When working with children, sometimes as we provide repeated redirection we find our gentleness running out. The first ten times that we taught and reinforced the skill, our words and actions were filled with encouragement and kindness. However, there is an invisible line that we cross around reminder number 11 where our stockpile of patience diminishes.
Something that I have been growing through this last decade is the need to balance being both gentle and firm at the same time. When I first started reflecting on the ways children thrive with firm boundaries, I realized the tone of voice and the manner in which I communicate the firm boundaries are the game changers. Children feed off of the emotional energy that we put off. They pick up on our frustrations and also our joy. Unfortunately our frustrations can often fuel their anger further. Instead of helping children regulate their emotions, we might accidentally cause them to spiral even further out of control and feel unable to calm their minds and bodies.
In my early years of teaching, I was given feedback from a colleague that I was too kind of a teacher and needed to be more firm with my students. This same fellow educator advised me to not smile until December. That way my students wouldn’t take advantage of my gentleness. Unfortunately, this advice was not effective for me. When I took away my God-given character traits of kindness and gentleness, my teaching was devoid of my personality. Without my smiles and encouraging words, I struggled to build strong relationships with my students. Thankfully that following school year, as I gave birth to our first born, it was like the teacher/student relationship switch clicked on for me. I realized that as much as I loved our daughter, these children who I was blessed to teach were also dearly loved. I wanted to treat them as gently and kindly as I would hope others would treat my children. I began communicating my firm boundaries in a gentle manner that helped my students know why the boundaries were in place for their benefit.
Thinking through how we can be both gentle and firm at the same time with our children, I found these steps to be crucial in helping me navigate what some would consider an oxymoron:
- Determine ahead of time what are your “deal breakers.” What things can we provide children with choice and and what things do I need to hold tight to? Knowing our end goals of where we want to lead our children help determine our deal breakers. Do you value collaboration? Then a deal breaker for you might be establishing accountable talking/discourse routines, so your class or family structure is set up to facilitate beautiful conversations. Maybe you value inspiring a growth mindset where your children or students take risks even when they might not be successful the first, second, or tenth time. Then a deal breaker for you might be that as a class or family is that we won’t allow ourselves to get stagnant. We will take healthy risks. We will do hard things. We will learn strategies that will help us get a little better each day. We will value growth instead of only the end goal.
- Think through quick catch phrases that communicate your firm boundary in a gentle way. My favorite “go to” sentence is from Love and Logic: I love you too much to argue with you.
- Use less words and instead model healthy ways to calm the fight, flight, freeze, or freak out reactions in our central nervous systems. It truly is incredible the way our bodies can self-regulate and think more critically when the cortisol hormones wear off. Some ideas that work well for children (and adults!) are:
- Drink 8 oz of water.
- Take 3-5 calming breaths.
- Take a 5-10 minute walk.
- Work through a 7 minute high intensity animal exercise sequence.
- Listen to uplifting music (and maybe do a silly dance party along with the music. It’s amazing how laughter helps us naturally de-escalate.).
- Give a tight hug (Deep pressure hugs can work miracles. My husband Nathan and daughter Juliana give the best tight hugs!)
- Compile a short collection of God’s truths to be your internal script to help you maintain gentleness. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Philippians 4:5: “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.”
- Proverbs 15:1 “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
Friend, I write these strategies with a humble heart. I have not fully arrived with balancing gentleness and firmness. From the feedback of one of my children, I must be growing in this area, because she told me last week that she could tell that I was really working on calming my emotions. After she said this, later that day, my gentleness was waning thin toward this child’s constant questioning and stubbornness to not conform to what we were working through. However, once I took the time to drink some water, take calming breaths, take a quick walk, and give this child a tight hug, I felt my own self work out of the “fight, flight, freeze, and freak out” moment. I might not have wanted to give my child a hug at that moment, but as I hugged my child, I felt my emotional reaction calming down. When I gave myself time to pause before I reacted, I remembered that just as our Heavenly Father treats me gently when I don’t deserve it, I want to be the kind of mom and teacher who extends this unearned gentleness as well. In the words of a wise mentor, our children have only been on the planet for (insert the age of your child/student) years. Of course they need gentle and firm modeling for how they could handle their big emotions in a healthy way.
So, friend, I want to extend this same grace to each of us. We have only been on the planet for (insert your age) years, so of course we still have more learning to do. I’m curious if this seemingly oxymoron of being both gentle and firm resonates with you or if there is another set of seemingly conflicting character traits that you are working through instead? Thank you for reading and being my teammate on this journey of parenthood and teaching. Together we are growing each day into people whose gentle and firm character is closer to the heart of the Lord.