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Amazing Possibilities!

  • Writer's pictureMatthew Kelly

Parenting: Tough but Fair

For almost a decade now I have been in the habit of asking

people about the teachers, coaches, and mentors they most

respect and admire. The stories that people share in response

to this question are many and varied. They are inspiring and

remind us of the powerful influence one person can have on

our lives. And yet, as unique and individual as the stories are

to the people telling them, there also seems to be a common

thread. When they get to telling me about the teacher or

coach they are most grateful for, I then like to ask them,

“How would you describe his or her style?” Almost inevitably

the answer is the same: tough but fair. They may say

it in a different way or use different words, but in essence it

comes down to the same thing.

In my corporate work, I use this example to explain to

managers that in order to gain the respect of employees or

those who report to them, we must be tough but fair. If you

give a pay raise to someone who has done a poor job, you encourage

the wrong behavior, you weaken your business and

its ability to perform, but perhaps most of all you weaken the

team because you lose respect as a leader, which diminishes

your ability to manage and lead, which in turn jeopardizes

the future of the venture.

Successful parenting is as much about gaining and keeping

the respect of our children. It is important to point out that

respect is not the same as popularity. In fact, in many cases,

in order to assure respect way into the future, we must be

willing to surrender popularity in the present.

At the very core of leadership, management, parenting,

and love is the approach of tough but fair. If you are too easy

on them and let them do whatever they want, they won’t respect

you because they will see you as a pushover. If you are

too hard on them and never let them exercise their free will

and preferences, they will see you as unreasonable and unbending

and you will lose their respect that way.

Tough but fair means holding them accountable. We all

need to be accountable to someone. It brings out the best in

us. People do not do well in situations where they are not accountable

to anyone or anything. In fact, the absence of

accountability inevitably leads to our spinning out of control.

The framers knew this as well as anybody. The Founding Fathers

had unique insight into the very nature of the human

being when they wrote: “All men are created equal, that they

are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable

Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of

happiness.” But the framers also displayed profound insight

into human nature in writing the Constitution when they set

up a series of checks and balances in order to avoid a situation

where someone would have power without accountability.

Accountability does not stifle us; it brings out the best in

us. Whether you are managing people in the workplace or

raising your children, your role demands that you hold them

accountable. Our attempts to hold our children accountable

will be most successful if we are able to clearly define for

them a vision toward which we are parenting. If you are able

to tell your children that you love them and that you want to

help them become the-best-version-of-themselves, and that

you consider that to be your role as a parent, when an issue

arises you can speak to the issue by celebrating the vision.

You can also let them know that as a parent you feel it is your

responsibility to be tough but fair. At times they may think

you are being too tough—and you should carefully consider

with your partner whether or not that is the case. At other

times they may claim you are not being fair. There is certainly

not a parent on the planet who has not heard that cry. At the

end of the day you can only do what you believe to be best.

Sometimes you will get it wrong. When you realize that you

got it wrong, apologize to your children. At the heart of great

parenting is a deep humility that we have been entrusted with

an awesome role and tremendous responsibility.

When the Native American people make a decision for

their community they ask the question: “How will what we

are considering affect our people seven generations from

now?” In raising our children it is all too easy to get caught

up in the here and now. Parenting is a leadership role, and

leaders look beyond the here and now to consider the pros

and cons at various times in the future. If we genuinely want

to serve our children’s best interests we must find within ourselves

the courage to be tough but fair in our dealings with

them, to hold them accountable. This courage is born from a

vision of what we wish to achieve through our parenting. By

clearly establishing the goals of our parenting we are given

the courage to parent to that vision.

It goes without saying that this tough but fair approach

would be interwoven with a deep love for our children,

daily encouragement and support, and an open and understanding


Matthew Kelly

From Building Better Families

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