In class last week, a mom told me how overwhelmed she was by her kids. She felt like they didn’t listen to her. Not only did they not follow her rules, they would sometimes hit or bite when she tried to enforce those rules. She was feeling out of control and powerless. She asked: “How do you get that voice that puts ‘the fear of God’ in your kids?” In other words, that tone of command that says “That’s it. I mean business! You will now do what I am telling you to do.” It’s the “Stop – do NOT run out in traffic” tone or the “It’s not OK to hit” tone.
I said “It’s all in the voice” and demonstrated my sternest tone.
But really, it’s more than the voice. It’s the body language and the facial expressions too. Gone is the soft and gentle mama (or papa) who will let them get away with anything just because they’re so darn cute. Gone is the tired looking mama they know will let them get away with it because she’s too tired to do anything about it. (Believe me, I know you may FEEL this way, just try not to let it show.) This is the serious mama who Needs Them to Listen to Her Now. (Note: you don’t need to be a mean mama, or an angry mama… you can still be loving and respectful and in calm control of your own emotions when you are being authoritative.)
But really, it’s about much more than how you talk, stand, or look in the moment. It’s about your whole relationship with your kids. Are you generally respectful, loving, playful, and encouraging them to adventure and explore? Have you built a relationship of mutual trust? If so, then when you put on your serious tone, they trust that there’s a reason for it.
It’s also about your discipline style in general. The Voice only has power if they know there will be Actions that follow it up.
Do your children know that you set limits and stick to them? Do you tell them what’s expected of them and what the consequences will be if you disobey? Do you follow through on those consequences? Do you follow through every time? Even when you’re in public? Even when you’re tired? Even when you’re busy? Don’t set consequences unless you can follow through on them in that moment! Find a consequence you’re willing to enforce and enforce it.
This is where the discipline flow chart comes in: step 3 – tell child what to do; step 4 – alert child to the problem by putting on your command voice; step 5 – calmly enforce consequences, and step 6 – move on.
You might say: “When we are in the parking lot, you need to hold my hand. If you let go, I will pick you up.” Then, if she lets go, calmly pick her up and carry her. Even if she’s kicking and screaming. When she’s buckled into her car seat and calmed down, explain that your job is to keep her safe, and one thing you need her to do is hold your hand in a parking lot so the cars know she is there.
You might say: “I want you to use a gentle voice and nice touch with your sister. If you hit her, I will pick you up and carry you out of the room.” Then if he hits, calmly pick him up and carry him out of the room. Then help him take a few deep breaths and calm back down. Even if you have other things you need to do in that moment (like work on dinner), the consequences need to be there and need to be immediate.
You might say: “I want you to share the toys nicely. If you two fight over something, I will need to take it away and put it on the time-out shelf.” When they fight over something, calmly take it away. Then help them re-settle into playing with new toys. You do this even if you’re tired, and really just want them to play by themselves for a moment while you rest. You don’t give up and just toss the toy back down to them when they fuss about you taking it away. And if they bite or hit you, you should clearly say “It is not OK to hurt me. It’s never OK to hurt other people. I’m going to leave you here in your room by yourself for a while, and I’m going to go somewhere else.”
How do your kids know you mean business when you say something? They know because you consistently follow through with actions and consequences if they don’t listen to you when you say it. You “say it like you mean it” because you do mean it.
I promise I didn’t put the photo of Professor McGonagall from Harry Potter at the top of this post because I think you’re being a witch when you enforce limits. I put it there because I think this character (in both the books and the movies) exemplifies the gentle authority. There is no doubt that she loves the children. There’s also no doubt that she means business when she tells them what they need to do. You can find your own loving voice of authority with your kids. Your life will feel more in your control when you do this, and your child will also be reassured – although they may act like they want to be in charge, it’s actually a little scary for them to feel like they are. Kids prefer it when they have a strong loving authority in the house.