I’m not an especially strict mom to my 4- and 7-year-old daughters. It’s happened
regularly a few times before that my kids have not eaten nearly enough dinner and yet still gotten dessert. We aim for three showers a week, but oftentimes they only take two. There’s a definite screen time limit during the school year, although in the summertime? Meh — they’ll get outside eventually.
What’s taken me all these years to learn, though, is that some rules must be hard-and-fast rules; or at least one rule in particular: There are no second chances.
My sister’s three kids are older than mine, so I looked to her frequently for guidance when my eldest daughter started getting into things when she was younger, like tugging at electrical cords (“NO NO TOUCH!”), or the protocol for handling a diaper blowout without contaminating everything within a 4-mile radius (genius parenting hack right here!).
One thing she never said to me, but I often observed, is how she tells her kids something once, and that’s it. She doesn’t threaten them with time outs. I’ve never heard her count “One . . . two . . . three . . . OK, that’s it.” There is no arguing, haggling, compromising, whining, crying, or begging. Sure, her kids might shoot daggers out of their eyes at her, but for the most part, they get that what she’s decided will not change, and it definitely won’t change via their negotiation attempts. My 16-year-old nephew would even tell my girls when he’d watch them push the envelope with me, “That’s really not going to help get what you want.”
Looking back at how my husband and I used to parent our daughters, we were totally guilty of giving them an inch (or two, or three) and then scratching our heads with wonder as to how they managed to summon the audacity to stretch it out into a marathon.
“They don’t respect us!” we’d cry.
“They never listen!” we’d commiserate.
Our whole family also learned the painful way (and way too often), what happened when the kids acted up when we were out and about. Empty threats are like Play-Doh to young kids; they toy with it until a plan takes shape that they can mold until it hardens and becomes an permanent reminder of their whims.
That’s why I finally — finally — learned to take them by the elbow and just leave wordlessly instead of threatening to do it but never following through. Because as we all know, empty warnings are nothing more than an special invitation to try even harder the next time.
When we stopped giving them any bargaining power at all — which is really the same thing as another chance — a whole new world of regard for our authority eventually opened up. It wasn’t pretty at the beginning, and it still isn’t, at times. There have been buckets of tears shed, doors slammed, nuclear tantrums, and sound barrier-breaking screams. (Both theirs and mine.) What we want them to learn though, is that while there’s room for discussion on certain topics, when Mommy or Daddy tell you the way something is going to go, that’s how it will go. We don’t demand respect “just because,” either; however, we do feel as if we’ve earned it, and part of our role is teaching them to recognize what that looks like. We’ll never hit them or threaten it, although there are times when I imagine speaking to them extra slowly and in an eerily quiet voice can be even more frightening.
My older daughter is learning to become savvier and more selective with when and how she tries to get something out of the ordinary. She wants to stay up later to watch a movie? She knows getting into pajamas and brushing her teeth without being told four times will help her case. Want dessert but don’t want to eat the chicken? She knows to gag on at least one nibble before asking.
After visiting friends a few months ago, both my girls desperately wanted me to buy some app or other for their tablets, even though they know I am loathe to ever further enable their screen addictions (above and beyond actually gifting them the screens, that is). So instead of asking or pleading, my clever 7-year-old wrote me a letter explaining the would-be benefits of getting her the app, including what she stood to learn from it, and how it could keep her entertained in a more productive way. My 4-year-old figured out how to write the name of the app on a piece of paper that she gave me with her name and mine spelled on it, too. I looked at the notes they handed me, looked back at them, and without saying a word, bought them the app. And because they knew once I said no there would be no other path, they took their one chance seriously. I appreciated their thoughtfulness enough to reward the behavior.
Recognizing that what we say goes has meant that our kids will often pause before asking for something even their still-developing minds know is improbable. Instead of a punishment wherein they need to take time away from everyone to think about what they’ve done, they now make more of an effort to think about what they’ll do before actually doing it. And when they’ve been told no and then on their own act responsibly without being told, I’m more apt to offer up a second chance, which even they get is easier and more rewarding than achieving what they want through nagging.
I won’t get an opportunity to go backwards and parent differently, although moving forward, my kids will have way more opportunities available to them because they’ve suffered through what happens when their first — and only — chance gets taken off the table.More On