a 9-year old getting ready. Ideally, at any age, there are realistic expectations in place and a proactive plan for getting things accomplished. A smooth morning routine might include a photo chart (like a checklist of what comes next), laying out clothes the night before, limited breakfast choices, etc. Or, maybe even including a discussion of morning routines at regular family meetings…brainstorm ideas for improving it, what your child needs help with most, evaluate how things are going etc. For a different situation like that, you just need some different tools.

      • valleygirl said,

        I would leave the mess right where he left it for when he got home from school….no after school snack….no playing outside…whatever he does when he gets home until it’s done. If I needed a clean house during the day I would move it and put it to the side for him for he gets back.

        • Kelly said,

          I might have misunderstood Nicole’s question…I was thinking of emotional upsets in the morning due to the stress and busy-ness of getting out the door on time, not necessarily cleaning/ picking up toys. But yes, if the task is picking up or putting things away as in my example in this blog post, I would agree with Val that the mess can simply stay where it is…to be picked up later when everyone’s home and there’s more time and less pressure to deal with it!

  8. Jodi said,

    Awesome job!! I would have been even more “firm” and let my child know that “this is dinner time, and when we are finished eating dinner, the kitchen will be closed” You were so thoughtful of keeping his food hot. My kid would have gone to bed hungry, although I can see how unhappy he looks eating by himself. The main thing though, is yes, you definitely had no shame, blame, yelling, etc.

  9. Kristin @ Sense of Wonder said,

    Nicely done! I am sharing this on my facebook page!

  10. nehron said,

    I love your approach. My son is just turning 3 and when he has a meltdown over something (wants a cookie and cannot have one before meal or gets frustrated in not being able to do something), sometimes I pick him up (a struggle at times) and hug him and he gives into the hug and calms down after an initial (short) struggle. In your opinion, does this approach interfere with his ability to learn to self sooth and express his emotions/frustrations? Or is it ok at his age?

    • Kelly said,

      I think it’s great…helping a child calm down does teach self soothing skills. Though I also think it’s important to allow him to have his feelings, even the unpleasant ones.

      With my own kids, I try to let them be upset for a bit before I go to comfort them. I empathize and help them put their feelings into words. “You’re upset…you’re angry…you’re sad…you’re feelings are hurt…etc.” They cry and I let them know I understand how they feel and that it’s OK to feel that way. Then I’ll start checking in, asking, “Would you like a hug?” Sometimes they’re not ready yet, and they’ll yell, “NO! I want a cookie!” I’ll just keep empathizing and checking in to see where they are with their feelings. “I know you really want that cookie right now…It stinks that you can’t have it…Let me know when you’re ready for a hug…I’m right here for you.”

      That puts some responsibility for emotional regulation on themselves, and they are the ones to take the steps to start calming down. Hugs work wonders, don’t they? 🙂

      • nehron said,

        Kelly, thank you for your response. You provided me with tips that I feel that I can really use with my son as well as my other kids. Interestingly, I had a discussion with my teen girl yesterday and found that she was having some challenges coping with how to express her emotions in a healthy way. I told her what I believed to be true…that when she was younger, I don’t think I explicitly taught her that it was ok to express emotions (the unpleasant ones) now did I encourage it and also that having that it was ok to have fears. As humans, we are never perfect and mistakes are inevitable. Thinario, please do shares will be a trickier journey with my teen (given the time elapsed) but it’s one that I will not back down from. If you have tips or ideas on how to deal with this sce (not on the tread, if possible). I think your ideas for kindness and firmness are definitely still applicable, but with teens, now they need to be included in the troubleshooting and solutioning and there is less mandating (strong word choice but in reality with toddlers, that is what it is) by the parent but more buy-in is required by the teen. Thanks again.

  11. MrsM2010 said,

    Thanks for sharing this interaction. One thing that is important to us as a family is that we eat meals together. I think I would be a little hesitant to set the idea that the kids can clean up when they finally feel like doing it even with some firm consequences (not playing the game, not eating dinner, etc.) to motivate them. When I ask for something to be done, I expect them to do it then and not have a power struggle over if and when it will be done. I still don’t completely know how to accomplish that goal with a completely positive and kind approach….

    • Kelly said,

      I understand what you mean! Instant compliance is definitely nice! But regarding child development, that’s not realistically going to happen all the time.

      When it comes to obedience, I’ve had to adjust my expectations. Realistically, children are just not going to immediately obey all the time, and in those moments, it’s helpful to understand how to communicate and engage respectfully in a way that meets everyone’s needs. In this example, my needs were met with an orderly living room. My son’s needs were met with empathy and firmness (authority).

      Yes, it took a while to get the job done, but that’s so much less important to me than keeping our interactions respectful and non-punitive. In discipline, my main goal is always to preserve our relationship over enforcing obedience…”Connection Before Correction.”

      You might also be interested in this post I wrote recently:

  12. Esther said,

    I may be totally misunderstanding this and I realize I am only getting a small part of the situation but I would wonder if, not eating dinner with the family and not playing the game together until he cleaned up, would be seen as a punishment to the child. I would also wonder if this would become more of a power struggle between parent and child? I think it might would work better if I tried to problem solve or reach some kind of negotiation in this situation(which you may have already tried to do). Say something like, I can see you are feeling frustrated and not wanting to clean right now? When would you like to clean? Would you like some more choice here? Would like to choose to clean the kitchen instead or perhaps clean up your toys after dinner? Maybe also empathize that maybe he is needing to understand the purpose of cleaning or needing to make it more fun. Maybe you could play some music and have a cleaning dance party or make it a game. I do think it happens often that family members have different needs at different times. You have a need for order and cleanliness and he seemed to have a need for autonmy, play/fun, or understanding of why you wanted it clean then. I may be misinterpreting this and would love your thoughts on what I have mentioned. I am fairly new at all this and could use all the help in understanding as much as possible. I am afraid that this may sound and come off as critical but please know that I am only seeking understanding. I deeply appreciate people writing on this subject and even putting yourself and your family life out there. Thank you!

    • Kelly said,

      Hi Esther, thanks for your thoughtful question. I was wondering if some might see it as punitive in this situation. It can be a fine line sometimes! I do think context is important.

      You’re right, problem solving and negotiation can be useful tools that are definitely non-punitive. We do use problem solving, family meetings, making agreements, & lots of other positive discipline tools on a regular basis…they do work, and we always feel great when we resolve a problem using positive discipline.

      The situation like the one I wrote about above is not new for us. 😉 Through our experience, we’ve found that negotiating and trying to talk it out is not very effective with JJ…it ends up feeling like we (the parents) are pleading with him (the child), which is not how the dynamic should be.

      So we find more success in doing less talking with him. With our daughter, things are completely different. 🙂

      You’re also right that he has a need for autonomy, which is why it was fine with me that he picked up his stuff (meeting my need for order) on his own timetable (meeting his need for autonomy). But he’s 5, and if I didn’t set limits around cleaning up (first we do X then we move on to Y), it wouldn’t get done.

      Also, what makes this scenario non-punitive is the language of “when” versus the language of “if”…

      “When your toys are picked up, feel free to join us to play.”
      -instead of-
      “If you don’t pick up your toys, you may not play with us/ go in timeout/ some other assigned unpleasantry.”

      “When your things are put away, please come eat with us.”
      -instead of-
      “If you don’t put your stuff away, you may not eat dinner/ must eat alone/ etc.”

      Did I say something about it being a fine line? 😉

      I totally get what you’re saying…I guess I just wanted to share this example to show how kindness and firmness came together for us….to show that parents can set limits with authoritative kindness. Every child and every family is different though! For my son’s personality, firmness is extra important (hence the title of the post). This kind of scenario may not work or feel right to you with your kids…I always tell parents, take what works for you and leave the rest!

      • Esther said,

        Thanks! This helps me to see the bigger picture and really does give me the clearity I was seeking:) I really understood it better when you said……The situation like the one I wrote about above is not new for us. 😉 Through our experience, we’ve found that negotiating and trying to talk it out is not very effective with JJ…it ends up feeling like we (the parents) are pleading with him (the child), which is not how the dynamic should be.
        It sounds like you have tried several other things before and found that this is what is needed in that type of situation. I would do the same:) It sounds like the firmness you are talking about is another way of saying that you respect yourself and your needs as well. It is good for children to have an example of a parent caring for themselves and their own needs. Thank you again for taking the time to explain it better:)

  13. Christine Gordon said,

    Well-written, though I would point out that in many cultures, finding kindness is the harder piece. Snuggles and cuddles are more foreign, rules and limits are much easier to them. But, again, well-written and good example of kindness & firmness.

    • Kelly said,

      Very true, Christine! Excellent point.

  14. connectiveparenting said,

    Kelly – I love this and posted it on my fb. It is a beautiful example of firmness and kindness and shows that firmness never has to include blame or threats. You stayed firm on what you said from the beginning and continued to give JJ a choice and motivate him to do what he knew was right. Sure there are many ways to handle the situation but sometimes problem solving, which I highly recommend, can be overkill in a situation like this. Thanks.

  15. Morgan said,

    Absolutely wonderful post, and this is so helpful to both myself and my husband. We greatly appreciate a real-life example!

    I do have one completely unrelated question – would you please tell me where you got your beautiful dining set??? 🙂

  16. alivingfamily said,

    This post affirms that I’m on the right track walking that fine line you describe in a response above. I wrote about a similar experience with my 2.5 yo and some beans. As you described above, this situation was not new for us. In a flash of clarity I realized I had a choice. I could get angry and frustrated that the beans were all over the floor, and I was going to have to clean them up alone again (because she was not going to help!). Or, I could try something else. I simply said, “When you’re ready, I’ll help you clean up the beans” and went back to cooking. I felt calm (an important point which you note in your post, I recognize). As I describe in my post below, I stopped cooking several times and started cleaning up beans. Several times she did not clean up, so I stopped and went back to cooking. At one point she asked me to go play with her. I told her I can’t because I am cooking and we need to clean up the beans. She waited minutes longer and then got off her step and started picking up all the beans. Then we happily finished dinner and played together.

    The funny thing is that just yesterday, I now realize, I noted that she was being so careful with the beans in her bean bin…and has for a while now. I think this approach worked for her and us in this situation.

    Thanks so much for sharing your experience and insights.

  17. ntouch2cher said,

    Excellent! I love how you allowed him to feel his emotions and calmly gave him options. It`s not always easy keep your cool sometimes when you are a working mom …kudos to you and this example is worth 2 hours of a parenting workshop…really!

  18. Eve Sam said,

    Thank you so much for sharing this real life example and giving the dialogue. I feel really ashame and guilty that my son has a very cruel mum. Please continue to give example like this. It helps so much for a lot of parents, I think. THANK YOU.

  19. Quote of the Week: Haim Ginott « Abundant Life Children said,

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  21. Nora said,

    This is beautiful and admirable. But unfortunately life is full of examples where we simply don’t have two hours to convince our child that something is necessary, e.g. Getting dressed in the morning..

  22. Crystal said,

    So helpful… especially the dialogue. In some ways this reminds me of my 3.8 year old. I know he is a bit younger but lately he just acts helpless when it comes to getting dressed or washing his hands when he comes in from outside playing. I don’t know how to word it that he is capable and I need to work on dinner. He will come in and say, ” ugh! I don’t want to wash my hands, do it for me!” Which leads me to saying, “I can definitely help you wash your hands this time even though I know you are capable of doing it” but then next time comes and it’s the same deal! I’m not sure how to be firmer when he asks for help like that. I don’t feel I should always give in but I also don’t want him to not feel taken care of. Any advice?

  23. flightrisk77 said,

    I really appreciate your example. Very helpful. I am struggling with how to manage similar dynamics when there’s time pressure (like getting to school/work on time). Any suggestions for how this might work when you can’t wait it out?

  24. Roxanne said,

    Loved this example! Thank you for sharing a real life situation with accompanying dialogue. How would you have responded if he had come and tried to ruin the game with his sister by grabbing pieces or trying to get in the way? Or if at dinner time he came to the table anyway and tried to eat by attempting to serve his own food?
    I especially appreciate that you included an example in which he wasn’t allowed to have dinner until he had done the task. I always waffle about that and wonder if that is being cruel or something. I think it seems reasonable, but there’s a part of me that isn’t so sure. Maybe because we have tried that with my kids in regards to their cleaning their bedrooms and they will go all day and into the evening without it getting done and I start to feel guilty that they haven’t eaten anything!
    Again, thanks so much for your insights!

    • Roxanne said,

      Or maybe he didn’t come to the table but instead got in the fridge or pantry and tried to sneak food? That for sure would happen at my house.

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