Ask the readers: consistent rules or pick your battles?

Ask the readers: consistent rules or pick your battles?
Consider this scenario: Your child knows not to climb on the couch, yet right when you need it the least, she pulls herself up on to the arm chair, apparently oblivious to the rule you’ve drilled in her head from the get-go. You feel your patience draining and would rather ignore her defiance to save your sanity, but a thought nags in your head saying you should be consistent with the rules and implement proper consequences. Consistent rules or pick your battles—what do you do?

That was the question SSBE reader Carolyn posed on our Facebook page several days ago. After reading our post on how to stay calm with your child—in which I proposed picking your battles—she wrote:

When you say pick your battles isn’t that conflicting with being consistent with your child? If you let them get away with drawing on the wall one day and take their currency away from them the next, isn’t that confusing and compounding the problem? Don’t children thrive on knowing that those boundaries are always in place? I realize a colored wall is better than a beaten child and would never argue that. I’m not criticizing, I really want to know where the professionals stand on this issue as it has always been 2 very different yet common pieces of advice.

She absolutely nailed it when she said that the two are different yet very common pieces of advice. On one hand, a lax parent who doesn’t hold his ground isn’t taken seriously after a while by his kids. I was at the library once when I heard a lady scold her grandchild, “If you throw that toy one more time, we’re leaving.” About a minute later, the kid threw the toy, yet the grandma didn’t follow through with her rules, and both continued to stay at the library. Rules should be regarded consistently if kids are to learn the consequences of certain actions.

But then you have the other scenario: when the kid isn’t budging to eat his dinner unless he absolutely has his toy with him, never mind that toys aren’t allowed at the table. The time when you’re on your last nerve, and you’re just about ready to throw all rules out the door just to keep the kids quiet for once. That scenario.

Personally, I would define what is and isn’t negotiable. There’s the safety and hygienic reasons that I’m sure we can all agree on: car seats have to be buckled and diapers must be changed, no matter how much the kid protests. But beyond that, each scenario presents a personal choice for each family. For instance, there’s no way my kid is going to draw on a wall. That kind of stuff just drives me nuts and truthfully, I like me my clean white walls, no matter how much my toddler throws a tantrum. But I do know others whose kids draw on the wall and to those parents, it’s what saves them from going bonkers.

In other situations, I can be a bit more flexible, given the situation. I mentioned my toddler wanting to bring a toy to the table. And while we try to keep dinner times toy- and interruption-free, sometimes my toddler just really wants to have that toy in hand, so we decided that it’s not a huge deal at this moment. In fact, when that issue came up, the first thought I had was, “What if he’s confused as to what the rules are because we don’t allow toys one day and allow it the next? What if he assumes that throwing a fit will get him what he wants? Or worse, what if our authority is now undermined and he’ll defy future rules we try to impose?”

Thankfully, bringing the toy to the table that one time did none of that. I think if anything, it helped him learn that yes, the world is often a bit one-sided with the Big Adults making most of the decisions, but once in a while, even little toddlers get to negotiate a bit here and there. I also think he just forgets that he brought the toy that one day, especially if we don’t make a huge deal about him bringing it to the table.

But here’s where I admit I falter a bit. I’ve changed the rules, sometimes often. For instance, we used to tell him that he couldn’t open and close the linen cabinet doors because they’re too loud when he shuts them and he can get his fingers caught. So what did I do when my kid opened and closed the doors with his hands on the knob (so his fingers wouldn’t get caught) and as quietly as a cricket? I didn’t say anything; I let him open and close those darn doors. I suppose rules change as much as our kids do.

So far my toddler doesn’t tend to push our buttons too often. That may just be his personality, or maybe he understands which issues are an absolute no (he can’t write on the walls, touch the fans or stand on tables or chairs), and which ones are a bit more flexible. Either way, I try to maintain a balance of standing my ground while allowing some flexibility, particularly when my toddler is having a bad day or we’re on our last nerve.

That was generally my response to Carolyn (albeit much shorter!) but as I told her, I was curious to see how other parents handle this difficult situation. So:

What do you do when consistency and flexibility conflict in your home? What issues in your home do you set absolute boundaries on, and what are more flexible? Do you let your kids “win” certain issues, or do you stick to the rules? Why?

I won’t be surprised to find varying answers to this conundrum. As Carolyn wrote at the end of our conversation:

Parenting is so complex and I’m not sure there are any hard and fast rules.

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14 thoughts on “Ask the readers: consistent rules or pick your battles?

  1. This is another fantastic thought-provoking post! My husband and I are consistent with our “rules” when it comes to iPad/TV screen time (which is 3 days a week – no more than 15 minutes at a time), mealtime (in the high chair or at his mini-table), bed/nap time, bath time, and putting his hand in our dogs’ water bowl – a big no no.

    What we’re not consistent with: letting him touch our stainless steel garbage can that is in the kitchen. He touches the side of it (which IS clean). He likes to use it as a side drum. Plus it’s shiny. Both of us are hit or miss with this one. He thinks it’s funny when we take him away from it. The other day, my mom was over and I was chatting with her in the living room…in my peripheral vision I saw Oster by the can. I waited to see what he was going to do. He sat down inches away from it, put the tip of one of his fingers on the can, shouted a babble and smiled when I looked at him. So, I picked him up again and moved him away; of course explaining to him (briefly) why he shouldn’t be there.

    I do NOT make threats. My husband and I follow through. If he is misbehaving in the library (similar to your example), I remove him immediately. There’s no negotiating when it comes down to respect, social behavior, and safety. I am stern yet empathetic. I always tell Oster that I understand how he must be feeling or I appreciate him expressing how he’s feeling or why we don’t act a certain way.

    I know he’s only 14 months (oh my gosh!) and I know I’ll have more battles to fight (or let go). I just want to say that I really love your posts and I’m learning so much from you. Thank you!

  2. I tend to hate the phrase “pick your battles” because I have seen many people I know end up with confusing discipline situations because they are using that mentality. That being said, I do sometimes do it.

    I think they key is not necessarily changing your rules, just choosing which ones to dig in firmly about. I think that is pretty much what you said in your drawn-on-walls example. For example, my son shredding up paper (as long as it isn’t important) doesn’t bother me. Creative messes are allowed in this house as long as they are picked up after. But not holding Mumma or Daddy’s hand in the store is absolutely non-negotiable. If he doesn’t listen, and pulls away we give him one warning: “Hold my hand or I will pick you up and you won’t be allowed to walk. If he does it again he gets promptly picked up and carried. In the rare event of a tantrum he is taken directly to the car to calm down.

    I often ask myself: “Is this ACTUALLY bad or dangerous behavior, or am I just being overbearing?”

  3. I don’t think “picking your battles” is being inconsistent. For me, it’s about identifying my priorities, and then being consistent. I’m not going to fight with my toddler about everything. I’m just not. But I will determine what matters to me, and stick to that.

  4. We have certain always-non-negotiables, most of which start with “in our family we…” don’t hit, only throw ping pong balls in the house, etc. Safety is an always and we are quick to enforce it. We live in a small house so respecting others is a part of life. Going into another room for certain activities (such as shrieking) is just how it is…and is enforced. At this point we rarely have issues with any of these…we have to remind him of course, but its rarely a battle. When there is a lapse, we generally work together to correct it. If he colors on a chair with crayons, we explain, “We don’t use crayons on anything other than art projects, let’s clean this up,” and get supplies to clean it up together. If he throws a toy we remind, “We only throw ping pong balls, let’s find one.”

    We let C (age 3) negotiate quite a bit though. I don’t know if it’s our parenting style or his personality or both, but we tend to discuss. After all, the rules are there for a reason and if he can come up with another solution that respects the reason…. For instance, we told him we were putting away his wooden train tracks etc until bad weather in the fall. He asked why and we explained that we were tired of them being spread all over the house, that there was a lot of toy clutter, and that now that he was outside so much he didn’t really play with them, just dumped them out. We repeated this explanation a few times when he asked over the next couple weeks. A few days ago, he wanted to get out his track to play with his uncle. He came to me and (all his own idea) suggested that we put away all his other toys with a few exceptions in return for getting out the track, that he wouldn’t spread it all over, and that he would play with it. We agreed to his terms. When I put a moratorium on playing in the sink because I was tired of him wasting so much water, he suggested putting in a stopper and only running it at a trickle. When we told him he couldn’t use a knife for safety reasons, he asked us to teach him to use one safely…and he now uses a knife in certain circumstances while following certain safety rules and is careful to follow those rules so he doesn’t lose the privilege.

    Sorry…that’s a really long answer!

    • I find myself in the same situations sometimes. My 2.5 year old “negotiates,” for instance, when we said he couldn’t close the cabinet doors because they were loud and he would hurt himself, he tried doing so quietly and by holding the knobs. In a way I sort of like this because he knows there’s a way to discuss some rules, and I suppose as they grow up this will be more common.

  5. Flexibility definitely comes into play when my two-year-old hasn’t taken a nap that day. You’re throwing your rice on the floor and saying you want a banana for dinner instead? You got it, kid. Sometimes being strict isn’t worth the screaming and the stress.

  6. This is a tough one. I try to be consistent with rules – certainly there are certain rules we don’t bend ‘We don’t hit people,’ being one of these. However, there is some flexibility on others… As you, and many commenters have said – sometimes you have to choose your battles. Having said this, I do wonder if we’re setting ourselves up for problems later on (Mushroom is only 15 months now)…

  7. I’m with Tragic Sandwich. I see the “pick your battles” advice as applying to setting your rules. I don’t make rules that I don’t plan to follow through on consistently. Of course, there are rare occasions when a rule needs to be bent (“Nothing but people and their dinner items at the dinner table” sometimes bends if a feverish child dearly wants to be at dinner with the rest of us but shivers uncontrollably without a blanket on), but in general I try to only create rules I am able and willing to enforce–and ones that have a reasonable explanation so my children grow up understanding that I have their best interests at heart and am not just arbitrary and unreasonable, however they may feel about me at the moment. That said, as my kids get older, I also listen end up with situations like seventhacreheaven related, and I try to respect their reasoning if it is solid and…well, reasonable.

  8. I tend to think of picking your battles as thingsnthat aren’t yet defined with rules. With a certain issue be a bg deal to me or not. Or like the door example, it once was, or wasn’t a big deal, and now it’s the opposite. In areas where mynhusband and I have clear rules and boundaries, we are consistent every time, no matter how tired we are.

  9. I reconcile these two approaches with a “framework” I read about in Bringing Up Bebe. There are hard, steadfast rules, such as no biting, no sitting on the dog, etc. Outside of that framework, there’s some wriggle room. And Lane is allowed the occasional “bêtise”, or small wrong-doing. What you are suggesting sounds very similar to the French approach to parenting, and it seems to be working! 🙂

  10. Great article and comments! It’s ironic you posted this topic because I’m working on post, per the request of a friend of mine last week, on figuring out which battles to choose. Her daughter is 4 and going through the “I want to dress myself phase” and mom is totally exhausted from the situation. I’ve been trying to help her figure out where to go with it and how strict to be. About to have a little girl myself, I know my day is coming! 🙂
    That being said, I think the reality is that we do have to choose battles. Flexibility in parenting (and life) is essential to survival, especially when we are physically and mentally drained. Plus, there are some ways to make those moments some good learning opportunities for our kids as well (sneaky I know!). Thanks SSBE!!

  11. Awesome post!
    I agree that safety is non-negotiable. We also don’t allow toys at the table, but I’ll look the other way if it’s not meal time. Colouring on the walls is an absolutely not. I think, for me, consistency is the main event. I try to be more lax about things that I haven’t said are RULES. This is exhausting, by the way, so I’d never poopoo anyone’s survival techniques. Things that aren’t defined as rules in my house are stuff like tidying the toys, bringing only one book to bed, putting the stool away when you’re done with it, clearing your dishes off the table; things like that. What I just listed, those ‘chores’ or ‘activities’ are to be done when I ask but not things that I expect the kids to do or remember to do on their own. I think that this is where my laxness comes in, where I’m ‘picking my battles’ because if the kids are tired and cranky then I’ll tell them to forget picking up their toys right now, to instead eat dinner/go to bath because it’s easier on my sanity then forcing the situation and creating a meltdown or delaying my schedule.

  12. Really excellent post. I tend to think you make a few hard and fast rules in your house, in ours they revolve around safety, honesty, generosity and kindness and manners and respect. And if it doesn’t fall into my must haves, I am pretty flexible. Having teenagers and seeing the arc of childhood I am a big fan of picking your battles.

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