Wednesday, November 17, 2010

I'm not having dessert tonight

When Charlie was four, he would sometimes (often) sit down at the dinner table, look at his plate and say "I'm not having dessert tonight." He said that because he knows our family rule that you have to eat dinner or a designated portion of dinner in order to get dessert. If he didn't like what was on his plate, he would just write off dessert, and that was that. In his brother's fourth year, he tends to moan and twist his body away from his plate when he doesn't like what's for dinner. Oh and take the offending items off his plate and put them on the table (which is against the rules). The dinner/dessert rule applies to him too, and he more and more often gets himself together and eats the required portion. If he's like Charlie, he'll turn the corner soon and eat most everything without complaint or negotiation.

But this post actually isn't about meals and dessert. It's about rules. A couple with a teenager recently explained their curfew rule: if their daughter misses curfew, the next time around, curfew will be a half hour earlier. And if she misses that, it'll be a half hour earlier still. Their daughter has never missed curfew.

Hearing about that rule that we don't need yet but will try to remember for later made me reflect on the rules we enforce with our boys and their relationship to those rules. Obviously, we devise and enforce rules for several reasons: keeping our kids safe, teaching them manners, maintaining our own sanity, etc. Their reactions to the rules make life interesting.

At Teddy's age (4), he just pushes against rules all the time, trying to see if they stand. They do. Actually, he doesn't just push against rules; he also helps to enforce them. We have a rule that if a boy watched a DVD yesterday (or had some other significant screen time), he can't watch one today. We happened into that rule a long time ago, and it succeeds. They don't even end up with a screentime blitz as often as every other day either because the schedule doesn't allow or because they forget to ask on a day when they could. Recently, I let Teddy watch a few DVDs while I worked during the day. That evening, he went to his grandmother's house, and he told me that he would have to tell Popo (grandma) that he couldn't watch TV that night at her house because he'd watched a DVD during the day. Yes!

Charlie knows the rules, observes them nicely and loves to enforce them a little too much. We often have to tell him that a situation is between his parents and his brother and that he needs to butt out. I don't look forward to the day when a reminder to practice his trumpet or clean something up isn't met with quick compliance.

As we observe our kids, we clearly see that they are happy we make and keep the rules. Kids whose parents don't communicate clear rules or change them all the time or fail to enforce them look pretty miserable. They know that if the grownups aren't in charge, then they are. And they know they're too young to be in charge. It stresses them out.

The most interesting aspect of the rules regime is the creation of agency. Within the framework of "eat your dinner to get dessert", the child actually exercises a choice. Same with the curfew rule we heard about. For now, anyway, we can set rules with clear consequences and carry out those consequences and watch the lesson get learned. Foot stomping now resolves itself into "I don't want dessert tonight" eventually.
Moans today tend to turn to compliance in a few weeks or months. Knowing where the boundaries are helps the kids decide how they're going to behave within them.

Now go to bed!


Anne H. said...

Nicely articulated and true. Charlie and Teddy are blessed to have parents who want to and know how to — be the parents. They're also loved and that's the rest of the story.

JFo said...

We put the rules in place because we love them. Creating and enforcing rules can feel harder in the moment, but we don't do it for that moment. We do it for those that follow.