Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Consistency Is Key

In my post last Wednesday, I proposed a scenario. You're standing in front of a vending machine and your child is throwing a tantrum. What to do? You vacillate between giving in and holding your ground. I gave you some options for responses - I was curious to see what most of you would do.

So, what was the correct option to choose? The right answer is ... drumroll ...

... it depends.

What did you think? That I'd actually know the right answer? Ha ha.

The truth is, the correct option depends on lots of things: the age of your child, the personality of your child, what your day has been like, what you've done in the past, what your child's current mental state is, and what kinds of things make your child feel secure.

Today I just want to focus on Option A. When you give in to your child's demands in the middle of the tantrum, why is it that you always feel so defeated and disrespected? Does your kid appreciate getting his way? Probably not. But why not? After all, you're giving him what he wants. Isn't that what all kids want ... their way?

As it turns out, most likely not.

Think about the life of a young child. What is their world like? A place of newness and mystery. Every day they encounter things that they've never before seen: new technology, new people, new social expectations. For some kids, this is a delight. They wake each day ready to tackle every new situation they come across, and do it with an enthusiastic smile.

But there's another entirely different type of child, one that some of us can't recognize immediately, especially if we're more the adventurous type. This child is one that sees life's newness as frightening and threatening. This child wakes each morning, wondering what new situation he'll encounter and fearful that he won't know how to respond. Yesterday, it was Mom expecting him to have a conversation with the cashier at the grocery store - a total stranger! - and the day before that it was Dad expecting him to go on a field trip with his class to someplace he'd never been before - and get there in a stranger's car (the parent of a classmate he doesn't even like all that much!) - and do it without Mom or Dad with him.

What'll it be today? Will he be expected to go someplace with lots of overwhelming noise and bright lights with tons of people? Will he be expected to play with other kids he's never met before? He may wake each morning on edge, waiting for that "thing" that will happen that'll throw him off track.

What this type of kid thrives on is consistency. That's all those things that so many adults think is limiting a child's creativity: schedule, routine, order. For this kid - and I know, because my oldest is just this sort - he flounders with spontaneity and thrives on routine.

So how does this relate to the vending machine incident? Look at what the parent is giving this child. She's saying one thing ("I'll buy you a snack, but it needs to be healthy.") and doing another ("Here. Have the damned Oreos."). The child simply can't know what to expect. Will my mom stick to what she said, or will she waffle? I can't count on her.

One of the main things I want from my kids is to trust me. I want them to know that what I say is what I mean - without a doubt. I want them to know that if I tell them something, they can count on me following through - whether it's something they enjoy or something they don't.

Of course, I'm not rigid or unreasonable. I always encourage them to give me good reasons to change my mind if I've said something they don't like ("no pizza for movie night this week" ... "but Mom, we haven't had pizza in a month, and here's a coupon!"). And I sometimes change my mind ("I know I said that we weren't going to get pizza for movie night this week, but I didn't go to the grocery store and I have a coupon"). And of course, if I'm forced by circumstances to not be consistent - say, if guests dropped by unexpectedly and we weren't able to have movie night - I always apologize and talk with them to work out an alternative solution.

My point is, I want my kids to trust my word and to find our home a safe, secure place that they know they can count on. Does that mean that they sometimes don't get what they want? Sure. Does that mean that sometimes I don't get what I want? Sure. But at least my kids know where I stand.

How would I have handled the vending machine incident? These days, it would be Option D. If they didn't have their own money, they'd have to live with what I'm willing to buy or go hungry. When they were younger, it would most likely have been Option C or E (depending on how far the tantrum had progressed and my patience lasted).

Was our house tantrum free when the kids were young? Good grief, no. (And some of those tantrums were thrown by my kids, not me.) We were Tantrum Central for years. It took me years to figure out, though, that many of those tantrums were caused by my child feeling out of control. By being consistent and providing a stable environment, I'm able to counter some of that anxiety.

One of my goals as a parent is to respect the personality of each of my children and to provide a home where they have stability and trust.

I can tell after reading this post that my thoughts are all jumbled up. I have a lot of ideas about consistency, high-needs children, and respect for individual personalities. I'll have to think about this and try to put my thoughts together better in another post.

If you enjoyed this post, you might like Natural and Logical Consequences

Photo of cookie by Torben H from here


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  2. I think I understand what you are saying - at least in theory. I know I have a problem being consistent. What I cannot figure out is this, and it is 1:30Am so this may be incoherent --

    If mom stands her ground, "Junk food is not a good choice, u may have an ice age granola bar" - and child throws a fit - and mom keeps to her stance (consistent), isn't that imposing mom's will and decision ON the child?

    I had a problem today. Yesterday we made plans to go to the museum today. This morning K woke up proclaiming he wanted to play tennis. And he was adamant about it. Did not want to go to the museum, wanted to play tennis. I made a deal with him that we would play tennis on the way back from the museum.

    This after a huge debate where he stuck to his tennis desire and I kept reminding him we had made plans, friends were waiting for us. I felt (and obviously he did too, read further below) that I was making the decision for him, against his will.

    I needed to do one 2 min errand on the way home, and it then became, "*I* did something for you, so now *you* do something for *me*"

    What did he do for me, I asked?
    "Went to the museum."


    You make it sound so easy and logical, Camille. Sometimes I just don't get it.

    ps: Dear Ann Landers, this tit for tat thing is getting out of control with one of my kids. I don't know what to do. If he does something good he feels he is entitled to something else.. as if he did that first something for *me*.

  3. This is very true ... and I will be the first to admit that I struggle with consistency and always have. It's one of those things you always hear, and it sounds so much easier to do than it is when the rubber hits the road!

  4. It's impossible to be a 100% consistent, just as it's impossible to be a perfect parent. Let it go. Do your best within reasonable limits. Don't miss the forest for the trees.

  5. More thoughts on this in Wednesday's post.