Being Firm and Gentle

The material in this series of 22 x blogs (of which this is number 21) with this similar format were originally published by the now late Ivan Sokolov and his wife Jacquie Pearson under the auspices of The Parent Network.  They are re-published with the permission of the authors for which I am most grateful.

Through this and the next posting is the exploration of being firm and gentle.  It turns the methods many of us have used for ages on its head!

Styles of parenting

When we were little we probably encountered three types of people:-

  • Those who were authoritarian and had a lot of power and authority over us and whom we may have feared;
  • Those who were very weak, who let us walk all over them and whom we may have discounted or ignored;
  • Those who were straight with us, who treated us with respect and whom we probably liked a great deal.

Unfortunately for us, there are not so many of the third type, so we don’t get much chance when we are growing up to model ourselves on that sort of behaviour.

We live in an authoritarian society and this shows most clearly in the way we treat children today.  As any parent knows, children are not well received by the general public.  They are “noisy”, “dirty” and “a nuisance”. We only have to take a normally curious five-year-old into a restaurant or on to a train to find that out for ourselves.


The old Victorian idea that children should be seen and not heard is still with us, however enlightened we might think we have become.  We may be less authoritarian about our children at home nowadays but, in Britain, we are still authoritarian in public.  There are so many places that children can’t go and so many things that they are not allowed to do, as any parent is very well aware.

In other European countries, such as Spain or Italy, children of all ages are to be seen with their parents in restaurants in the evening.  No one seems to mind when the very young ones run up and down and play. They are just part of the family group.  It is clearly possible to be far more accepting of children in public than normally happens in Britain.

Even at home, we may be more authoritarian than we imagine.  Or else we may claim that we are the exact reverse and consider ourselves permissive parents.  Reverse is the right word because authoritarianism and permissiveness are just different sides of the same coin.  Someone once said that a permissive parent was a failed authoritarian one and there may be some truth to this.

Let’s look at what this means a bit more closely.


The authoritarian approach

 This person knows what is best for you and they tell you in no uncertain terms what to feel, think, believe and do.  They are the authority on everything and if you don’t do what they say you are in big trouble.  They will curtail your freedom and might even resort to verbal and physical violence to get you to do what they want.

They are powerful and strong personalities and can be frightening.  Even if they don’t physically abuse you, you will probably be afraid of them.  They look angry a lot.  They speak in a loud, powerful voice and have a tendency to loom over you.

They always seem to get their own way and win every argument – they are the boss.

Such people can, at first sight, appear to have everything going for them. They get their own needs met and they are often quite successful in the world.  They have to do a lot of fighting for what they want but they don’t seem to mind that too much. It is the people whom they boss and hurt and tread on who have the difficulties.

There are three types of responses to authoritarian behaviour:  fight, flight or submission.

The fighters are the children who appear to go along with the authoritarian adult but secretly hate them and plan to get their revenge.  Or they attempt to stand up to them and get badly bruised, mentally as well as physically.  They may grow up hardened and determined that no one will ever try to walk all over them again.

The children who opt for flight are those who decide to keep out of the way as much as possible, which usually means withdrawing into themselves. Unfortunately, if they do withdraw into themselves, they may end up unable to respond even to other people who aren’t authoritarian and so may never get their own needs met.

Yet others may submit under the onslaught and make a decision early on in their life that their needs are of no value.  They learn to give in at the first sign of pressure from someone else and have no sense of self-worth.

Behaving in an authoritarian way can severely damage the self-worth of another individual, especially when they are young and unable to employ adult skills to help themselves.  The authoritarian approach means that you get your own way but also it means that others are afraid of you and may not like you.

Behaving in an authoritarian way means that you have to be on guard all the time; you are never allowed to show human weakness.

Behaving in an authoritarian way means not being truly yourself and being cut off from warm loving relationships.

The permissive approach

Behaving permissively is the other side of the story.  With this behaviour you are not allowed to get your own needs met and you allow others to walk all over you.

You may appear open, loving and kind, you may appear to be doing all the right things, but all of it is done at the expense of yourself.  You give and give but it is never enough.  The people around you always seem to want more and you can never satisfy them.  You are taken for granted all of the time and always seem to be left to clean up the mess.  Your generosity is never recognised or returned and you can quite often end up resenting your children, and partner if you have one.

People respond to those who behave  behave permissively by walking all over them, and often end up disliking them.  Children react to this permissiveness by pushing and pushing  in an effort to find some limits. They sense that the adult is doing and saying things that they don’t really want to and they push for the adult to become congruent and real.

Many children cannot cope with the amount of power that the parent behaving permissively gives to them and they begin ordering the adult around and demanding that all their needs be met instantly without taking anyone else into account.

Behaving permissively means that others pity you or take advantage of you.  Behaving permissively means that you never get to live your own life.  Behaving permissively produces the very thing that you are striving to avoid – children who behave aggressively and who disregard the needs of others.

The authoritarian and permissive approaches are not actually so different.  They are both examples of the use of power.  In the first case, the parent yields it and, in the second, the child.  Authoritarian and permissive behaviour are just at opposite ends of the same power line.

A new way

If we want to relate to other people more usefully and respectfully, it is worth while trying to get off the line of power altogether.   We need to find ways to meet everyone’s needs and that means working in a constructive way to come up with mutually acceptable solutions.  We need always to be aware of both our own needs and rights and those of others.

This means we value ourselves and others and we are straightforward and honest in communicating our thoughts and feelings when our needs are being interfered with.  We listen when others tell us we are interfering with theirs.  We place value on our own skills, wisdom and experience and use them to help others when necessary.

Behaving assertively

Challenging unacceptable behaviour with I-Messages that satisfy the basic aims of changing unacceptable behaviour, maintaining self esteem all round and facilitating the growth of all parties is the ideal way of behaving.

If you have developed a habit of letting others get away with behaviour that interferes with your needs, it is time to start behaving assertively.

At the same time, if you tend to react aggressively or in an overbearing way even when you don’t own the problem, it is time you started behaving assertively as well.

The benefits to you and everyone around you will be a greatly increased sense of self-worth on all sides, better feelings all round, and all of you meeting more and more of your needs more of the time.  People who behave assertively are liked and respected by others.  They take responsibility for their own needs and help others to do the same.  People who behave assertively contribute to the well-being of the world just by behaving the way they do…


There are many things that will help you in Sue’s book “Peace of Mind – Pathways to Successful Living”. Download chapter 1 free now!

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