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United Front: Child care and consistency

Christine Koh
Oct. 25, 2007

How to work together to get the best results

Kids' behavior changes frequently

Sometimes it seems every week brings new physical, emotional, or behavioral changes in a child's life, with the behavior and discipline issues sometimes testing even the most patient of parents and sitters. And if your child ever has done a "behavior 180??" (for better or worse) in the hands of a babysitter, or your household suffers from the effects of one parent being the disciplinarian and the other the pushover, you're not alone.

Particularly for stretched-thin, modern parents, it may seem easier to split discipline duty (i.e. disciplinarian vs. pushover), but everyone benefits from a united discipline front. Consistent parenting not only helps provide structure for children, but also decreases the number of "experimental trials" children will subject you and other caregivers to as they learn about human behavior.

Kids essentially function like determined little experimental psychologists, presenting a behavior, then evaluating their caregivers' reaction. They are intrigued by the response, particularly if??it varies from trial to trial and person to person. Variability in response encourages kids to continue experimenting, to determine how far they can push the boundaries in??different scenarios. It may sound manipulative, but it's age-appropriate behavior.

Kids behave differently according to the caregiver

My daughter Laurel has three periodic sitters: my sister, my mother, and a neighbor. Seeing these women in action has provided examples, time and again, of how behavior changes depending on babysitter. When Laurel is with my sister and our neighbor (both of whom actively seek to follow our routines and discipline plan), her behavior is in line with how she behaves with us. But her behavior is most erratic when she is with my mother, who is more inclined to let Laurel push limits. It can be difficult to give my mom directives about child rearing, given that she raised seven children herself, but now Laurel is in the thick of more serious, common behavioral situations, such as being mean to classmates and testing physical boundaries. These situations seem more difficult, yet more important when compared to the relatively innocuous food flinging of toddlerhood, so I've started engaging my mom in more conversations about discipline, and she's been pretty receptive so far.

Consistent response to your child's behavior

The conversations and repetitive responses required to maintain consistency in child rearing can get tedious. Do any of these sound familiar:

  • Calmly maintaining you don't respond to a whining voice
  • Getting what the child needs if they ask in a polite voice
  • Periodically cave in to whining to make it stop
  • Start all over again

Despite the repetition and occasional compromise, you'll likely find rewards at home and in easier babysitter transitions with less worry when you head out for your well-deserved date night. For parents of preschoolers where formative behavior/discipline scenarios are rampant I highly recommend:

This useful book is replete with behavior scenarios and concrete examples of how to handle them. The general tactics are useful well beyond the preschool years.

Build a united front

As you work on building your united front, keep your sitter in the loop regarding how you are handling the most common discipline situations like whining, hitting, and throwing food. If the sitter is part of your regular routine, it may be sufficient to translate this information verbally; otherwise, jot or type a few notes so the sitter is not expected to absorb a stream of discipline information while helping your child cope with transition and separation as you head out the door. And when you return, take the time to chat with your sitter to find out if any difficult situations arose and how she handled them. Remember to:

  • Provide feedback
  • Encourage your sitter to ask questions
  • Keep a list of child care preferences for your sitter

The more dialogue you have, the better your discipline philosophy will come through, allowing for consistency that translates across all parties. The peace of mind you'll feel as you enjoy your evening out will be well worth the effort.

Christine Koh is a music and brain scientist turned publisher, designer, and freelance writer/editor. She is the editor of BostonMamas.com and the artist behind PoshPeacock.com.

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