I am not a parent. Whatever “knowledge” I have is based on observation or reading. My sister is a single mother; her husband died five years ago. My nephew and she live alone (with a domestic help), so I can see she needs to be both good cop and bad cop. But I find it jarring when she says no to some demand of his and, after a round of persuasion, inevitably gives in. It could be a bag of chips or a round in the swimming pool. I mostly see them during holidays, when indulgence is the norm, but I can’t help worrying that this behaviour indicates larger issues. What do you say?
Well, yes, being consistent is of great importance in the parent-child equation. A child who gets conflicting messages becomes confused at first, and then learns to manipulate the parent, knowing that he can wangle a yes by simply wearing the parent down, by whining, pleading, arguing, sulking, badgering and other such behaviour.
Be consistent: Don’t let tears faze you.
Why is consistency important — after all, in the adult world, it is equally true that “consistency is the recourse of the unimaginative!” Consistency in parents helps children learn and accept boundaries and limits. Though they may protest wildly, a parent’s consistent response actually helps children feel safe. It also helps them to learn cause-and-effect thinking, accountability and consequences. A consistent parent is seen as a reliable parent.
Having said that, though, there is always a time and place for the parent to let go a little and relax the rules. This can be done after considered thought or, sometimes, from what you describe about your single-parent sister’s situation, can be done simply because the parent has run out of energy to consistently say no or consistently insist that her child do something. Perhaps you could help your sister by talking about this to her in a non-judging way, and help her to focus on which of her son’s requests/demands it is simply okay to give in to once in a while, and for which ones she must reserve the energy not to relent and to remain consistent.
While it is just not possible, particularly for the single parent, to “be on top of the game” at all times, it is important that when he or she does bend a rule, or appear inconsistent, she communicates to the child that she is consciously letting something slide, just for that particular instance. Otherwise, kids can be quick to file away the inconsistency and use it later!
For every rule a parent creates, the child has many methods to test it. Sometimes the child understands the reasoning behind the rule, but sometimes he or she is too young to get the reasoning, and this is where the parent has to consistently stick to the rule, and not get necessarily drawn into a long drawn-out argument. When explaining the why of some rule to a child, who at that time finds it arbitrary and frustrating, it is useful to give the child an example from his or her own earlier years. For instance, an eight-year-old can be reminded how, at five, his mother insisted that he hold her hand while crossing the road and how, at that time, he used to protest and want to walk on his own. At that time, the parent had, say, stopped “explaining” the reasoning, and simply made a rule: “Never leave my hand while crossing the road.” The eight-year-old now understands why this rule was extremely important. In this way, the parent demonstrates that he or she knows best in some situations, and the child must simply have the faith to listen and obey.
Gouri Dange is the author of ABCs of Parenting.
Send your queries to Gouri at firstname.lastname@example.org