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Predictable Parenting: How Consistency Leads to Compliance

By Carrie E. Morgan, PhD

Predictable Parenting: How Consistency Leads to Compliance

Statements I hear frequently from parents with noncompliant children include the following:

  • My child has anger issues! He throws a temper tantrum any time he does not get his way.
  • She should listen to me the first time!
  • He screams if I don’t give him what he wants.
  • My child always argues with me!

Parents with children who are noncompliant and quick to anger usually feel exhausted.  They have lost hope.  They walk on eggshells in their own home to keep their child from getting angry.  They have lost their power and do not know how to get it back.  I always ask parents how long the tantrums last.  A good number of guardians respond with, “Until I give in, usually.”  Or even more commonly, there is another adult in the house, like a spouse or grandparent, that gives in for them.

The road ahead can be hard for parents with tough kids who do not take “no” for an answer.  The reason for this is that noncompliance, (defined as the refusal to follow directions or accept being denied access to a preferred item or activity), is a learned behavior.  If you are this parent, your child has spent years learning how to change your mind.  Although there are many factors that influence the behavior of children, this article will focus on how the consistent and predictable reaction from a parent directly impacts their child’s behavioral (and emotional) response.

Imagine, for a moment, that you have found yourself on a casino floor, interacting with a slot machine.  You would likely experience the disappointment of finding that your particular machine is not paying out at the moment.  Most adults, even those with perfectly working logistical skills, will persist until they have reached the maximum threshold that they are willing to lose before moving on to the next activity.  Ever wonder why?  How could a sensible person continue to put money into a machine that simply takes it and only gives a tiny bit back once in a great while?

You don’t do that with a broken vending machine, do you?  If you decide to purchase a Coke and the machine takes your dollar, do you keep putting in money?  How about, say, $20? One would hope not.

The difference is possibility.  The illusion of a reward that is just around the corner, just out of reach, maybe on the next pull of that machine.  The gambler thinks back to that one time they hit it big and went home with extra change in their pocket.  Maybe that will happen today!  And just think, what would happen if you had nothing to lose and the chance to play was free!  You would play forever until you win, right?

Now, pretend you are a child, and you want a cookie.  Your parent becomes your personal slot machine.  You ask, they say NO.  Do you walk away?  Not usually.  You ask again, maybe whine a little.  Your parent says NO, but now adds a little extra explanation as to why you can’t have the cookie.  You consider that an invitation to explain why you want one right now, and the debate begins.  Ever catch yourself explaining your parental decisions to a four-year-old? Quit doing that.

If you have ever caved before due to the persistent nature of your child, you are no different than the slot machine on the casino floor.  Your child thinks back to that one time last week when you said, “FINE! Take the cookie!”  But, unlike your typical gambler, they have nothing to lose.  When you say NO, they think, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance!”

Be the vending machine, instead.  Mean what you say, say what you mean.  Provide a consequence for overly persistent behavior.  The method of behavioral intervention is not nearly as important as the consistency with which it is used, I would argue.  And if you are not willing to follow through, do not threaten your child with a consequence.   For example, if you are planning a family vacation to Disney World next week, do not say, “You better clean your room or we won’t go on vacation next week!”  A less rule-governed child will test you.  And they will win, because you know you are going on that vacation.  Do not let your child call your bluff.

And to be clear, it is perfectly fine to give your child the opportunity to express their thoughts and opinions about how things are done.  Here is a common example:  At lunchtime, you ask, “Would you like chicken nuggets or pizza?”  You have invited the child to make a decision with a clearly limited number of acceptable options, but your tough kid says, “I want STEAK!”  Do you make him a steak? NO! You simply say, “Pizza it is!” and give him his lunch.  If you are consistent, he will eat it (assuming there are no significant dietary restrictions).  If you have ever changed the choices before, he will whine and throw a tantrum.  See the behavior for what it is, an attempt to make the slot machine pay out.  Do not waste your time explaining why you cannot grill a steak just for one person, or that you are saving the steaks for next week when Aunt Sue comes over, or that it is just too much food for a simple afternoon meal.  None of that matters, it just wasn’t one of the choices.  That is all you have to say.

Predictability is one of the best ways to make a child feel stable and secure.  Be consistent; remember the long-term rewards of not giving up include a more peaceful household and a happier child.  You have to be the most stubborn person in the room, even more so than your four-year-old.

Information on this page should be utilized as a guide, not as medical advice. If you feel you need to speak with someone regarding counseling or mental health, please contact Psychology & Counseling to make an appointment.

At Psychology & Counseling, we offer counseling and mental health assessments. Following diagnosis, we work with you to determine the best course of treatment and counseling for you. If you would like to schedule an appointment, please call us at (601) 261-1650.

Tate Rutland


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