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Ever know any 5-year-olds that seem to run their families? Maybe you know an even younger child who has that role, or perhaps you have one in your own home. Are you exhausted by the constant arguing over seemingly routine issues?

Ever wonder why your child can’t understand the meaning of the word “no”? Could it be that your “nos” are really “maybes”?

Though these are problems that occur in many households, the reality is that children really don’t want to be “in charge.” It is too much responsibility for them. Can you imagine how much energy they must expend trying to figure out how to manipulate their parents? And how secure can they really feel when their “adult authority figures” aren’t sure what their expectations are and therefore cannot decide where the line should be drawn on behavior issues?

Children thrive when they have predictable daily routines. Even infants need structure so they can anticipate events. For instance, a bedtime routine might include a nice warm bath, a story, nursing or a bottle, then being put in the crib to go to sleep. This helps the baby to expect bedtime when he is put into the bath. Knowing what to expect gives the infant a feeling of predictability and helps him make sense of his world.

Consistency is the best way to avoid discipline problems. As parents, we need to decide what the limits are and how we expect our children to behave. And, if we establish boundaries, when an action crosses the boundary line there should be an appropriate consequence each time.

How does a parent accomplish consistent reinforcement? Think about it this way – when you put your money into a soda machine you expect a soda to come out. What if it didn’t? Would you put your money in again?

On the other hand, think about a slot machine. Each time you put a coin in you’re not sure whether you’ll hit the jackpot. So, you keep feeding coins into the machine, hoping the next pull will do it.

Children who are given clear expectations and consistent reinforcement will not reinvest in the soda machine consequence while children with unclear expectations and inconsistent reinforcement will keep trying – either to get what they want or to get a clearer message about what’s expected.

Consistent reinforcement gives the child clear limits, expectations and consequences. If they ask to go out to play and the rule is their toys need to be put away before they can go out, a “soda machine parent” will probably not need to remind the child why the answer is “no.” A “slot machine parent” will be bombarded by “whys” and nagging because they have not been consistent in having the child keep their end of the bargain. So the child is confused and manipulates and tests the limits – just like we test the slot machine – hoping the next answer will be a “yes.” A survey of elementary students found that the children actually expected to have to ask their parents for something an average of nine times before they said “yes.”

If parents would always be consistent about expected behavior, deliver appropriate consequences when the expected behavior is lacking, and create predictable daily routines for children, there would be little need for the battle of wills that goes on daily in households everywhere. And, children would not waste a lot of negative energy trying to manipulate their parents.

A Guide to Setting Limits

All children need to know what they can and cannot do. Rules help ensure a child’s safety and health and help your child interact positively with others. Letting children know what the rules are helps to make them feel safe and secure.

When setting limits consider the following:

• Be uncompromising when it comes to safety issues like sitting in a car seat when in the car, or holding an adult’s hand when crossing a street. Be sure to model these behaviors yourself by always wearing your seat belt and crossing the street on a green light.

• Decide on rules that are important enough for you to enforce consistently.

• Discuss rules calmly with your child before you enforce them. Tell the child what to do rather than what not to do. In this way your expectations are clear and the limits are understood.

• Prepare your child for a new situation by discussing the behavior you expect from them. For example, if you are taking your child to a movie for the first time discuss the rules that are important to you and the others who will be in the theatre – using a quiet voice, staying near you and walking, not running down the aisles.

• Look for the times that your child obeys the rules and praise him for it.

You can begin implementing certain rules the day you take your child home from the hospital. Things like always using a car seat for your child when in a vehicle, not letting them out of a high chair in a restaurant (remember to bring things for your child to do while you eat), holding an adult hand when near cars… These things can become a habit for you and your child instead of a rule to enforce. Other things will come up like TV on school nights and play dates with friends that may need a conversation between parents and the child about what is allowable for your particular family.

Remember, it is important to pick the things you will enforce and be consistent. Although consistency is sometimes difficult, and there are times when we would rather not have to deal with it, wouldn’t you rather face your teenager when you’ve been a soda machine parent and issues like driving, drinking and sex replace staying up late, not eating vegetables or wanting to wear that Superman cape to school?