How many of us have children who are less well-behaved than we would like them to be? How many of us can set limits and keep them?
How many of us find it easier to give in to the deafening screams of a two-year-old than to stick to our guns? Or to the teenager who wants to spend all her free time watching MTV or staying out till three a.m.?
Countless observers of modern parenthood have said that today's parents are less strict, less firm, less sure of themselves as parents than their parents were. Some say it's due to the fact that parents today bend over backwards for their children because they feel guilty about not being able to give them the thing they most need: time.
Others lay the blame on a seeming inability on the part of many of today's parents to transmit values.
Everyone knows there is a relationship between transmitting values and sticking to them. But perhaps demonstrating to our children values such as helping the poor and visiting the sick are only part of the picture. Perhaps we also communicate something important about values when we say what we mean and mean what we say; when we make our children understand from their earliest months that there are lines that are not to be crossed.
Case in point: Sage, age two-and-a-half, is visiting his grandparents with his Dad. Sage loves to be at his grandparents' house and especially to play with the electric train set that was his father's when he was a child. He is equally fascinated with riding the old wooden rocking horse his grandparents took out of storage for him.
Sage's father Danny knows that they have to leave in 10 minutes. He tells Sage that they have to go soon, that he has time to play with one more thing and he can choose what that will be.
Sage says, "Train. Horsie."
His father replies, "We only have time for one."
Sage ponders this a moment and decisively says, "Train."
So they go into Danny's old room and play with the train for 10 minutes. Then Dad says, "It's time to leave."
Sage says, "Horsie. Horsie." He keeps repeating the word, his voice getting louder and more insistent. As Danny carries him to the front door, he starts to scream and cry as only a determined two-year-old can. Danny calmly says, "We can't Sage. We have to go." And after a quick goodbye to grandma and grandpa, they are out the door.
On another day, Sage is again at his grandparents, this time rolling a ball on the hall floor with his mother and grandmother. He rolls happily for a while but then he throws the ball hard. Grandma worries about the china in the hall cabinet. Sage's mom holds the ball and says, "Sage, if you do that again, we won't be able to play ball."
Sage gets that look in his eye that the parents of any spirited toddler knows, looks right at his mother -- and throws the ball hard again. Mom calmly puts the ball away. She does not get mad, even when Sage starts to scream. She doesn't use any more words, but calmly picks him up and carries him over to the toy chest to choose a new toy.
Notice: Sage is not scolded for testing limits or for making a lot of noise. He is not offered lengthy explanations. His mother and father manage to stay calm because they state a limit once and enforce it.
Sage's grandma, our Grandma Charley, who has raised three children of her own, has these words of wisdom for parents who want to raise well-behaved children:
"There is one word that you see again and again in every book on child-rearing: CONSISTENCY. You need to be tough (and tough and mean are not the same) and you need to be consistent.
"When you tell your child something, SAY IT ONCE. Paulette (Sage's mother) didn't feel angry at Sage when he threw the ball because she had told him once what was expected of him and when he disobeyed, she acted immediately. If she had given him three warnings, by the fourth time, she would have been yelling at him because she would have been so exasperated at him for not listening.
"Give a child one warning and then FOLLOW THROUGH. You don't need to tell a child something three times. That's bad for you and it's bad for him: You're creating a person who needs to be told everything three or four or five times and by the fifth time, you're not being very nice. And when a child is used to being told something three or four times, he won't even hear you the first time.
"Sage didn't cry very long because he realized it wasn't going to get him anywhere. When you're tough and consistent, you DON'T GIVE IN. You can't be tough every once in a while. Every once in a while doesn't work -- not with exercise and not with discipline. All you have to do is give in once or twice and the party's over. Your child will learn that all he has to do is whine or cry loud enough and he'll get what he wants. That teaches him one thing: to cry and whine.
"Don't make any threats you're not going to follow through. This is a really important one. Think twice before you say no, because once you say no, it's got to stay no.
"Once you've got consistency down pat, there's nothing wrong with changing your mind once in a while. It's okay to say you made a mistake. But make sure it's not because the kids are hassling you but because you really changed your mind for a good reason.
"Pick your battles. There's so much to argue about that you need to pick what's really important. My daughter went through a stage when she was a teenager when she wore enough make up for 12 hookers. I wanted to throw up. When I bugged her about it, she said I didn't know anything about make up.
"I realized if I forbade her to put it on at home, she'd just put in on in school, like I did with lipstick when I was her age. And I realized this battle wasn't worth fighting. So I just gritted my teeth and evpentually she outgrew it."
"I'm not a maven. I don't know everything. And don't think there weren't plenty of times when I wanted to wring my kids' necks. But I do know this: being consistent is darned hard -- but the payoff is invaluable: peace of mind for you and children who know how to behave at home, at school and in life."
Ruth Mason, 2000