Our son taught me a valuable lesson in parenting the other day. To be fair, it has been a long time coming, but it left me chastened and realising I was some way short of the parent I thought I’d be.
It may be almost six years ago now, but many of the key messages from our preparation group have stuck with me. And one that stands out more than most is the importance of being consistent and doing what you say you are going to do.
For children who have had so much inconsistency and uncertainty in their lives, it’s almost impossible to underestimate what a relief it must be just to know what is going to happen and then see it happen.
And I have tried to live up to this, I really have. If we say we’re going to do something then we always do it. If we say we’re going to meet someone, we always meet them. If we say something is going to happen, then it does.
But one area where I fall short is following through on sanctions. I know the problem: I threaten a particular punishment in the heat of the moment, but on reflection I think it is maybe unfair or too harsh, so I soften it. I say if their behaviour improves they can win back whatever it is I’m threatening to deprive them of, I give them one more chance, I give them a final warning etc, anything to soften the blow.
It’s not all the time, and I am getting better, mainly by trying not to dish out punishments in the heat of the moment. But it’s something I’m still working on.
And it’s obvious how much our eldest appreciates the certainty. Whenever I’ve followed-through with a particularly severe sanction, usually involving television, which he loves, he has a few minutes of misery, and possibly tears, quickly followed by giving me a massive hug. It’s almost as though he’s telling me, ‘Thanks for letting me know what I can’t get away with’.
So there’s every reason for me to know what I need to do, but I hadn’t expected to be told where I was going wrong quite so bluntly as I was last week.
Our two boys take packed lunches to school, but while the youngest (8) always finishes his, his brother (10) never does. It’s not that he doesn’t like it, but he’s a slow eater who doesn’t get round to finishing before his friends go out to play, to the extent that some days he hardly eats anything.
I’ve threatened him with going back to school dinners, which he hates, but thought it would be more productive to offer a treat at the end of the week if he eats his lunch every day.
So on Friday when I checked his packed lunch bag and saw he had left half of his lunch, I told him he wouldn’t be getting a treat. Instead, I gave his brother, who finished all of his, of course, two chocolate biscuits.
Chocolate is a rare treat in our house, and the eldest was clearly upset, but I held my nerve and told him that if he wanted a treat, he had to finish his lunch.
Five minutes later, my resolve weakened. Seeing him so sad at missing out was too much, and I was filled with remorse. So I said he could have one biscuit, instead of the two his brother had. I thought this was a fair punishment and I expected him to leap at it, but his reply took me by surprise.
‘No, dad,’ he said. ‘I didn’t finish my lunch, and you said if I didn’t eat it all I shouldn’t get a treat. So I shouldn’t get one.’
It felt like I had been told off, because of course I had. He was telling me that his need for clarity was so strong, it even outweighed his longing for chocolate.
All children need boundaries, of course, but for children who have experienced prolonged and profound uncertainty and inconsistency the need is particularly acute.
Our eldest lived in his birth home until he was four and only too well aware of how unsettling it is not to know what is going to happen. He couldn’t have been clearer in telling me how he wanted to be parented. Now it’s up to me to give him what he needs.