The other day I was chatting to a parent about the strife she was having with her 7-year-old son. I had asked her what she had already tried to manage his big anger outbursts, his hitting and his screaming. She told me that she had tried "everything".
Herein lies the problem. I suspect her son was experiencing a sense of bewilderment as he found himself in the midst of different rules and systems each day. Some days a threat, some days a sanction. Sometimes a growl, other times a reward chart, and some days nothing at all in his mum's efforts to ignore his behaviour.
This scenario is common today as parents have access to an endless catalogue of parenting advice. The challenge is that a lot of advice is contradictory, which means that parents can still feel uncertain about what they are doing in case they've picked the "wrong" strategy. Parenting is hard enough at the best of times, but when you are worried that there could be a "better" way, you often don't see something through.
The other common dynamic that takes place is that our robust and resilient children are looking to see if a parent really means what they are saying. They do their research and find out that Mum or Dad may mean it, but experience has told them that the rules are flexible and it might depend on how busy, tired or stressed their parent is as to whether today is the day the rule sticks.
Take, for example, a parent who is tired of being spoken to rudely by her young son. She has decided to be firm and to use a consequence for rudeness – speaking rudely will now incur a loss of screen time. The child is informed and then the interesting scene plays out.
Her child is in shock that she means it and fires back. He is distraught because this is not the usual pattern. Mum reliably used to give him four to six chances before anything happened, so he is indignant that things are different and seemingly unfair. His protest is powerful and if Mum knew that this was par for the course, she may have been better prepared to hold the line. However, a negotiation begins and he is given another chance to do better. This has muddied the waters because, in essence, the feedback he has received is that everything is movable and he is in charge of seeing it move.
Mum was trying to be fair by giving her son another chance, but he finds the lack of clarity around his behaviour confusing. This is a common scenario – parents who offer too much flexibility end up confusing their children.
So I am advocating a simpler approach, one that rests on being consistent and persistent. The simple premise is saying something and sticking with it. Not once or twice, but day after day, time after time. In this situation, it would look like Mum following through and not allowing screen time for that day. She would be prepared for the reaction and keep herself calm and firm. The tricky bit is we are inclined to falter after a day or two. We stop trusting the process and change direction. We need to stay the course and let our children feel safe in our predictability.
I encourage parents to stick with a new parenting idea for at least three weeks. This gives a more realistic view of just how long something will take before it becomes a regular pattern in a family. Plus, children like the stability. They like to trust their parents' word and they like to know that some things don't get moved around on a whim.
I have watched parents give up too soon when the going gets tough. Our time and resources are precious and nobody wants to invest in something that doesn't seem to be working. A toddler may be relentlessly touching the knobs on the oven and turning it on. Their parent may have tried to distract and stop the touching but this little person is intent on discovering what the knobs do. This is not going to go away overnight so they will be removing the child many times a day, calmly and kindly using words like "No thank you, they are not toys".
The parent may find something else interesting for the child to do, but the commitment to this is important. It may take a week or a month, but their child will eventually learn, little by little, that this is a no-go zone. Of course it is easier if it is a safety issue – most parents consistently manage to get their children in car seats despite protests, as we know car seats save lives and are a legal requirement. We just need a little of this fortitude to insist on some practical things in our everyday lives as well.