Sternness Vs Firmness

Posted on: August 5th, 2011 by Kay Swatkowski

Do unto your children as you would have OTHERS do unto your children.”

Elias, Tobias and Friendlander, Raising Emotionally Healthy Teenagers

“Let your gentleness be evident to all.  The Lord is near.”

Philippians 4:5 NIV

Don’t Boss

Sometimes, we all need a boss.

A project needs completing, a platoon needs commanding, a ship needs steering, a financial decision needs making, a health crisis requires intervention, moral and ethical boundaries beg for strengthening, a losing teams need redirecting.

Yes, sometimes we all need a boss.

However, there are limits on how much “bossing” we can emotionally handle, even from those who have legitimate authority over us. A boss who routinely uses “bossing” as a way to motivate or increase productivity drives us to our computers to touch up our resume and rethink our employment. We doubt our value to the company.

Bossing rarely uses eye contact and always reduces relational connectedness. We seldom have warm and affectionate feelings towards a supervisor who consistently uses authority in a bossy or unyielding way.

Kids resist bossing. “You are not the boss of me!” is heard on playgrounds as compromise is unsuccessfully negotiated at recess. Responding to the over three hundred   commands children receive daily, “Get up.  Brush your teeth. Feed the dog. Don’t forget your homework. Hurry! Hurry! Hurry!” kids freely announce “Everyone bosses me around.”

Bossing doesn’t generate good feelings.

I don’t recall the last time I cheered at being told, “Hurry up. Don’t ask questions. Just do as you are told.”

When children respond to being bossed with frustration, hurt or anger, they have an additional problem.  Their bad attitude results in the loss of privileges or time with friends.

I wonder if children ever feel as if they are in a no win situation.

While disrespect from our children can never be accepted, it might be wise to look behind the anger and frustration for command overload.

Strong willed children rebel against command saturation.  They are prepared to go toe to toe with parents.  A simple parental request that is perceived as bossy feels like a declaration of war and these children respond with ugly words and slamming doors,

Compliant kids have a different struggle. They may conform while simultaneously resenting their own inability to speak up.  Many eventually withdraw from relationship, with a gnawing sense that no one knows or cares about what they think or feel. Behavior parents applaud as cooperative may be the earliest symptoms of excessive people pleasing or feelings of helplessness or worse, resignation.

Building a culture of mutual respect in the home demands that parents examine their communication style for bossiness and make a subtle shift if necessary.

If bossiness in the workplace feels disrespectful, why would it feel good at home?

After sixteen years as a stay-at-home mom, my return to teaching first grade in a private school was filled with anxiety and stress. I approached my return to the classroom with the same intensity as I had approached parenting. Each child was important and I loved them.  I would not fail.  I would be perfect.

Lesson plans, grading papers, book orders, recess schedules, bulletin boards, parent teacher conferences, classroom helpers, planning parties consumed every waking thought.  Plagued by sleeplessness and fatigue, anxiety and depression continually nipped at my heels.

Evenings, once time for conversation, playing games and simply enjoying our family, swiftly evolved into a time to “boss” everyone around.  “Do the dishes.  Feed the dog.  Help your sister.  Take your shower.  Help me out here!”

I abandoned polite conversation for efficiency sake.  Without exception, every member of our family felt stressed and cranky. My inability to hold realistic expectations and set reasonable boundaries for my job took a toll on my most cherished relationships.

All I wanted was a happy home AND a happy classroom.  I soon discovered my bossiness sabotaged my best intentions and noblest efforts in both arenas.

Respectful Communication

Children cherish “please” and “thank you” precisely because their parents value these words of kindness and consideration and in fact taught them to use these phrases as toddlers.  If using these courtesies is truly the sign of respect parents have said, shouldn’t  children expect to hear these significant words coming their way?

Eye contact should not be limited to times of correction.

Catching our kid’s eye, offering a warm smile and using the simple word, “please” before giving an instruction may transform the entire interaction.   Our child may still not like the request, but our curt words, exasperated tone of voice or distracted demeanor does not become an additional issue or fuel for future arguments.

It is easy to confuse sternness with firmness.  Firmness is the sense of resolve and decisiveness that comes from knowing we are doing what is best for our children.  Firm words or instructions are conveyed in a kind and resolute way. Expectations are given, but always with a gentle touch. Even in the face of opposition, parents remain calm and unmovable – they don’t blink.  They are unafraid of their children and have the courage to do what is right.

Firmness may frustrate children in the present, but parents will eventually be remembered with respect and affection.

Parenting is an unending sometimes exhausting job.  Every now and then, we will need to boss and momentary lapses are normal and understandable.  More often than not, our kids will need loving eye contact, relaxed body language and gentle but firm words from us when we make a request.   Consistent bossiness, sternness or harshness undeniably disturbs our most important relationships.




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4 Responses

  1. Janelle says:

    What a wonderful reminder of how we would like to be treated,usually if we treat others the way we should, they are more likely to respond in kind.

    Thank you, Kay, for your great insight.

  2. Jenn says:

    You know–I absolutely love your posts. When you said, “Catching our kid’s eye, offering a warm smile and using the simple word, “please” before giving an instruction may transform the entire interaction.” I have to tell you–about an Oprah show I watched once.

    I very rarely watched Oprah–but think I was subjected to a show of hers in a doctors office. Someone was on there, a mom maybe a dad (it has been many years), and this person was talking about how their child had drawn a picture of them or something and it had an angry face. This person woke up to the fact then that their child had an angry face picture of this parent ingrained in their mind. The child said something like, “that’s how you always look.”

    The parent realized at that point that parents needed to be conscious of how they were projecting themselves–your voice can say one thing, but what does your face say?

    Okay–so what does this have to do with sternness and firmness? AH–I promise I’m getting there. I think in many instances we not only need that eye contact and softness in our voice, but our faces need to tell the rest of the story. Being conscious of how we may look–happy, angry, sad, surprised, etc…to our kids is important. An angry face can override some of the kindest and firmest words–and make us seem stern or even unapproving.

    See–I made my point, eventually. LOLOL!!

    Thanks for letting me share!!

    • Kay says:

      Jenn! You are so right. I remember times when my kids asked me “Why are you mad?” when—the truth is -I wasn’t mad at all. I was just tired or deep in thought. I think our body language and facial expressions can sabotage our best efforts. Thank you so much for this great reminder, Jenn.

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