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?
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.
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, ~Faith Collins