Holding the Line
This week’s blogger is Betty Kay Seibt, PhD. At Springbok she is better known as just mom and “Mimi.” In a long lifetime, she’s seen many styles of parenting come and go, but her motto is, “Basics are best.”
Kids are never shy about making their wants known whether it’s a desire to see a particular movie, eat (or not eat) certain foods, own this video game or that action figure—they let us know! Sometimes, parents get so caught up in the spirit of “want” that we forget the most important question: What do our children really need?
Some needs are basic—we can’t forget those. When our oldest child took her new baby brother to school for Show and Tell, her classmates crowded around the baby in his carry-all. The teacher called out, “What do all living things need?” The class stopped and parroted back, “Water, food, and air.” “Then stand back and give him air!” the teacher demanded.
OK, we get that part right, but in the fast-paced, two-parents-working, scheduled-to-the-max world in which we liv e, sometimes other needs get caught in the cracks.
One of the most basic needs young children have is the need for consistency. You’re thinking, “Yipes! Monday is soccer, Tuesday is gymnastics . . . We’re lucky we get dinner!” Consistency is and is not about the schedule. If Monday is soccer, and Tuesday is gymnastics, and if the schedule is known to everyone, children will adapt. Families eating dinner together—spending any quality time together—on a regular basis that can be depended upon is consistency. Even when parents live separately and the children (or the parents) float back and forth, consistency can be maintained.
While scheduling plays an important role in maintaining consistency, the most important factor isn’t about the clock or the calendar, it’s about attitude. Children monitor their parents’ attitudes even when we aren’t aware of it. They sense when we drop our guard, when we’re too tired to stick to our guns about video games, TV time or bedtimes. Worse yet, they realize when parents aren’t consistent between themselves—Mommy says no, Daddy says yes—so they play parents against each other. This results in bitterness all around and one parent left feeling like the unloved meany—the enforcer nobody loves.
Unfortunately, the real loser in games of Rule Tag or Attitude Smack Down isn’t the parent left holding the “rule sack,” it’s the child in the middle. Whether we realize it or not, flexible attitudes about important issues aren’t gifts to our children, they can be subtle signs that we don’t love them consistently. Children actually crave consistency. They push against boundaries and rules to be sure that the boundaries are still there. When they break down for no apparent reason, children get confused. That confusion can lead to their acting out in ways that may seem totally unrelated to the issue.
The writer Madeleine L’Engle is best known for her Newbery-Award-winning book A Wrinkle in Time, but many adult readers know her for her published journals, including A Circle of Quiet. In that book, she talks about integrating their adopted daughter into the household. The girl came to them following the death of both her parents; she had been shuffled around before L’Engle and her husband, actor Hugh Franklin, actually got her. She was understandably confused and uncertain. Every household rule, every guideline they set, she fought.
Finally, L’Engle told her she would have no rules; it would be up to the girl to decide her own rules. In almost no time at all, the girl was following the rules her new siblings followed without a quibble. She needed the rules and the stability they gave her uncertain world.
When kids push, our first instinct is to push back, but our best choice is to stand firm. My mother’s answer to why I had to do this or that was always, “Because I said so,” or “Because I’m the mother.” Tempting as those answers are, the best answer is, “Because I love you (too much to let you make poor choices) (and want you to grow up healthy and strong)—you can fill in the blank.
That old saying about giving our children roots and wings is true. Consistency is the root that binds them to us with love, and from that loving place, they can soar.