There’s a lot of discussion in parenting around picking your battles, keeping the big picture in mind and not sweating the small stuff. While I agree that perspective is important in parenting, I’m also going to suggest that sometimes it actually is really important to sweat the small stuff. I’m not suggesting that it is good to growl at every little thing, but there are some small battles that are worth winning in order to cancel out the bigger ones. The trick is learning to recognise which small battles have the potential to cause a big impact!

Small, but significant

When you ignore poor manners, back-chat and rudeness, you allow your child to become disrespectful and even angry. Children are constantly looking for where the boundary is – and asking the question: will it be solid or can I push it over? When a child discovers that the boundary is not only real, but also fixed and firm, the search for clarity is over and they can get back to the job of being a kid.

Parents often drop their guard and ignore the whining, moaning, grizzling, taunting and cheek in favour of keeping their energy and big guns for the major issues. Perhaps you’ve found yourself doing this more recently, as an understandable coping mechanism to get through the extra challenges of COVID-19 and the lockdown. In the big picture, however, children often see this drop in attention to respect as a doorway to act in more challenging ways, and this is where parenting gets hard. As a parent, you feel you have been generous in ignoring the little things, and yet you’re now confused as to why your child is becoming harder to manage instead of easier.

Can you please say that again?

How your child speaks to you is important! My encouragement is to nip the seemingly small behaviours in the bud – before they take root and grow into something bigger. If you put in some effort with small battles, such has holding the line on always speaking respectfully, you’ll be setting yourself up for a win in those bigger battles.

Paying attention to how your children speak to you is highly worthwhile and it helps to start early, like encouraging your toddler with the correct way of asking for a drink or thanking you for their treat. Energy and focus on respectful speaking serves to curb harder and more intense behaviours, like tantrums, swearing, lying and anger outbursts. A similar methodology was shown to be effective in New York City in the late 1990s/early 2000s when Mayor Rudy Giuliani tackled petty crime and tagging, but reduced a lot of major crime in the process.

The motivation behind your child’s challenging behaviour can be your key to deciding whether to tackle it or not. A parent is often making the quick decision: Is this simply playfulness, an accident, an overtired child, forgetfulness, a lack of concentration or is it a lack of respect? If your child is being disrespectful, it is worth being firm.

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What does firm look like?

While it is tempting to growl at and correct disrespect, it usually doesn’t result in an improved response. Something that works better than this is when you keep a child’s dignity in place and you also give them a chance to replay or try again. This might look like:

Child: “I want some food now ­– you are taking so long to get me anything!”

Parent: “Honey – have a think about that and try again with your beautiful manners.”

Child: “Please can you get me some food. I am so hungry.”

Firm also looks like an action. It doesn’t need lots of words, reasons or yelling. It needs to hold its own and quietly wait it out. You may be tempted to repeat yourself or you could say something like:

“ I am happy to help you out, when you have completed what I asked you to.”

More ways to firm up

  • Talk about your family rule of respectfulness – ‘In our family, we all speak respectfully to each other’. Establish this as your bottom line.
  • Model it daily in your own interactions.
  • Have simple consequences for disrespect. That might look like delaying something until your children have played their part.
  • Give your children another chance to show you they can speak respectfully.

What does fair look like?

Fair parenting looks like keeping your child’s age and stage in mind so that the request or expectation is reasonable. Asking your two-year-old to tidy their room is too much of a stretch but getting them to put their books in a box is reasonable.

Fair looks like doing what you said you would, being consistent and remembering to say sorry when you blow it or let your mood get the better of you. Fair is not having favourites and getting all the kids on board with chores and compliance, and also the fun activities.

Finding the balance

Firm and fair are a strong combination. A child feels more confident when they know that you mean what you say, and they are encouraged by your involvement and understanding of their age and stage.

Let’s take an example of getting some jobs done before TV is turned on. Your children are at different ages and levels of competency. You are willing to turn on the TV as soon as the house is tidied and the chores are ticked off. You pitch in and help the younger ones or get the team working together. You check the jobs are done to a reasonable standard and you refrain from lectures, arguments and bribes.

Your children know what to expect and they relax in the predictability of this procedure. They are encouraged by your acknowledgement of their effort and your quiet vigilance in seeing it done. Firm and fair – simple and intentional. And everyone feels calmer and more confident!

So go for it – establish fair expectations, and be firm!


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About Author

Jenny Hale

Jenny Hale is our Senior Family Coach and we’ve been lucky enough to have her on our team for 19 years now. Once upon a time, Jenny was a teacher. These days, she spends her time supporting our team of Family Coaches, training new ones, and travelling around the country talking in preschools, schools and churches. She loves working with families and helping them find solutions to the challenges they face with behaviour and parenting. Jenny has been married to Stuart for 40 years and adores being a grandma to her grandkids (who live just 1km away). She needs a support group so she can stop buying books for them. She’d love to raise free-range chickens, write children’s books and perhaps even take up horse-riding again.

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