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?

Consistent rules or pick your battles?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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