Stop Being So Stern (What to do Instead)

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?

  1. Clear
  2. Certain
  3. Comfortable

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:

No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame

(which is available in audiobook on Audible).

 

(Photo by superhua on Flickr)

39 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Yes! I learned this twice: first as a middle school teacher then again as a mom. First I discovered that the children didn’t believe me if *I* didn’t believe me (certainty). Without certainty, I was very uncomfortable, which eroded my leadership further. Finally I discovered the concept of setting them up for success: being clear. When I got pushback, I learned to question myself first, instead of interpreting it as disrespect: had I been clear? Is this really an appropriate boundary? What do I want to teach them here? Oh my goodness, what a difference! When I’m respectful and calm, so are my children.

    1. avatar Vicki Burgess says:

      Thank you Allison for your reply! Much admiration for you!

  2. Thanks for the podcast. Enjoyed listening to it. But my concern is that my nearly 3 year old can respond back and when I stop him from pulling my hair, scratch or hit me, he giggles and continues. Holding his hands or legs stops him for that moment but as soon as I leave him he starts again. He knows what getting hurt is says he wants to hurt. Being stern or calm doesn’t make a difference to him and that just makes me angrier with him as nothing works till I have to physically hold him down, which makes me feel guilty cause I end up holding him real tight and I’m afraid I’ve been aggresive and hurt him. He usually becomes serious once I hold him down and asks to be released as he doesn’t like it, but immediately starts hitting or kicking again. This usually happens at bed or naptime and I try not to leave the room as this would just delay his sleep.

    1. Do you have any idea where all this anger is coming from? One thing I would do is acknowledge, “You feel like hitting! You want to hurt me. I see that,” while preventing him from doing that. That is how you connect and let him know that it’s okay to feel the feelings, but that you will prevent the behavior.

      1. I don’t think its anger. He goes to play school where one of the kid tends to push and hit most of the other kids. He is emulating that thinking its appropriate behaviour. He tells me that the other kid has scratched him and sees him fighting and pushing others so I’m assuming he thinks it ok to hurt others although the other child has always been explained in a gentle manner that its not ok to hit others and stopped.

        1. Hmmm… I doubt very much that he believes it’s okay to push and hit. Even infants sense these actions aren’t okay, particularly if they’ve tried them even once. Children are intelligent, highly aware, and very good at reading our responses (which is what this post is all about). But children can get caught up with these aggressive impulses if they don’t receive the kind of responses from us that make them feel safe. That means we are not intimated at all. We might reacting angrily occasionally, but we don’t feel concerned and overwhelmed by the behavior.

  3. I struggle with this. I know and feel what you are saying to be true, and my ideal, but feel I’m failing miserably. It feels like “stern” has been ingrained in me, passed down from generations of stern parents, and I find myself being stern by default, by my constantly limit-testing 2.5yo (and the cycle repeats). So how do we break the stern cycle when that’s our default, after we say, “no, I’m not going to let you do that” so many times that we reach a breaking point some days (enough days that it’s not a “rare” occurrence)?

    1. avatar Mtns Mama says:

      Agreed, I’d like more information too. I have a very spirited 3 yo who sounds very much like the child SternMom describes above.

    2. Can you give me a specific example so that I can try to walk you through it? For one, I would not repeat yourself. Ever. I would simply let him know you will stop him, while acknowledging that you see that he wants to ___. I realize it’s extremely difficult to break cycles that have been passed down through the generations! But you can do this if you visualize and practice something different.

      1. Hi Janet, can you please elaborate on the idea of not repeating ourselves? I feel like it’s the only way I can get my kids to do what I’m asking

    3. avatar James Aspen says:

      “Being stern” has been ingrained in your family for generations because “being stern” works. Compare society from 100 years ago to society today where parents are trying new techniques, like the one talked about in this article. Kids/teenagers have much less respect for parents, teachers, adults, and each other in today’s society than in the past. What has changed? Parents attempting to try new techniques i.e. not being stern, not spanking, not yelling, etc.. The reason humans have “being stern” ingrained into them, is because that is what has worked for humans for thousands of years , why change things now? We are not supposed to be our child’s friend, we are supposed to be their parent.

  4. Sounds like I’m not alone in the spirited 3 year old department. My 3yo son has been having more behavioral issues since the birth of his brother six months ago. I know that this factor as well as my husband being gone a lot more frequently for work has contributed to his behaviors. Since the baby has been born, I feel like our relationship is constantly strained and disconnected and I don’t know how to repair it despite trying so hard. His newest behavior is waking up extremely early about 5:15am. He refuses to go back to sleep. This morning he had all the chairs pushed around the kitchen had the water running in the faucet and turned on the coffee pot all before I even heard him moving around. He doesn’t engage in normal play lately, it’s all button pushing and testing and destructive with a lot of throwing. He screams often, demands things, and has really started to hit a lot the past couple of days. I say “I won’t let you hit” and he keeps doing it. Another bothersome thing is the fact that he is not gentle at all with his brother. He is pretty passive aggressive and pretends that he likes him, but when he gets close he will smash his face with his face or poke him too hard and laugh. I will try and remove his hands and tell him that I won’t let him hit him but sometimes it happens so fast . It often appears like he’s being cute and kind and so I want to allow that to happen and build relationship and the next thing I know he’s jabbing him or hurting him. When I change babys diaper he mauls us on the bed. I have to abandon the baby quite frequently to address matters with him. I continuously say I will not let (fill in blank) and will take him off the bed and bring him downstairs and he will come back up and do it over and over and over. Honestly, I don’t feel like I’m too permissive. I feel like I have clearly stated boundaries. I give him natural consequences when he throws I take the toy away, etc. therefore I’m dealing with an unhappy kid all day. If he demands I pick something up for him he dropped I won’t get it (unless there’s a reasonable excuse on his end). And yes, when it’s nails on the chalkboard all day, there is nothing calm going on inside of me. It’s all forced calm because I feel like exploding. Thank you for your posts. I read them frequently.

    1. This sounds a lot like my 2 year old (who doesn’t have a younger sib) so I’d love to let you know you’re not the only one experiencing this and to hear Janet’s response to and advice regarding this trying behavior.

    2. We are in the same boat but further down the river :). Baby is 14 months and our almost 4 year old is quite aggressive with me and his brother. We are also having lots of big change, having lived in Germany for the summer and now returning home, but it was like this before as well. I find myself exasperated with my eldest because he keeps pushing. I take the thrown toy away and he gets a chair to get it down. I get really frustrated and wish I was a better mom with more patience.

  5. Bee, I didn’t even notice your name was Bee too and I was completely identifying with what you wrote–then I noticed;) I never see other Bees! Anyway, I am really struggling with this and with guilt for not feeling like I’m patient enough with my 3 year old boy. Boys are very intense-at least mine is-so very different from his sister. Sometimes it is nice to know other mamas struggle too; it makes me feel a little less bad for my own struggle. One day at a time;)

    1. avatar Alexandra says:

      I try to focus on we not you. Such as we don’t yell in the restaurant. Also focus on positives such as oh we don’t slam the door we shut it gentle. (Often I will readily give an acting out example and shut the door gently.) when doing something unpleasant I might tell him how it affects others around us, how it affects him whatever is suitable for our situation and tell him what would be a good idea to do. And I never say instead or a word that would compare bad and good behavior. I just transition into talking about what to do and neglect the negativity. Usually my son forgets about bad behavior because I dropped it after addressing it to start.

  6. Bee I am going through something very similar with my 2.5 year old. I was nodding my head while reading your post. We just had our 3rd son, so my littlest is 8 weeks but my 2.5 year old does the same… with gently petting baby and then smacking him on the head or poking him in the eye. We live in a 2 bedroom home with 3 kiddos…so baby has been sleeping in living room. In the mornings my 2.5 year old will wake sometimes before me (I am exhausted) and he is so intrigued by his little brother that he will go into living room and start poking at his face…I wake in a panic the moment I hear my 8 week old start to cry. I think we will move him to our room and probably have to bite the bullet on even less sleep since it is causing me panic attacks! I keep hoping my toddler will drop this fascination of poking or hitting his baby brother. I also do the Blocking, I won’t let you hit/hurt him or me, but he will either continue until we have to stand up and move away or he gets distracted by something else and then perhaps some time later he will come back to continue the behavior. This is a hard time for us. I really appreciate this post as I have been more on stern side with him.

  7. I’m struggling with how to deal with my 3 year old daughter at times when she’s stubborn or not behaving appropriately. Example: leaving the play area at the mall the other day, she played the “limp doll” and simply would not budge, there was nothing I could say to get her to get up and walk to the car. I’m 6 months pregnant with pelvic issues and literally can not be firm and just pick her up right now. So I was left with walking away from her (something I never wanted/thought I’d do), but I literally had no way to get her to come with me. Then, she cried after me saying she didn’t want to be lost (I hated playing into her fear, especially when I wouldn’t really leave her and someday she’ll know that). Speaking in a clear, certain, and comfortable way didn’t work, nor did being stern. Advice Janet?

    1. I’d like to know this too. Due to medical issues, I’m not always able to pick up and carry my 2 year old as often as he’d like (which is a lot).

    2. Some advice is to talk to her about what to expect before going into the play area, like in the car in the way, you can say, “We are going to stay for ___ minutes. I will tell you when it is almost time to go and then I need you to come with me when it is time to leave.” Something like that. Do it consistently and although it may not work the first time, when your child sees that you are consistent, she will trust you and follow you.

      Some other advice for the short term is to bring an umbrella stroller, so you can only have to pick her up and get her safe in that, you don’t have to carry her. Also, don’t go to that play area if you aren’t confident you can keep your body safe. You could go to an outdoor area where there aren’t a lot of people and practice where there arent a bunch of other kids and parents around intimidating you…

      It’s hard and good luck with the pregnancy. Kudos to you for reaching out!

  8. Thank you Janet for this beautiful article. I’m reading it late after adopting a stern voice to get my 32 month old’s attention (out of desperation) and reaping the challenges it caused! Finally I went back to being calm with my soft voice and the intensity of testing stopped almost immediately . of course he continued a little bit of testing here and there to gauge my reaction and it stopped within a couple of days.

  9. Hi Janet,

    So much good advice here – I often find help.

    I have a similar problem with my 2 year old. He often has a complete meltdown and I just wish I knew how to handle it properly because I know I’m doing it wrong.

    To give you an example, just this past weekend, we went to the local community centre where there’s a ton of toys to use and play with (riding, slides, blocks…) as well as a bouncy castle. We played for about an hour and a half and I gave him a 5-minute warning that we’d have to leave soon. He immediately SCREAMS no in my face, which I ignore and let him continue playing. When the 5-minutes is up and we have to leave, he isn’t having it. He is squirming, crying and trying to get away, while I’m struggling/forcing his jacket/shoes on.

    I didn’t freak out at him, I just told “I’m sorry, honey, we have to go…” and he is completely losing his sh*t and I end up having to carry him out like a football under my arm because he’s scratching my face and pulling my hair. His actions towards me, hurt physically and emotionally. I’m trying to be firm, yet respectful, but it does nothing except garner face-scratching and hitting from him.

    I get him to the car and into his carseat and as soon as we’re in the car, I finally lose MY sh*t and start screaming that he “ruins everything!” and that “it makes me not want to take you anywhere when you act out like this”.

    I am so frustrated when I’ve gone to so much trouble to bring him places and this is what happens. I know screaming at him is wrong, but I’ve just been pushed to the breaking point by my sweet little boy; what’s wrong with me? How can I handle this better when it happens. I don’t want to scare him.

    Appreciate any thoughts:)

  10. I am dealing with the same as Bee. I have a 2 year old son and 2 month old baby. In addition to hitting baby, My son screams ‘BEAR.’ This scares baby and always makes her cry. While I try to control my response, I can’t control hers. I also physically stop him from hitting her, but how can I physically stop him from yelling? Getting up and walking away just causes him to follow and continue the behavior. I end up nursing standing up and holding baby a lot because she is too nervous about her brother.

    1. I find that things go best if I can make them into a game. For the screaming bear, I would tell him that you know there isn’t really a bear when he screams. If there was a bear he would get eaten for screaming. No, you have to whisper really quietly, and then you’ll know there is a bear then sneak away with him and baby feigning fear. Or come up with some other way to play the game that keeps baby happy and let’s him know you are connecting with him, I.e. get him to fight the bear and protect you all. Also, pay attention to the times when the behavior is the worst and head it off by talking with him and making a plan when all are calm. Enlist him as baby’s protector, and have fun all together.

  11. Hi Janet, do you speak anywhere about not being physically capable of stopping your child? For example, I have two children and am often occupied with nursing or other things, and cannot simply physically stop my child from hitting or other things. Seems like a great recommendation for one child, but more and more difficult with each additional child. Thanks!

      1. Thanks, Janet! That was helpful… I think I have much more to learn before it all makes sense. I’ll keep poking around and trying to soak it up. Thank you!

  12. Hi Janet,
    I heard your broadcast you mentioned not to tell our children “ouchie you hurt mommy!” Because it makes them feel guilty. I tend to do that with my 2 year old since she’s going through a screaming phase. I usually say ouchie you hurt mommies ears when you scream. Do you think I shouldn’t be saying that??

    1. would be careful about giving the behavior power, so it’s best to either not comment on the screaming or to give a more subtle response… “You aren’t at all happy about ____! Hmmm…that’s a tad loud.” Lalalala

  13. Thank you. This is wonderful advice.

  14. avatar Jessica Alexander-Lillicrap says:

    This so hit home for me, and I love the part about it being ok that occasionally we get exasperated.
    It can be tough to break the habbit of a stern voice, especially when in a time crunch.
    One thing i have found helps is if i catch myself starting to make threats ‘if you dont get your shoes on…’ i replace whatever useless punishment i was thinking of with ‘i will explode into a goant fart’. My daughter laughs then pretends to be afraid of me and gets her shoes on. I find if she hears me getting exasperated but choosing to be calm she often chooses to help.

  15. avatar James Aspen says:

    This is the type of story that my in-laws read and use to defend their lack of parenting. They never approach their children in a stern or firm manner and it shows. Both kids are absolutely awful and have zero respect for their parents (5 and 3 year old). When they come to visit, they have been asked to stay at a hotel as opposed to our home because of their children’s behavior and lack of punishment. Children need to learn that parents and adults who are in charge of their care (daycare/teachers) are to be respected.

    1. I’m sure they enjoy their visits with you. In the 20+ years I’ve been working with parents, sternness does not work well. “Firm” and “strict” do. Sternness overdoes it and demonstrates a adult’s lack of confidence in easily managing the situation.

  16. This has been one of the most helpful articles I have read. Actually, I should say it’s one of the most helpful ones I have heard. I read the article, and thought to myself that I have more work to do. That’s the way I feel after reading most parenting articles, it just brings me more stress and anxiety. However, I listened to the podcast (thank you for having it so conveniently located!). When I heard you talk about being comfortable, that word really struck me! That’s not something I can force or stress about. That word is actually telling me something different, it’s really pointing out what I need to do! For the first time, I didn’t read an article and feel more stressed about what I should remember to do. Actually, it reminded me to be less stressed. Comfortable. That is a word that I have not embodied during discipline. That’s what I’m going to do now. Thank you!

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