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Home Alone With the Kids


by R.P. Toister, Ph.D.

A mother asks, "how do I keep consistent rules and discipline my two boys when my husband never backs me up and tells me it's my job to train the boys." This mother's question underlines what many Moms tell me that, when it comes to dealing with disciplining their children, their husbands are too tired or not as concerned as they are in making rules or setting limits on behavior.

One reason for this is that mothers are on the "front lines" more often than their husbands and are constantly coping with the everyday demands and requests that children make on adults. A typical example is when bedtime rolls around and kids and parents are irritable and tired and the non-productive screaming and/or power struggle starts. By the time the kids are settled down Mom is exhausted and Dad goes on watching TV and wonders why it's such a big deal to put the kids to sleep.

If Mom is successful in getting Dad to put the kids to sleep his solution is by threat or punishment which lasts for that night

but doesn't teach the children anything about rules or cooperation. After one or two nights of his getting them to bed with threats he usually lets Mom "take over" and wonders out loud, that if his wife would just listen to him the kids would "shapeup". By the second or third night the bedtime battle is on again and Mom is expected to do the job like Dad. Unfortunately the children have learned that Mom and Dad are at odds and they test the rules to get Mom and Dad bickering or blaming each other for the problem.

Other than dealing with fears or trauma most so-called bedtime problems are really attempts by children to get to stay up later and test their parents perseverance. What really happens when parents disagree or one parent does not support another is that in effect they teach the child to "gamble". How often does a slot machine player have to "win" to keep putting quarters in the machine? How many times does a child have to "win" and get a parent to say, "OK stay up I don't care if you are exhausted in school ". In both cases the player is a "winner" but in the long run loses more than they gain. For children "winning" one or two times a week is all it takes to keep pestering to stay up or to get parents arguing or disagreeing about enforcing a rule. In the long run Mom may even lose her cool and create a confrontation or screaming contest to get Dad to act or to punish the child and so back her up but in a negative way for everyone involved. The bottom line for parents is to make only lower rules or rules that both parents agree on and enforce.

What are rules? Basically, rules specify what a person is to do in certain situations and what behavior is unacceptable. In the bedtime example a fair rule might be that bedtime is at a certain time each school night, which means that all chores, homework, and hygiene (brush teeth, bath, etc.) is done and lights out at that time. To make a rule work, consequences must be specific and in this case consequences might be that if the child follows the rule, then one night a week (the child's choice) he/she can stay up 30 minutes later and if the child does not follow the rule they go to bed the next night at a time minus the minutes past their bedtime the night before. So if a child whose bedtime was 8:30 procrastinates and lights out became 8:45 on Monday night then on Tuesday night they must go to bed at 8:15.

If the child knows that both Mom and Dad agree on this rule and consistently enforce it without yelling or arguing the child will, after testing the rule once or twice, begin to follow the rule and be praised and rewarded with an extra 30 minutes to stay up one night each week.

Remember in making rules parents must:

1.Agree on the rule.
2.Make the rule specific-the child must know what to do and what not to do in concrete terms.
3.Provide both reward and punishment.
4.Enforce the rule consistently without arguing or bickering.

Periodically discuss the rule and, if necessary, modify it to meet with any changes in the home. If parents can agree on clear-cut rules and enforce them consistently then being "home alone" with the kids will be less aggravating and more positive for both parent and child.
 

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