It can be hard to balance kindness and firmness in the classroom and the home.

Children need to be respected and autonomous so that they can develop their creativity and problem-solving skills. However, adults need to step up, especially in group environments.

Teachers and parents need to take responsibility for the children in their care and make it clear where the authority lies. When children are unsure who is in charge, they will act out and are likely to become bossy, patronizing, and temperamental.

In my personal experience, many parents and teachers mistake permissiveness for kindness. They believe that it is kind to “please” children and give them everything they want or to “rescue” children from disappointments or issues where they have to resolve conflicts.

Children who never learn to accept boundaries and believe that their every desire must be fulfilled become very difficult to comfort and teach. Additionally, children who are never given chances to showcase independence – feeding themselves, changing their own clothes, monitoring their own emotions – are likely to become under-stimulated and immature.

Real kindness involves speaking to children in a direct and honest way. “I know you don’t want to put your shoes on, but it’s not safe to walk barefoot. I would like you to put your shoes on now.”

If the child does not follow your directions, it is kindness to enforce your own rules. “I see that you haven’t put your shoes on, so I am going to sit with you and help you.” If the child cries, that is simply an emotional reaction to a rule, not a reason to let the child do what they wish. Parents and teachers must stand firm – they have the ultimate say on issues of health, safety, and respect for others. Tears, yelling, or tantrums are not a reason to back down. It may be exhausting at first, but children usually respond well to rational authority if it is consistent over time.

As children learn to think and communicate it is fair to give them more choices. Psychologists and family counselors suggest separating choices into “hard” and “soft” and letting children make as many soft decisions as possible. For example, a hard decision is what children eat – adults must decide for children in order to ensure healthy nutrition. A soft decision about food could be which type of cheese goes in the sandwich or which type of fruit to eat for a snack.

If you realize that you haven’t been acting like the leader and you want to begin to draw the line, expect some initial extreme pushback from your children. Any change in family or classroom dynamics is not going to be easy. Hold steady and know that you are doing what is best for the children who are watching and learning from you.   

Shannon Brown works in international education in Ho Chi Minh City and has a background in social work, public heath, and early childhood education.