Being Firm without Being Mean

I’ve talked before about how it benefits children when we have clear expectations and firm boundaries, and how it is reassuring to children to know that we are in charge. I’ve talked about how having regular schedules and doing things the same way each time can help cut down on discipline issues and allow children to develop expertise. But even when we do all of these things, issues are bound to arise. One of the main tasks of the toddler is to establish their own opinions.

A mother came to me last spring to ask advice. Lately, when they had been getting dressed in the morning, her 2 ½ year old daughter wouldn’t allow them to put socks on her. Mom, who was home with her all day, thought they should pick their battles and wanted to let her go barefoot in her shoes. Dad said that it was important for her to know they were in charge, and once he’d said she had to wear socks, he couldn’t back down. He had tried reasoning, bribing, and finally resorted to manhandling her to put her socks and shoes on. The whole thing had taken twenty minutes and involved lots of tears. What was my opinion?

The first piece of my response is that while yes, it is important for everybody to feel like you are the one in charge, that doesn’t mean that you can’t take her opinion into account. So if you tell her she has to put socks on and she puts up a fight, you might say, “Oh! I can see you don’t want to put your socks on. Why don’t you try asking me politely: ‘Dad, please no socks!’” When she manages to ask politely, you can consider her request. “That was nice asking. I think it would be OK for you to have bare feet today.” On the other hand, if it’s snowy and cold, you might respond, “That was nice asking, but it’s a snowy day. We will all wear socks today.” Sometimes, just feeling like their opinion has really been heard will be enough to diffuse the situation. More likely, however, tears will ensue. At this point, many adults make the mistake of trying to reason with their child, pointing out the temperature, talking about the importance of warmth, etc. But reasoning almost never works at this point; it can even have the opposite effect and send tears into a tantrum. When you’ve said no to something, just be compassionate for a moment. “That’s a disappointment, isn’t it.” Give her a hug. Really acknowledge her feelings, and then move on, using humor and a little imagination.

You might try something like this: “This ssssock iss a sssslithery ssssnake! He’ssss ssseeking ssssomething to eat! Sssssssssss! The sock-snake probably won’t go straight for the foot. He might try to eat a book, then the bed-post, then it finds the foot. “Sssay, sssausssage! Delicioussss!” And the snake may be able to eat up that fat sausage, and the day can go on. But maybe he comes up to the foot, and she remembers and pulls her foot back. The snake’s ‘head’ bows down. “Ohh, the ssssnake is ssssooo ssssad!” The snake shakes his head sadly, and peeks up at her. She’s smiling a little smile. “Pleassssse, says the sssnake! PLEASSSSE sssend me the sssausssage!” Maybe she sends her foot his way. If she doesn’t, it’s time to take more drastic action. Put the sock on over your hand and swoop down and swing her up. “This snake is starving! He’s gobbling you all up!!!!” Fall onto the bed with her, kissing her and nuzzling her into helpless laughter. While she’s laughing, slip that sock on. Then immediately pick her up and move on into a different room. As you’re leaving the bedroom, you might say, “Wow, that was sure a hungry snake! I’m hungry too! Let’s see what’s for breakfast.”

The most important lesson in all of this is that when children don’t want to do something, don’t try to ‘change their minds’ through reason. You can’t use reason to change an emotion, and they don’t WANT to. Wanting is definitely an emotion. Instead, meet the emotion with respect and understanding, then work to bring up a different emotion using imagination and wit. When this other emotion is going you can usually do the action that they were protesting, without talking about it. If you’re tired and hungry yourself, and you can’t come up with the imaginative forces to turn that sock into a snake, there is the simpler (although less effective and less joyful) method of saying, “I see that you’re not ready to put your socks on yet. We can put them on in a minute or two.” Then after a couple of minutes, don’t discuss anything, just matter-of-factly put them on your lap and start pulling the socks on, while talking about something else altogether. Children who are loving the word “No!” will often let you do things without words that they will vehemently disagree with if you ask them verbally.

These are techniques that I use all the time with the toddlers in my care. By keeping my compassion intact and my imaginative forces strong, I am able to move through the day with relatively few battles of will. And sometimes I see how strongly a child feels about something, and I change my mind. But even then, children can rest in the assurance that I’m the one who is making the decision.

Warmly, ~Miss Faith

This is a blog post I wrote in 2010 but it didn’t make it over to my new website, so here it is now!


  1. Thanks. Hopefully this will be helpful with my just turned 3 yr old. We went for months with minor blips, and now things are so hard again. the tantrums on an entirely different level, and the physical reactions as well. i felt like i had a grip on handling this, until now. i’m quite frankly scared of what’s to come….

  2. Miss Faith,
    I just started blogging a few weeks ago so I’ve been combing through the numerous blogs that are out there. I LOVE your blog! I’m a writer, mother, and psychologist, so it is not a surprise that I could relate:) I’ll be back frequently. And I’m adding you to my blog roll! I hope that is okay…

  3. I completely agree with valuing a toddler’s opinion. My son two-year-old is an important part of our family, so his opinion has a very high value to me. However, the snake sock thing described sounds more like an attempt to trick the toddler into doing what the parent wants. If socks are necessary (and, yes, I think cold weather means they are), then we communicate that and explain why. But we try to allow our son to be involved in the decision-making, so I will pull out two pairs of socks and say, “You have to wear socks. Here, which pair would you like?” I’m not going to distract my son, slip socks on, and quickly change the subject.

    • Thanks for writing! I think that the ‘explaining why’ technique is fine, if it works easily. What I’ve observed can often happen, though, is that ‘explaining why’ gets you an ‘explaining why not’ back from the child, which can lead to long discussions that accomplish little more than drawing out a child’s not wanting to do something. If that’s not happening with you guys, that’s great; keep using what works. My experience is that using imagination and humor leads to a graceful change of heart more often than explaining does. In most cases, a ‘snake-sock’ would go on quite easily soon after it appears, because it’s fun and imaginative. I would only move into the ‘distract-and-change-the-subject’ method if I had tried to engage cooperation in other ways, and it wasn’t working. I wouldn’t use it as my first line.

  4. Thank you for this great post… very informative. Our son has just turned 2, though sadly, his terrible twos started it seemed around 20 months, maybe earlier! He’s a trip though, as he always tries to debate something for the sake of debate. Sometimes redirecting works, other times it’s a stalemate. And for the other posters, are you saying that Terrible Twos is only the tip of the iceberg? Agghhh!! Just when we were hoping that after he hits 3, things would get a bit better. Lol! Nice tips on your blog though… we may have to try them on our son as well.

    • Don’t worry, it’s different for different kids. Some kids are sweet and dreamy until they suddenly come into their own, while other kids seem like they’re born ‘awake’ and the most frustrating time for them is when they can’t make other people understand (and do) what they want. Those kids often calm down as their verbal skills increase. And some children come into the world fighting, and it never occurs to them to do anything else. Then it’s our hard job to figure out how to help them get along in the world in a graceful way. Good luck with your little guy!

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