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I admit it, I’m not the most consistent person. I like to eat when I’m hungry and sleep when I’m tired. When I do the same thing the same way two days running, it feels boring. But then along came my two kids, and I ran into trouble.
My parenting style was a chaotic mess of asking, bribing, cajoling, lecturing, yelling and blowing my top. Until one Saturday, three years ago, when my kids trashed a bedroom, piling the mattress, stuffies, and storybooks into a mountain. When they ignored all requests to clean up. I realized then they had no framework of rules and predictable consequences to worry about. The spontaneity I valued in my own life suddenly looked less appealing when embraced by hedonistic under-fives.
A recent study in the UK found that limited screen time and regular bedtimes and mealtimes for preschoolers boost emotional development. I wanted my girls to thrive, so it was time to get serious about building habits that would serve them well now and later in life. Here are some of the scenarios that tripped me up, along with expert solutions on how to handle them. Some even have a little wiggle room built in.
The oh-so-public tantrum The scenario: Four-year-old Lily used to have a meltdown when her seven-year-old sister, Cassidy, ran ahead on the walk to school. She’d throw herself on the sidewalk and refuse to budge. There I’d be, yelling at one kid to come back and at the other to get up, under the withering glare of every parent in proximity.
At home, my wife, Angie, and I used a time-out chair. But when tantrums struck in public, I tried everything from bribing Lily with candy to walking away. I worried the bribery was reinforcing the tantrum and the yelling inflamed the kid’s rage—especially when she didn’t know what outcome to expect from day to day.
The solution: “When a tantrum takes hold, kids need us to be there,” says Toronto nanny Hailey McCron. She recommends comforting them and making the consistent focus just getting them home, in the first instance, even if that means carrying them. “It’s important to remain unfazed—even if the child is screaming in your face! You are their safe person.” No one can reason with a child who’s in the red zone, so McCron says you should next follow up with any necessary conversations about safety and appropriate behaviour once your child is calm. At home, prompt your kid to talk about the dangers of doing things like throwing themselves to the ground or taking off from their parents in a busy place.
The screen-time struggle The scenario: Many families have rules around screen time: an hour a day, none before homework or none after a certain hour. We never got around to setting rules, so Cassidy would often beg for more time. Fed up with her nagging, we finally sat down and figured out our approach.
The solution: Our kids get screen time when Angie and I want time to ourselves, to catch up at the end of the day and make dinner in peace. Our girls take turns choosing programs. And they watch on the big screen beside the kitchen so we can check their choices. When dinner’s on the table, screen time is over.
And you don’t have to set one rule for all of your kids, says Ann Douglas, a bestselling parenting author and columnist from Peterborough, Ont. In her brood of four, there are nine years between Julie, the oldest, and Ian, the youngest. Ian would get scared by some shows his elder siblings liked. “So we’d often say, ‘That’s Julie’s Rule’ or ‘That’s Ian’s Rule.’ The big kids had to watch scary movies later at night, when Ian wasn’t around.”
Building clauses into your rules to suit your family is OK—as long as everybody knows what’s expected. Ever since we figured this out, we’ve heard remarkably little complaint from our girls.
The morning mayhem The scenario: The morning rush to get the kids off to school used to be one of our biggest stresses: pulling sleepyheads out of bed, grabbing clothes, bolting down breakfast, nagging them to hurry…and then doing the walk of shame into school, after the bell had rung.
The solution: I borrowed an idea from one of our daughter’s daycare workers and made a picture sheet showing our kids morning tasks: get dressed, make their bed, have breakfast, brush their teeth and put on outside clothes.
Both kids instantly grasped the visuals and love saying “check!” when they finish an item. “When it comes to charts and checklists,” notes Douglas, “take into account what will work best for your child, given their age, stage and abilities.” Preschoolers might like photos representing tasks; older kids can follow simple text prompts or icons.
Now we always pack bags and pick outfits the night before. And four-year-old Lily won’t tolerate shortcuts. “Hey,” she said the other night, “I didn’t choose my clothes yet.” So we went to her closet, already picturing how smoothly the morning would go with her clothes waiting for her.
The unkeepable consequences The scenario: One night several months ago, after more than an hour of foot-dragging before bedtime, I lost it with Cassidy.
“No stories for you tonight!” I bellowed. “Maybe tomorrow you’ll get ready for bed properly!”
Oh, the screams, the sobs, the running to Mommy.
Eventually, Cassidy told me she was sorry. Then she looked up at me with a quivering chin. “Daddy, I really need a story before I go to sleep. Can you please, please, PUHLEEZE read me one?”
So I did and then tucked her in happy. Was that a sign of weakness, a chink in the wall of consistency? Or a chance to reconsider that “no stories” was a dumb consequence?
The solution: “I believe in trying not to make exceptions for anyone under the age of five,” says McCron. “An exception gives a glimmer of hope that it could happen again. That’s not a treat—that’s just setting them up to fail the next time.”
So I’ve learned the bottom line on being consistent is to follow through on any consequences…but to be careful what you threaten. And if you need to backpedal sometimes, to do that properly.
“Don’t be afraid to say, ‘I had a chance to think, and I should have said something different,’” says Douglas. “You’re still being the parent. And you’re telling kids that sometimes we make mistakes, but we can always rethink things.”
The chore challenge
The scenario: Any parent can jump in and pick up their kid’s mess in one-tenth of the time their child would take. For example, we have a couch with cushions perfect for building forts or piling up for jumping. Finding the cushions on the floor for the hundredth time, I used to nag the kids for a while and then pick them up myself, muttering under my breath.
The solution: Douglas says someone has to model for kids how to tidy up—breaking things down into steps. “First we take all the animals off the couch. Then we pick up a square cushion. We put it on the couch, with the zipper at the back. Then we pick up a round cushion. We put it on top of the square cushion, with the zipper at the bottom.”
Repeat until the whole task is done and then offer some praise about how the child just helped the family, says Douglas. “I’m happy the couch is back together again. Now we can sit down and be really comfy.”
So what if picking up takes longer? Consistently getting your kids to clear up their own messes means down the line it will go faster—the hard part now is worth it for the future rewards.
The better-late-than-never bedtime The scenario: Research shows a regular bedtime boosts kids’ development, improves their learning and reduces the risk of obesity. The problem is, Angie and I sometimes have evening classes or work deadlines that can make a fixed bedtime almost impossible to achieve.
The solution: Some parent friends of ours set a range, say, 7 to 8 p.m., so they don’t have to break off abruptly in the middle of something. And Douglas says not to worry if you occasionally break curfew for something special: “If family are visiting from out of town, it’s OK to stay up until 10 o’clock instead of eight, because you’re having a fun hot-chocolate night.”
That one-hour range with occasional stay-up-later nights helped Angie and I get bedtime down. But then Cassidy declared, “I’m a night owl, just like Dad.” She sometimes hops back out of bed to do an “art project.” And Lily can go on singing to her stuffed animals for a good half hour. So are we still failing?
Douglas says what the girls are doing is not a bad thing. “The kids are developing these rituals to settle themselves down before going to sleep. Isn’t that what we want?”
So I’ve started saying, “Lights out by 9:30”—and that actually works. We’re all in a better mood when morning comes.
My new habit So, about that Saturday of the trashed bedroom.
Later that day, we’d planned to go tobogganing with some friends. But I did one of the hardest things I’d ever done as a parent: I told the girls we weren’t going, because they hadn’t cleaned up. They cried, screamed and pouted. But I held firm.
Today when I ask the girls to pick up, they actually do it. Our home, once the scene of daily conflict, is actually peaceful. I put this progress all down to the clearer rules and consistent consequences we’ve worked so hard to live by.
It still takes effort on my part, but it turns out that predictable life is not boring—in fact, it’s the way to bring out the best in our family life, so everyone ends up having way more fun.