As a parent you’re always on your toes watching, listening and assessing your children’s needs. You anticipate their needs but also their wants, desires, dislikes and happiness. You have lots of strong ideas about parenting and what you want to instill in them and visions for who they will become. Yet, in the day-to-day you find there’s a dissonance between what you want to teach your child and what you end up doing to maintain their happiness. It’s a common reaction; allowing their behavior to dictate your parenting approach.
How familiar does this sound: sweets only after dinner? It’s a well thought-out rule that you planned for your family. One day you’re at the playground and the ice cream truck rolls past. Your kids run up to you, begging you to buy them a cone. They use all the right phrases, “Just this once” or “It’s just a special treat!?!” All their friends are eating ice cream, their parents are pressuring you and after all it is summer. You want to say no, you want to stick to your rules, but you know that if you do your kids will revolt with yelling and pouting. So, you cave, just this once, and for the sake of a great day. But on the walk home, you realize this was the third time this week they had ice cream at the playground.
While in the short term there are benefits to caving, in the long run you’re cheating yourself and your child. You’re undermining your role as a parent. This moment, the one that seems so harmless is actually the time to step into your role as the adult. I’ll say this loud and clear: Stop letting your child’s behavior, especially challenging behavior, dictate your parenting choices.
It can be hard to look at your children’s faces and not cave in. However, here are a couple of ways that you and your children can benefit from having a set of rules in place.
-Clarify the big messages you want for your children. What are your non-negotiables? Is it around politeness or sharing? Is your priority eating healthy snacks or doing chores around the house? Pick two or three that you are dedicated to teaching your children. Write them down and share them with your family. These are your family rules.
-When faced with resistance from your child, stay calm and repeat your same rule. Don’t go into a big explanation or defend your actions. Your calmness and collectiveness will speak volumes. Learning to hear and accept “no” and to adhere to boundaries is critical for your small being to grow into a healthy, vibrant adult. Saying yes and breaking your own rules doesn’t feel like a big deal in the moment but it does have life-long ramifications for your child.
-Stand strong when confronted with challenging behavior around these new rules. Don’t cheat yourself or your children with the reward of one easier afternoon! This will mean saying no to your kids and being okay when they do not like it. Your role as a parent is to make the unpopular call, then be steady and calm in the aftermath.
-Let go of all the other things you want to teach your child -- you can’t do everything at once. There are countless other things you will teach your children, but at this time your family is focusing on two to three.
-Once your kids truly understand two to three rules, then add one or two more.
Creating rules for your children is also a process of letting go of those things that you’re choosing not to change. Let it be okay for some things to be imperfect. This will not only make you feel better, because you’re not constantly correcting your small being, but it will also make your child feel better. The constant criticism and correcting feels uncomfortable for everyone…enjoy the respite from it!
All in all, if you want to be the one in charge, you must make thoughtful and specific choices every step of the way. Small steps lead to big behavioral changes.
Dr. Marcie is a behavioral therapist based in Brooklyn. She has worked with thousands of families over 15 years and has condensed her observations into her practice and programs. www.BehaviorAndBeyond.net