Whether our child’s temperament is placid and agreeable, strong willed and intense, or something in between, all children have one need in common: our respectful, confident leadership.
But with the dearth of respectful care models in our society, it can be tricky to grasp what confident leadership actually looks and sounds like. One of the common misunderstandings I’ve noted in my work with parents is that being firm and projecting confidence means using a stern tone and a furrowed, I-really-mean-it brow. This was certainly what I had once thought. Don’t our kids need us to be stern to prove we’re serious about not putting up with their shenanigans?
My own experiences and observational research in parent-toddler classrooms have taught me that “stern” isn’t very effective. It can seem to curb a child’s challenging behavior in the moment, but will generally lead to continued testing, resistance, defiance, and limit-pushing.
Here are two reasons “stern” doesn’t work:
Kids read between the lines
Children are at an extremely sensitive, intuitive stage of life. They hear our feelings and intentions loud and clear, perhaps more powerfully than our words. “Stern” can only mean one of two things for us and to them, neither of which project confidence: either we are putting on an act to make a point, or we are genuinely annoyed, angry, seething.
In the first case, when “stern” is a strategy, kids will definitely sense we’re acting and can only wonder why we’re overdoing it. It can surprise, even unnerve them to see their parents chewing up the scenery to make a simple point like, “I don’t want you to hit.” Which is why they might giggle, perhaps a tad nervously. Then it’s tempting for them to want to repeat their testing behavior to see if there’s an encore performance. In other words, our overresponse gives our child’s undesirable behavior power.
If stern is what we genuinely feel, that will also unsettle our children, because they can sense our tension (no matter how hard we might try to keep it hidden). They see the intensity in our eyes and body language, hear it in our tone and the rhythm of our breath. An angry or seething parent is scary, not the confident, solid leader kids need.
Does losing our cool make us terrible parents? Definitely not! We’re human, and it’s healthy for children to know that we have emotions and limits. But ideally, these intense responses will be rare. Again, not because we’re so bad for having them, but because they create more work for us. They make our kids feel unsafe and uncomfortable, and that means there’ll be more emotionally fueled, limit pushing behavior coming our way. “Stern” creates distance where we need closeness and trust, and it can perpetuate a negative behavior cycle.
“Stern” can mean “rough”
The second reason “stern” doesn’t work is because in order to set limits with our kids confidently and effectively, we’ll often need to follow through by guiding them with physical actions — i.e., lifting them into a car seat, removing inappropriate objects from their hands, escorting them into or out of situations. Parents often share with me that they are hesitant to be physical with their children. They are concerned that using physical contact would be too forceful or abusive. Proceeding with loving confidence rather than out of annoyance and sternness is the key. This is our safeguard against roughness or other dysregulated harmful behavior. Being physical with our children in a loving, protective manner is a part of parenting that we can’t shy away from.
So, instead of being stern, I recommend perceiving testing behavior as normal, typical, and even healthy (which it almost always is) and then comfortably embodying our leadership role rather than forcing or working at it. We’ll project true confidence and our children will thrive. We might use these three C’s as our guide … Am I feeling/being clear about my expectations and communicating them in simple, direct language? Do I feel certain about this rule or boundary (knowing that I can always change my mind as needed)? Am I comfortable establishing this limit, even if it means being in disagreement with my child?
Here’s a podcast that explains all this far better than I can in writing. The three C’s are a bit different in the podcast, because I was making it up off the top of my head, but Clear, Certain, Comfortable are more to the point.
I share more podcasts HERE and a complete guide to setting limits with confidence and respect in my book:
(which is available in audiobook on Audible).
(Photo by superhua on Flickr)