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.
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.
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.
This was my mistake when we were on our trip with my parents. I thought, "Two weeks of unhealthy eating isn't going to mess this kid up for life. Why bother my dad about this?" Perhaps you've come to a similar conclusion, but it was "What's the harm in five more minutes of video games?" or "One late night isn't a big deal." Except it is a big deal. If you bend the rules this time, you are only giving your kid more power next time -- power that you can be sure he will use against you with a comment like, "You let me stay up last night. Why can't I stay up later tonight?" These are some other types of faulty reasoning:My child didn't do what I said, so I should ask again. And again. And again, more loudly. Rather than getting your child's attention, this encourages him to tune you out, says Cancellier. He thinks, "I know my mom isn't going to do anything about this until she asks me the sixth time and she's very angry." So he waits for the sixth ask. I want my kid to cooperate, so I'll threaten the worst possible punishment I can think of and pray that he behaves so I don't have to actually punish him. If you don't follow through with this mega-consequence, however, your child will learn that you don't really mean what you say, and he's probably going to rebel even more, says family therapist Hal Runkel, author of ScreamFree Parenting.
Only ask your child once, stand next to him with a hand on his back and a smile on your face, and wait, suggests Cancellier. If he's giving you a hard time about a decision you've made, restate your position and shift his attention away from what he wants right now -- more TV time or potato chips -- to something he wants in the future. You might say, "You're not going to have more TV now, but if you go to bed without a fuss, you can have TV again tomorrow."
If you still have a battle on your hands, it's time for a consequence -- one that you can and will execute, even if it seems a bit wimpy. Maybe you take TV away for only three minutes. Next time you can take it way for ten. This is more effective than threatening, "I'll take it away for a month," and never doing it. "If you warn him that you'll take it away for three minutes and follow through, next time he'll think, 'I better listen because she's really going to do it,' " says Runkel.
You're on the phone and your kid asks you for a cookie. You say, "Whatever, honey," and hand her the package so she can take one herself. You don't think about it again until later when you find the empty box and a bunch of crumbs on her bedroom floor. Been there?
Being distracted weakens our resolve and erodes our memories, causing us to forget the rules and consequences we're tying to be consistent about, says Runkel. This happens whenever we're trying to do two things at once, as well as when we're hungry, stressed, or sleep deprived.
You need to be rested to be a consistent parent, so be just as strict about your own bedtime as you are about your child's. Also take a hard look at your schedule and your family's schedule, too, suggests Susan Newman, Ph.D., author of The Book of No: 250 Ways to Say It -- and Mean It. Consider cutting back on playgroups or extracurricular activities if they make you feel anxious and rushed. Remind yourself that not every e-mail or text needs to be answered today, the house doesn't have to be immaculate, and many of the items on your to-do list can wait until tomorrow or even until next week or month. For tasks that require your full concentration, try not to multitask. If you need to pay bills or use the computer when your children are around, plan to put your spouse in charge.
We all have situations that tend to push our buttons and make us want to give in. Your child might say, "Dylan's mom doesn't force him to do it!" when you ask him to put away his toys, or "I hate you" after you impose an unpopular consequence. Whatever the trigger, it causes us to second-guess ourselves and wonder, "Am I being too hard on him?"
Think about how fortunate your child really is. He is clothed, fed, loved, and sheltered. He might
even have a room full of toys too. Then flip the guilt, suggests Runkel: Feel guilty about not being consistent rather than about standing firm. "You don't promise to give your kid a puppy for Christmas and then give him a stuffed animal instead. If you say you're going to do something and don't follow through, you're breaking a promise," he says. Remind yourself of all the gifts consistency gives your child: security, stability, dependability, and so much more. Then, rather than feeling guilty, you'll be able to enjoy the sound of his feet stomping up the stairs to straighten up his room because you'll know you are not the worst parent in the world. On the contrary, you just might be one of the best.
Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Parents magazine.