Deciding discipline and consistency

Dara Squires
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If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my nine years of parenting, especially the last few with three children, it’s that consistency is key.

It’s key, but it’s also amongst the hardest tasks of parenting: providing consistent nurturing care, consistent attention, consistent praise and consistent discipline through an inconsistent life.

In matters of discipline, especially, I find it near impossible. Having three children, I find that each responds to different styles of discipline differently. The eldest truly needs a time out when his behaviour escalates. Without one, you can discuss his behaviour, guilt him, repossess toys, yell, scold, ignore, whatever and the effect will last about 10 seconds.

The youngest, on the other hand, responds best to being told the effect of his actions and made to feel compassion for the other person. He only needs a time out when he is truly worked up and silly.

The middle child responds to a combination. She hates time out with a vengeance, and if used too early, will only worsen her behaviour. But when she’s crossed her breaking point, she needs it.

In the meanwhile, catch her early on with a hug and a “thank you for trying to behave” and she will reinvest her energy in the good behaviours.

None of them, it seems, really respond to the removal of toys as a discipline measure. And yet I do it. I’m not quite sure why, to tell the truth. It’s just that all the books seem to suggest it as a reward method — remove the toy when they’re badly behaved, return it when they’re good.

Generally if a toy is removed it’s because they’re behaving badly with that toy — throwing a ball in the house, whacking their brother with a Barbie doll …

And yet, just the other day I removed a garbage bag full of toys. Truthfully, it was done out of frustration, but I’m hoping it will encourage good behaviour all the same. My children refuse to help in tidying the house. They outright refuse. They have to be in a good mood to engage in any household tasks. And catching all three of them in a good mood is like trying to catch the wind.

Sure, one might pick up four or five toys of the hundred that are strewn on the floor, but then they’ll notice the others aren’t picking up, declare it all unfair, and quit. Or I might be able to engage them in a “who can pick up the most in five minutes” game, but my competitive daughter will notice her brother is picking up more and throw hers on the floor again in a pique of jealousy. Or my mischevious four-year-old will pretend to help, the whole time squirelling toys away in odd places and upsetting his brother and sister’s work.

So the other night as I stood in the midst of a living room covered in toys — including many brand new toys that they had been given for Christmas but had been put away until we organized and kept our toys tidy more and only brought out that very day — I decided to do something I’ve only threatened before. I got a garbage bag and I filled it with the toys that I had asked them several times to help me pick up.

They had been sent to bed a half hour early because, in my words “if you’re not going to help me tidy, I need extra time, so you’re going to bed early.” As they slept I calmly put the days detritus in a garbage bag, not quite sure if this was going to be another time when I removed them, simply to return them later when they were behaving again, or if it was permanent.

I thought long and hard on it. I left the bag in the living room to show them what I had done. And when they asked I told them I was throwing them out. When they each begged to have their toys back, asked if they behaved if they could have them back, I realized that consistency can also be one of the more damaging parts of discipline.

If you consistently do something that doesn’t work — under the impression that because so many people recommend it it will eventually stick — you undermine your own understanding of your children.

I had been consistently removing toys only to return them when they behaved again, and from that they learned that the short-term loss of a toy meant little to them and that Mommy’s displeasure with their actions was in no way permanent. So while it may work in the short-term to immediately change their behaviours, in the long-term it was having a detrimental effect.

Perhaps it’s “inconsistent” to immediately change a disciplinary policy, but the other day my children were informed that if they lose a toy from now on, it’s gone for good. I won’t actually throw them out — many are valuable toys that another child will enjoy. But I also won’t replace them.

While consistency really is a key part of our parenting toolbox, it really only works if what you’re doing to begin with works. And the only way to discover what works is through studying your child and their responses to your actions, understanding their personality, and being prepared for flexibility across your children.

All of which makes you look very inconsistent, indeed. But the thing that remains is that you’re trying to raise them to have the values that are important to you. As long as you remain consistent in that, a little shakeup in the consistent routine every now and then will do them more good than harm.

After all, they also have to learn to be able to adapt to change.

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