As I’ve been teaching my latest Teaching Parenting the Positive Discipline Way course, I’ve been revisiting the core concepts of Positive Discipline and reflecting on what makes it so powerful and unique.
Something that’s been coming up with my clients lately, as well as in my own life, is firmness. I was on a call this morning with other Positive Discipline trainers, and we were asked to think about the difference between authoritative parenting and authoritarian parenting, specifically around firmness.
In Positive Discipline classes, we look at parenting styles through the lens of connection (kindness) and firmness. Three styles tend to be highlighted. Permissive parenting is all connection and no firmness. Authoritarian parenting is all firmness and no connection. The style of both connection and firmness, we call authoritative parenting, or Positive Discipline.
We could also call these our leadership styles, not just parenting styles, because as parents we are the leaders of our families. It used to really bother me that authoritarian parenting and authoritative parenting sounded so similar when it’s authority held and delivered in two very different ways.
Many of us were raised by authoritarian parents – strict, controlling, lots of rules, lots of punitive punishment. They were firm, but maybe not as connected as we needed them to be. This style doesn’t leave a lot of room for making mistakes or listening to better understand. There is a lot of rigidity and a “my way or the highway” mindset.
Maybe, as you became a parent, you wanted to do things differently. You want to be a connected parent who sees their children for who they are and maintain a relationship & hold space for each child. When we decide not to be authoritarian parents and deeply value connection and our child’s self-esteem, we tend to lean into permissive parenting because we don’t really know how to be connected and firm at the same time.
There was a valuable exploration of this by my peers on my call this morning. We know permissive parenting isn’t good. Our kids really struggle and can’t learn the life skills that they need without rules and boundaries. They aren’t learning to create and hold their own boundaries, and they don’t feel like we have their back.
Without routines, expectations, and collaborative problem-solving, our kids really flail around.
Think about being dropped in the middle of an Olympic-sized pool. You can’t touch the bottom, but you can see the walls around you to swim towards. You know there’s safety nearby. Now think about being dropped in the middle of the ocean. There’s nothing to swim to or hold on to. Permissive parenting, while it’s full of love and creativity, is lacking in firmness & structure and is a lot like being in the middle of the ocean. We’re unsure of where we can take risks and where to pull back.
So the question is,
how can we be firm in a way that allows our children to develop a healthy sense of self?
Where they feel listened to and understood? Firmness that allows for exploration of pushing against the status quo, healthy risk-taking, and making mistakes? How do we do that?
Connection and firmness are often thought of as either/or. Either I choose connection and make my child happy, or I choose firmness and lay down the law. No! It’s not an either/or. It’s a both/and.
Some of the ahas that came from my brilliant colleagues this morning while we discussed this were:
Why is it so hard to be connected and firm?
Remember that it’s not a parent’s job to make sure your child is happy all the time. It’s not your job to protect your child from negative emotions. It is challenging to sit with sadness, disappointment, and anger, so some parents let go of the firmness and lean into the connection & kindness because of our own discomfort.
Being connected doesn’t mean that your child likes you all the time.
Especially your tweens & teens, and that’s okay. That’s okay! It’s okay for them to be mad, to feel misunderstood, it’s okay. Connection is bigger than just connecting with that child – we also have to connect with ourselves & our experience. Connecting with ourselves allows us to keep the greater good in mind.
Being firm is not the same thing as being mean.
A lot of us struggle with this because we can all picture a mean firm person. There’s not a ton of models of connected firmness, but being firm is having a bigger picture in mind. It’s knowing where you want to go and being willing, again, to be with the discomfort when we take that leadership role. It’s okay to disagree with your child. It’s okay for them not to like the limits that you set. You can end the conversation with, “Yes, I understand that 3 AM seems like a logical curfew to you, and I don’t agree.”
Coming from a place of fear
Authoritarian parenting often comes from a place of fear. For some families, that’s very legitimate. It’s not about trusting their teens out in the world; it’s about not trusting that world that their teens are walking into. That fear is real and can result in authoritarian parenting.
Our kids behavior is a reflection of us
Authoritarian parenting can show up when we believe our kid’s behavior is a reflection of us. That’s being concerned about what others think rather than considering the needs and development of our teens. We want our kids to thrive, and it’s messy! It’s really hard.
So what about authoritative parenting?
Kind and firm?
Parents are the leaders of the family, no doubt.
The difference is that in authoritative parenting, it’s authority with instead of authority over.
That’s a huge distinction. Authoritative parenting is authority with our kids. We are listening, we are holding space, we are valuing their experience. We acknowledge their perspective. We are willing to say “No. Not yet. I know this is important to you and not yet.” We can trust that we will get through it when our kids get angry with us and fall apart.
Listening to our teens can lead us to broader understanding. We can say, “After we talked about this, I am feeling a little better about it. We can try it.” It’s not coming from avoiding confrontation or avoiding disappointment.
Connected firmness requires a tremendous amount of self-regulation. It’s more neutral than it is emotional. There’s space for curiosity, collaboration, and learning. It feels respectful to myself and the teen in front of me. Listen, this is all a work in progress. This is a place to reflect.
What do you think? How does firmness show up for you? How does this all land for you? I’d love to know. Share about it below.