When we were on vacation with my parents, my father cooked an unusual pasta, chicken, and vegetable concoction. My 6-year-old, Kaarina, looked at it and said, "What is that?"
"I can make you something else," Dad told her.
"No, she'll be fine," I said. After all, she normally has the choice between eating what I've cooked or eating nothing at all, and that rule had been working wonderfully for us.
My dad ignored me and went back into the kitchen. Then he returned with grilled cheese.
Not wanting to make waves, I told myself, "We're on vacation. Let it go." I let it go night after night as he made her one special dish after another.
Two weeks later at home, I made chicken and corn on the cob, which Kaarina had always liked. That night, however, she whined, "I hate corn on the cob!"
"You don't have to eat it," I responded calmly. "You know the rule. You can eat this or eat nothing. It's your choice."
She started wailing and I sent her to her room. When I checked on her, she screamed that she hated me. When I checked again, she proclaimed that I was the worst mother in the world. The episode dragged on for more than an hour, leaving me drained. Had I set myself up for this power struggle? Probably. If I'd just stuck to our usual food policy on vacation and firmly told my mild-mannered father not to cook Kaarina different meals, I'm sure her tantrum would have been averted. "If you give in one out of ten times, it's worse than giving in every time," says Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., author of The Willpower Instinct and a lecturer at Stanford University. Inconsistent parenting -- enforcing rules, routines, and consequences sometimes but not always -- encourages kids to do exactly what we don't want them to do: whine, complain, bargain, question our judgment, and ignore us.
Of course, being perfectly consistent is easier said than done. For example, even if you have a "30 minutes of TV a day" rule, you might break it when you're on the phone and need your kids to be quiet. Or, like me, you might expect your kids to follow a rule that you don't always follow yourself. Kaarina isn't allowed to say the word stupid at school and yet I often say it at home, especially when I'm referring to our new dog who's just destroyed something else in the house.
However, being a predictable parent should be your ultimate goal. "Consistency lets children know that they have a decision: They can listen to you or they can live with the consequences," says Patti Cancellier, education coordinator for the Parent Encouragement Program in Kensington, Maryland. To help you stay strong and inspire great behavior, consider these common reasons why parents cave.
Embarrassment Your kid whines for candy on the checkout line. You say, "No." She drops to the floor and does that thing that causes single people to roll their eyes and whisper, "Natural birth control." Now you're the store's main attraction. "You feel anxious and uncomfortable and you just want that feeling to go away," says Dr. McGonigal. So you buy the candy, and your kid turns off the tears. The problem, of course, is that this only sets you up for a repeat episode that will be louder than the first.
The Solution Weigh the short-term payoff of giving her what she wants (ending the meltdown, buying your groceries in peace) against the long-term cost of giving in (future tantrums that are more mortifying). Then slow down your breathing, taking ten seconds for each breath. This will activate your prefrontal cortex -- the self-control center of the brain -- and make the hard job of parenting feel easier, says Dr. McGonigal. With your new resolve, you might ditch the groceries and take your kid straight to the car. Or you might leave her on the floor to finish the tantrum. I tried the latter strategy recently when Kaarina had a conniption on a beach boardwalk. I sat on a bench while she writhed and screamed belly down right in front of me. Yes, people stared, but no one called the police and her antics did come to an end.