Becoming a parent is easy; the follow-through of BEING a parent is the hard part. I have an acquaintance (lets call him Ward.) Ward has five children, aged elementary up to high school. I have four, from elementary up to college. Now, I don’t consider myself a better parent because I have been at it longer, but..(you knew that was coming, didn’t you?) I like to think I’m more successful at it because I follow through.
Children learn through practice; it’s like the scientific method:
2. Make a guess
3. Try it out
4. See what happens
5. Return to 2., using those results, repeat.
Consistency is a key factor. If the results are always different, they get stuck in a loop leading to either boredom or frustration. When you say something, children will trust you, until they see different results for themselves. This may be by simple observation or by testing the limits. (For my own children, testing the limits occurred during the even years; the terrible 2’s, 4’s, 6’s,...18’s, 20’s, you get the idea)
So, when I tell my children, “don’t go out of this yard or you’re coming in the house!” They expect to come in if they step out of the boundaries. If I do not follow through with the condition, they may not believe me next time, my credibility and authority will sink.
By example, Ward was packing up his minivan, getting ready for a camping trip; his children nowhere to be seen, except the youngest (8) who is on the side of the house hitting a piece of wood with an aluminum bat.
“Knock it off!” Yells Ward..
“Okay.” the boy stops, watches his father return to the van, and resumes his testing of what the wood does when he smacks it with the bat.
Ward pokes his head out of the van again. “I said knock it off! Go inside and get your blanket. I want to get packed so we can get out of here!”
The boy doesn’t respond verbally, but waits for his dad to resume packing, then he resumes hitting the piece of wood.
Ward steps out of the van and approaches the boy, who stops, lowers the bat, and looks a little sheepish.
“That’s it,” Ward yells. “You are not going camping with us. You’re staying home!” He takes the bat and hurls it aside, returning to the van. The boy just looks on, appearing to consider his next course of diversion.
Now, Ward had already told me they were all going to be gone and the boy was obviously too young to stay by himself. It is an empty threat that he has no intention of carrying out. And this is not the first; Ward doesn’t follow through even when he makes a reasonable threat. He simply sighs and walks away. It’s too much effort for him to spend the time carrying out the punishment. He wants to move on to something else more enjoyable. The boy knows it, I know it, and the rest of his kids know it.That is why they don’t really listen to him unless there is something in it for them.
Where is June (his wife) while all of this is going on? Usually, whenever real parenting needs to happen she disappears, and when the coast is clear she reappears. Ward and June practice what my wife calls uninvolved parenting.
Every parent has probably overheard (or even said) things that would never happen in an effort to urge kids to follow directives. But that is where the consistency matters. If you always use ridiculous threats and promises, the children will see no benefit to following authority. The first time they see something actually happen, with consequences, it will probably make them step back, dumbfounded or possibly angry.
As parents, we have a responsibility to ready our children for the outside world. They need to be able to determine potential consequences of their actions and whether someone is bluffing or being genuine. It’s a matter of simple survival. An empty threat now and then is okay because it provides a contrast to the real ones. Helping to build the child’s judgement by giving them comparisons. That punishment is ludicrous, the child thinks, there is no way they can back that up, why would they say that? Now they have to think, consider what you might really have meant, read between your words.
By the same token, parents need to be prepared to back up what they say when necessary. Then, when it happens, the child will think about it next time: That promise sounds like it could actually happen; do I really want to risk it?
This way, they learn to think on their feet. When they are on their own, they will have to predict the consequences for themselves and weigh the risks. If all your threats are without meaning, what will they expect? That nothing will (or should) happen? What about when another person, or adult, says something (and follows through)? Will the child feel betrayed? Will they think it unfair, even if it was perfectly reasonable?
We have to learn consequences if we are to survive and cope with the world. Follow-through as a parent is a big part of teaching that. What do you think?