Firm But Kind

Dear Miss Faith,
I really struggle with the balance between firm and kind. I’m often bad at holding boundaries, and then when I finally do, my kindness seems like it’s nowhere to be found. How can I be firm without losing my sense of connection?

Dear Mama,
This is a constant quest for us all, so don’t feel bad that it doesn’t come naturally. One important piece of this is to set out expectations and hold those boundaries before we’re annoyed. If we’re being “nice” but feeling more and more annoyed inside, then by the time the firmness comes out, the niceness is often used up. But if we can hold those expectations firmly before we’re annoyed, there can still be lots of kindness to help cushion it. Children really thrive when we have firm expectations: they know how things go, and can relax into that. One image I was given that I love is the idea of the child as a sailor, and the boundaries that we set as the ocean floor. When the boundaries are inconsistent, the sailor has to test the depth again and again, to make sure that she doesn’t hit a shoal. But if she tests again and again and it stays the same, she can stop testing so frequently and enjoy her sailing.

When Things Go Sour

So, the goal of having clear and consistent boundaries that we enforce before we’re annoyed is a lovely one, but it’s not possible to do all the time. And then what? Once we are annoyed, it’s much harder to be kind. And once we’re firm in a way that feels unkind, it catches us in an unpleasant place: we see the child being upset, and we know that they’re upset because we’ve been unkind, and we feel guilty for it. But we also don’t want to back down on our boundaries we’ve finally managed to set. How do we get out of that negative space?

The best way that I’ve found is through compassion. We can be compassionate without backing down from our expectations. Compassion helps us to really understand our children, and see things from their point of view. Compassion can help children move through disappointment. Compassion is different from “being nice” in that we can still hold firm to our actions, but the feeling is completely different from holding firm and being angry/mean. Children really do thrive when we can be firm and compassionate at the same time.

 

Finding Compassion

How do we access our compassion when we’re in the midst of an interaction that’s gone sour? As soon as you realize, “this isn’t going how I want,” that’s a clue that compassion may help. If you’re feeling guilty, that’s a sure sign that compassion could help. I had an experience with this just the other day. I was watching a little boy who is 2 years 3 months old. The two of us were walking to the park together in the rain, decked out in rain coats and rain pants and rain boots. We came to a road and I told him he needed to hold my hand, and reached down to take it. He didn’t want to, and when we stepped into the street he tried to pull away. I felt my reaction come on very swiftly: this is a SAFETY ISSUE! I swept him up in my arms and was quite stern. He cried while we crossed, but I put him down on the other side and he recovered quickly.

However, it wasn’t over quite yet. He had a little stuffed bear in his jacket and he wanted to bring it out. It was raining pretty steadily and I had told him him at the house that he could only bring the bear if it stayed in his rain coat. So when he wanted to pull the bear out, I said no. He burst into tears and I could feel myself being pretty annoyed: I was still annoyed from him pulling away from me in the street, and now here he was, testing me again! But I also felt a little bad because I knew he wanted the bear to comfort himself from the street crossing upset, and I was denying him. But I didn’t want to be inconsistent, and we had the conversation about bear staying in the coat only a few minutes before. So I stuffed my feelings and felt even more annoyed, instead. But that guilt was there, letting me know that something wasn’t right.

He continued to cry and I picked him up with an inner sigh, when suddenly it flashed into my head: “Hey, Faith. You tell people in your classes, ‘just because a child’s upset because of something you’ve done or said, doesn’t mean that you can’t be compassionate.’ You should take your own advice!” Yes. So I paused, and I really looked at him for a moment. I said, “Wow, you really wished you could take your bear out, didn’t you?” He nodded. I said, “That is a disappointment, huh? Let me give you a hug.” And I gave him a squeeze, pouring in my compassion. His crying lost its intensity, and I found that all of my annoyance had gone away. We looked around and found some pigeons to look at, and then a puddle to step in, and things were fine for us again. I hadn’t backed down or changed my decision; I had just given him a little kindness, a little compassion, and that was enough.

Warmly, ~Miss Faith

How do you access your compassion? How do you recover when things have gone sour?

Comments

  1. Thank you, thank you for this lovely post and for sharing this personal example. It is so helpful to be reminded that all of us (even one as wise as Miss Faith!) are always learning and growing. I love the line, “so I paused, and I really looked at him for a moment.” What an important, but simple thing to do. I try to step back during my own trying moments and really look, really see my children. Seeing that idea in writing, here in your post, reminds me to try to do it more, with my children, my husband, my mother–with everyone!

  2. Michelle says:

    This is always a challenge for me. With my older son, whenever i try to show my compassion to him, “oh, you’re sad because you couldn’t do this. I wish we could, too.” He snaps at me. He gets really angry if i try to show compassion. Do you have any experience with this, Faith? For me, it’s better to try to be firm and redirect him with silliness, because the minute i try for compassion, it seems to escalate. I love the way you describe it, I hope it will work with my younger boy.

  3. Michelle, I try to be really careful about labeling or describing emotions, because when people do it to me, it sometimes comes across as condescending: “Oh, you’re upset because you couldn’t do what you wanted” can feel dismissive (because they’re simply describing what they see; like a scientist observing me), whereas: “Wow, you really wanted to do that, huh?” feels more like that person really gets what I’m feeling.

    Or perhaps do away with the words altogether, and just feel the compassion for him inside of yourself. It will still seep through in your gestures and tone of voice, even if you’re now being silly with him to re-connect and help him move through his disappointment. Does that make sense?

  4. Oh! This is good to know. My two year old will often get very upset when she can’t have her way, or when her sister (who is 11 months younger) takes things away from her or ‘ruins’ her games. Then, I often say ‘Oh! I can see how frustrated you are! You wanted to keep playing with that toy and your sister took it. That wasn’t very nice.” etc… And sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. So, it may be condescending with trying that line? She gets very upset when i say that sometimes and when things don’t go ‘just’ right. if her socks don’t feel right, she almost melts to the floor and lays there wiggling in frustration. Or, if her sister is in my lap, or if she has to wear ‘nap time underwear’, or many many various other things. I try very hard to be firm, but kind. It does not always happen. So, now, if I say, ‘please give the toy back to your sister.’ She will say ‘or mama will hurt you!’ which breaks my heart because I think she’s interpreting my previous moments of raising my voice to ‘hurt’. And of course, i would never ever hurt her. I really want to fix that.

    • Lauren, If you’ve been responding to the “or mama will hurt you” with hurt feelings or protests, you might try humor instead: “What??? I’ll turn into a Boogie Monster???? Boo! Boo!” (in a funny, not scary way). It could be that she’s giving you a hint that you’re laying it on just a bit too heavy, and responding with humor will lighten things up in just the right way. Give it a try!

      And more about the idea of condescending: I don’t think that we are necessarily BEING condescending, I think that when we observe what’s happening without actually really empathizing, it can come across as condescending. So concentrate on really empathizing, as opposed to describing. The words are less important than the feeling. So it might be that you just FEEL empathetic, but with your child you help them move on by noticing something else that they might like, or being silly with them, or singing a little song, or giving them a snuggle…

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