Dear Dr. Debbie,
I’m sure this is a common problem when families are lucky enough to have actively involved grandparents nearby. My parents seem much more relaxed about things like eating on the couch, leaving toys on the floor, saying “please” and “thank you,” etc. than my wife and me. We have dinner together about once a month and they have our children, ages 2 and 5, for an afternoon or an overnight about once a week. How closely should parents and grandparents be in agreement about standards of behavior?
Four on Duty
Don’t miss last week’s column Helping kids adjusts to a new sibling — Good Parenting
Consistency is very important for discipline. Children younger than age 7 live mainly in the concrete world — their real experiences shape their expectations. Anything that happens reliably becomes “known.” A great example is the rule of gravity. Let go of something and gravity consistently pulls it downward. The exception is a helium balloon, which is baffling to babies but with repeat occurrences, becomes its own rule.
It works out best if all the adults caring for a child or set of children are in agreement, and regularly enforce the same set of standards for behavior. Rules and consequences will be quickly learned because a child bumps up against them no matter where he is or who is in charge.
That being said, we’re talking about human beings, not robots, so differences will happen. For example, one house could have well-worn furniture that needn’t be protected from drips and crumbs as vigilantly as something newer. The rhythm of one home may be more fast-paced, requiring diligent pickups to prevent daily pile-ups of toys, dishes and used clothing while the other can comfortably ignore disorder for periods of time.
And though family members tend to be culturally similar to one another as far as overall values, as individual human beings we are each distinctive in our interests, priorities, skills and personalities. One adult is the primary “please and thank you” coach, another is the champion tangle-comber, another promotes children’s competence in the kitchen and another makes the most of any chance to appreciate wildlife. Personality variations might exist between Mom – who is a night owl, and Dad – who is an early bird, Grandma — who has all the patience in the world, and Grandpa — who can pull off the silliest antics but only for short stints. But again, the more consistent each adult is with their own behavior, the easier it is for children to know what to expect and what is expected of them.
The four of you might enjoy attending an upcoming short course, “Effective Discipline for Preschoolers,” I will be facilitating at Chesapeake Children’s Museum, Tuesday, March 10, 17, and 24 from 6:30-8:30 pm. The cost is $60 per person, or $100 per couple. Childcare at is available at $5 per child per week if reserved. Call 410-990-1993 or email [email protected] to register.
If you find you are clashing over something important to you, it may be resolved through discussion and compromise. Just remember, it’s easier to change children’s behaviors — with simple consistency — than adults’ behavior. But the adults have the responsibility of setting, and enforcing, a shared set of rules.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at [email protected]