Discipline: Can you backtrack?

From discipline to sleep habits, consistency is practically a commandment of good parenting. But sometimes you gotta change the game

Illustration Credit: Jojo Ensslin

Monique Blouin* remembers vividly when her daughter was 12 and started flirting with rudeness. For three straight days, the sixth-grader responded to everyday requests with rolled eyes and a defiantly posed hip. Then Annie muttered that her mom should just chill out. “That’s it!” said the Montreal mother of two teens. “You’re not going to hockey practice.”

At the time, Annie was playing at the highest competitive level for girls, which meant Grand-maman’s funeral was about the only valid reason to skip training. Not surprisingly, Annie staged a loud protest. Blouin remembers thinking The coach is going to have a fit, and their next game is a tough one, and it’s not the team’s fault if she’s being rude…, and says, “In the end, I caved.”

But when the sass continued, Blouin went from regretting the penalty to regretting that she’d dropped it. Fortunately, with support from the coach, she had a second chance: The next time Annie crossed the line, Blouin didn’t let her play. Annie worked herself into such a state that she ended up with a migraine. But the rudeness has stopped — now that Blouin has hockey in her back pocket.

Hands up if you’ve ever wanted a do-over with your kids. Maybe you wished you could erase the sound of your voice uttering a ridiculous consequence (grounded for life, eh?) or hesitated to comfort your teething toddler at 3 a.m. for fear of messing up his sleep habits (and your own).

Venting and hand-wringing won’t turn back time, but changing your mind is OK, says Richard Young, a professor of counselling psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “Situations change or rules may not work the way we’d hoped,” he says. In some cases, reversing a decision can teach your kids valuable life skills. Follow these guidelines next time you need to press the reset button.

*Name changed by request.

Change rules, but stick to principles

David Wolfe, director of a violence prevention centre for youth in London, Ont., that’s part of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), remembers restricting his three school-aged children to two activities or lessons a week. “The principle behind this was for them to feel some control over their lives and to develop some mastery,” he says. “Otherwise, everyone’s sanity is at risk because you’re running around every evening, and the kids feel pressure to excel at everything.”

When one of his daughters asked to add a Saturday-morning modern dance class, Wolfe considered how she was balancing her school work and downtime, and decided she could manage everything. “That’s not breaking your principle on overcommitting,” he says. “It’s adjusting your rule.”

Even when you’re showing flexibility, remember that your ultimate goal is to uphold what you are trying to teach your children, whether compliance, safety or responsibility. Which means it’s important to spell out what your principles are.

In the past, a parent’s moral compass was often set by religious beliefs or family upbringing; today, Wolfe observes, some families chart their own course in deciding which values are most important. “Rules can change as the child matures or as circumstances change,” says Wolfe. “But principles don’t change very often because they’re broad statements of what we’re trying to achieve as parents.”

It’s OK to have different routines for different children

When her first-born was little, Heather Davis of Markham, Ont., found time outs were the perfect way to teach Ethan, now eight, to respect safety rules. And she had every intention of disciplining six-year-old Cameron the same way. But he responded by humming or tapping his feet during time outs. “The swagger when he would mosey over to the stairs — it was unbelievable!” says Davis. Now Cameron loses a beloved privilege instead: his bedtime story.

Rather than stick to a useless routine in the name of consistency, Young suggests adjusting to different contexts — in this case, a child who isn’t responding well. “Governments, institutions and employers do it all the time,” he points out. “If they don’t get the outcome they want, they change their minds.”

If your kids ask why their consequences are different, Young suggests explaining that these things can depend on the situation. Remind your kids that they’re different people, and you sometimes need different ways to help each of them learn.

Adjust for circumstances

Imagine your brother arrives on a Tuesday to babysit. The kids are allowed treats only on weekends, but he passes out chocolate bars. You’re not going to order them to do 50 push-ups when you get home, are you? “You are backtracking in a sense, but under special circumstances,” says Young. “That’s perfectly legit and it’s what life is about: deciding what’s appropriate in this context.”

If you’re relaxing the rules temporarily, the experts suggest that you give children a warning ahead of time and, for kids old enough to understand, explain why. “It shows there are limits and consequences, but there is also flexibility,” says facilitator Lori McMechan, who leads parenting groups for the Elspeth Family Resource Centre, a facility of Child and Family Services of Western Manitoba in Brandon.

The same goes for adjusting consequences. When a tantrum erupts in the cereal aisle and you really need milk and bread, you don’t need to evacuate the grocery store as you would normally do; instead, find a quiet corner to help your child wind down. “Ask yourself, ‘How can I be somewhat consistent, or make an adaptation?’” suggests McMechan.

Admit when you’re wrong

With all the parenting books praising the virtue of consistency, it’s tough not to feel pressure to always follow through, even when you’ve made an admittedly bad call. And if your kids argue, it can be tempting to put up your proverbial dukes for a power struggle, just to protect your dignity.

If you do assign an unrealistic penalty, talk to your child. “It’s OK to say, ‘I was mad and I didn’t think this through,’” says McMechan. “Kids learn it’s not great to act when you’re angry, but you can go back and fix it.”

After a busy day, Maureen Pecknold, a Toronto single mom, remembers issuing an autopilot “no” when her kids, Clare, nine, and Graeme, 6½, asked if they could watch TV while she fixed dinner. When one of them pushed it and inquired why not, she realized she didn’t have a single good reason: The kids had done their homework, tended to the pets, and they had both been active. So Pecknold did a one-eighty and let them watch TV. “I just explained that I made a mistake,” she says.

By owning your slip-ups, you show children you are human and you respect them enough to try again, and you role-model that mistakes are a great way to learn.

Get back on track

With younger kids, slip-ups in sleep routines can stoke a parent’s anxiety. If you take a toddler into bed when she’s sick or when the in-laws are visiting, will you ever get her to sleep on her own again?

Yes, say Isabela Granic and Marc Lewis, authors of Bed Timing: The “When-To” Guide to Helping Your Child to Sleep. They suggest returning to old practices as soon as your child is feeling better or your house guests leave town: “Change the context back to whatever worked best or whatever was in place until now.”

Loosen up as kids mature

Rules inevitably change as kids get older. Melani Norman of Toronto banned her three kids from bringing home explicit music, but when her eldest, Stephen, was in grade seven and hanging out with older kids on a community swim team, he pushed back. His friends were all listening to the songs, he argued, and a few swear words weren’t that bad.

Instead of monitoring every CD, Norman made sure that he understood her concerns about mature themes and appropriate language. “We lessened the rule and it actually became less of an issue,” she says. Wolfe approves: “If you’re loosening your grip because they’ve been good, that’s a good thing.”

Acknowledge your child’s emotions

Don’t let the threat of mutiny derail you from upholding principles, but be mindful of the real feelings your children may be expressing when they argue with you over a decision. “If a parent ignores the protests, the child may feel that he hasn’t been heard and the parent doesn’t recognize his feelings,” says Young. “This could have a detrimental effect on the relationship.” Give your child the chance to tell you his side, and then remind him why the decision you’ve made is necessary.

A very strong reaction from your child might also be a signal that the rule needs another look, as one Vancouver father discovered. He was blindsided by his daughter’s reaction when he declared that the arts-based high school she hoped to attend was unsuitable for the career in law or medicine he wanted her to pursue. She was so upset that she stopped speaking to him. Eventually, he backtracked in favour of a more important objective: a healthy relationship with his daughter.

Know your non-negotiables

While flexibility is a virtue, it’s OK to draw an unwavering line around some issues. Years before his kids had any curiosity about cigarettes, Wolfe set a rule about smoking. “I remember saying to them, ‘Smoking is the one thing we don’t ever want you to experiment with. It’s extremely addictive and expensive, and it will affect your whole life.’” Instead of threatening his kids with a consequence, Wolfe offered them an incentive: He put aside money for each child if they never puffed on a cigarette. In the end, it worked. They all claimed their prizes.

Don’t go there: How to avoid having to backtrack

Act when you’re calm If you’re furious, you may reach for a sentence that inflicts enough physical or emotional pain to rival your frustration. Resist the temptation to punish rather than discipline. When you can see straight, decide what you want your child to learn from the situation.

Remember to follow up Before you set a new limit, be sure you’re willing to see it through. CAMH’s David Wolfe meets some divorced or working parents, or those with children who have special needs, who bend their own rules because they feel sorry for their kids. “It’s important to remember that we’re not doing this for our own sake to appease our guilt, we’re doing it for the benefit of the child, even if it’s sometimes painful.”