How do you show your children you love them? Naturally, you spend time with them, take them on vacations, cook their favorite meals, and so on. But you also want to teach children the skills they need to become capable, successful individuals.
That last part, though—it isn’t so easy to do. We know that children need firm and consistent guidelines to become independent and self-reliant adults. So why is it so hard to maintain the guidelines we know they need?
Parents often find it easy to enforce rules that prevent harm: behaviors such as running in front of cars, throwing rocks through windows, or choking another child.
Parents may have more trouble being consistent when the harmful effects are more subtle. They may back down when being ignored after telling a daughter to go to bed on time. Or perhaps parents look the other way when their son continues to pinch his little sister after being told repeatedly to stop. Many parents may find it difficult to prevent a toddler from running up and down the aisles in church, throwing temper tantrums, or grabbing something out of an older sibling’s hands.
Although these bad behaviors may not seem as dangerous as running in front of cars, they still cause significant harm over the long run. A one-year-old hitting her mother may seem cute, but future disrespect will not be cute. A two-year-old regularly sleeping with his parents may seem okay, but what will be the damage in the long term?
When parents set and hold firm to guidelines, children don’t have to guess what is or what is not allowed. As they come to understand the set limits, children are empowered to take responsibility for their actions. This is a crucial step in developing the self-reliance they need to thrive.
Why do parents indulge children’s misbehaviors when they know they shouldn’t?
Besides the all-too-familiar and obvious reasons of fatigue and distraction, other obscure reasons of pity and guilt are often to blame.
Parents may not enforce their own guidelines because they feel sorry for their children. Unknowingly, parents may come up with excuses for pitying their children. Anything can be an excuse. Perhaps the child was born premature, has health problems, or was adopted. The child could be too fat or too thin. She could be an only child or have too many siblings.
Parents may feel guilty if they are single parents or if they spend too many hours at the office. They may worry that they don’t spend enough time with their children or if they don’t always like being a parent. Feelings of guilt can lead parents to lose confidence in their parenting skills. When children challenge the rules, many parents eventually get frustrated, give in, and let children do whatever they want to do.
Children need their parents to be strong. Without rules, children can lose self-worth and self-confidence. They may view themselves as less capable than their peers. They accomplish less as their bad behavior continues or gets worse.
Here is a simple formula that works:
Set expectations that will instill better behavior. Establish guidelines that demonstrate the appropriate time and place for certain behaviors.
Hold to the plan tenaciously. Don’t let feelings of pity or guilt distract from the plan. The key is persistent consistency.
Remember, holding to the formula is an expression of love that shows children, “I love you so much that I will help you stop this damaging behavior.”
Children crave boundaries and strong, fair parents. By becoming more aware of how and when you let guidelines slip, you can regain control and be the consistent parents that your children need. Your reward will be the joy of setting them on the path to lifelong competence and independence.