(Excerpted from "The Rules of Parenting" by Richard Templar)
You have to understand that when you undermine your partner, you are not being kind to your children so that they will love you more. (Yes, admit it; that's the bottom line.) You are actually confusing them and undermining their respect for both of you and their confidence in those all important boundaries.
If you're a single parent, you're not off the hook. This still applies every time there's someone else sharing responsibility for the children. Your parents when they go on vacation with you, or your daycare provider, or your friend who looks after them on Tuesday afternoons after school.
If you want your child to feel secure, you have to back each other up. And that means sharing the bad cop role, too. It's worth it: They'll feel happier, clearer about boundaries, and they'll respect (and love) you both for it. Eventually.
Of course, you don't have to agree on every tiny possible rule in advance -- when it comes to the detail, you have to only agree that whatever one of you says, the other will back up if asked. "If Daddy says no, then the answer's no." The crucial thing to understand is that, apart from the big stuff that you should have agreed on in advance, the fact that you agree is more important than what you're agreeing about.
When I was a kid, you could answer my mom back one day and she'd laugh and tell you she was pleased you could stand up for yourself. Next day, you could say the same thing and get walloped for it. And there was never any clue to which way she'd go. This applied not only to giving her back talk, but to most other things, too. It meant I spent a lot of my time walking on eggshells.
It also meant I had no idea what was and wasn't allowed -- it seemed to be decided on some kind of secret lottery basis that I wasn't privy to. So there was little point in regulating my behavior. After all, I might get into trouble, but then again I might not. It generally seemed worth the risk -- certainly to me.
Your kids are just the same. They need to know what is and isn't acceptable. And they judge that by what was and wasn't okay yesterday and the day before. If they're not getting a consistent message, they're clueless as to how they have to behave, and those all important boundaries aren't being properly maintained. That means the kids feel confused, insecure, and perhaps even unloved.
I'll tell you the toughest thing about this Rule: It means that a lot of the time, you can't break the rules even when you want to. It's just not fair on the kids. If you've decided that you don't allow the kids to sleep in your bed with you, you have to stick to it (unless you're prepared to change the rule permanently). Just because your little one was a bit sad about something today, and they're so warm and snuggly and smelling of bathtime, and you're feeling a bit down yourself anyway…no, no, no! Stop right there! Let them into your bed once and it will be ten times harder to say no to them next time, and they won't understand why. Say no now (softly and with an extra hug) and you're only being cruel to be kind (to yourself as well as them).
When you tell a child that they are naughty, selfish, lazy, fat, stupid, rude, pushy, careless or anything else, you label them. And if they believe that label (and why shouldn't they -- they're trained to believe what we tell them), they will start to live up to it. They'll think, "There's no point to make an effort, I know I'm lazy." Or "What have I got to lose? They've got me down as naughty anyway." Of course, this won't be a conscious thought process, at least not when they're small. But if you give them alabel, they'll live up to it.
What you have to do is condemn their behavior, not them. You can tell them, "That's a selfish thing to do," or "It's very rude to push." That way you're not passing comment on them, but only on their behavior. If at this point you feel like shouting, "But he is lazy!" I'm not telling you you're wrong, though it would be very un-PC of me to admit you could be right. I'm just saying that you should never, ever say so in front of him, or anyone else in case it gets back to him. Save it for your most private thoughts after the third time in a row he goes out without even clearing the table, let alone helping you load the dishwasher.
Positive labels are a different thing entirely. If they're accurate (don't pressure your child by making them live up to something they can't), they likewise encourage your children to behave like their label -- thoughtful, careful, brave, or whatever.
And actually, you can sometimes use these positive labels to reinforce good behavior when they've lapsed: "I was really surprised to see you behave so rudely. I always think of you as a particularly polite person." It reassures her you haven't given up on your positive view of them, so it's not too late to live up to the "polite" label.
Our children learn their behavior by watching ours. If we say please and thank you, they learn to do it too (in time). If we treat other people politely, they'll do the same thing. If we smoke crack cocaine before breakfast, they'll think that's normal. And if we lose our temper when other people don't do as we want them to, they'll think that's the correct behavior.
Most of the time it's quite easy to behave as we want our children to. But when your blood pressure starts to rise, that's when the example you set is so critical -- just when it's hardest to set a good example (damn). So how do you deal with your child when they argue with you? Do you manage to stay calm, not raise your voice, and listen to what they have to say? It's not easy, God knows, but it's the only way to get the same response back from them.
In most couples, for some reason, one is much more prone to lose their temper with the kids than the other. If this is you, don't feel like a failure -- your behavior is normal. But you do need to understand that every time you lose your temper with the kids, you effectively sanction their angry response. And that makes you the loser. It also won't help their future relationships if they grow up thinking that shouting gets you what you want and is the standard way to handle conflict.
The same applies, by the way, to hitting. Whatever your opinion about hitting, the fact is that it doesn't work. It sends your kids the message that, sometimes at least, hitting people is the way to get what you want. If you do it in the heat of the moment, you let them know that you've lost control. That's pretty scary for kids, as well as indicating that it's okay to lose control and be aggressive. If you do it in cold blood, that shows you've thought it through and have come to a considered opinion that aggression is the answer.
One of the things that should be coming through by now is that the way we behave is the strongest model our kids have for their own behavior. We've said that if you don't want them to lose their temper, you mustn't lose yours, and if you want them to say please and thank you, you must be as polite to them. Well, now here's another of those things you have to do with your kids, and funnily enough lots of parents seem to have a problem with this one.
I guess the feeling is that if you admit you were wrong, you undermine your child's confidence in your all-powerfulness. If you say sorry, they'll realize you're not always perfect. Well, I've got news for you. It's only a matter of time before they work this out for themselves. You might as well let them down gently by showing them, now and again, that you're not God and you do make mistakes.
The more ready you are to apologize when you're wrong, the more your kids will see that it's not belittling to admit to being wrong-grown-ups they admire can do it readily. And they'll also see that everyone makes mistakes and it's nothing to be ashamed of. Aware of, yes, and ready to put it right, but not shaming. You need your kids to regard saying sorry as something they instinctively do as soon as they realize they've hurt, offended, inconvenienced, or upset anyone.
Okay, so you've had a fight with your child. Maybe you handled it well, or maybe not (you're only human). But you're a Rules parent anyhow, so it can't have been that bad. Your child, on the other hand, was well out of order and sent to her room.
What happens next? This is critical, and I've made it a Rule because I've seen parents get this horribly wrong. Their child comes back downstairs, contrite, even apologetic, and their parent lays into them again about how badly they've behaved. Next thing they're on the defensive, arguing back, and sent totheir room again. Or maybe the parent just stops speaking to them for a while and goes into a sulk.
Either way you're not allowing the child to escape from the bad feelings that they've just been trying to come to terms with. I heard a parent recently say to a child who apologized to them, "The important thing is not to apologize. The important thing is not to do it again." Quite true, of course, but not the time to say it. The poor child obviously felt he was still in trouble and unforgiven, and I could see his face crumple.
The most important thing of all is for your child to know that you still love her. She also needs to know that there's some point in apologizing and determining to modify her behavior. If you're still angry with her, why did she bother? So when the fight is over, let her know she's loved and welcomed back into your affection. And that you appreciate her apology and her ability to recognize that she was (at least partly) responsible for the fight.