Parenting Young Children:
The Earlier the Better
Emily Bouchard, MSSW and Sheena Berg, M. Ed.
The StepHeroes™ StepParenting Newsletter
In an ideal world, parenting young children would be a perfect seamless transition from the innocent, adorable, cuddly baby stage to the cooperative, responsible, loveable child. Unfortunately, high expectations can fall apart even before the Terrible Two's as the angelic baby morphs into a self willed little person who craves independence while being ill equipped, emotionally or developmentally, to handle it.
And it's totally understandable that parents worry about doing the right thing amid the flurry of friends and family offering advice and the over supply of parenting books cluttering the shelves. In a blended family there are often competing views in the different households that further complicate the issue.
According to two parenting experts, Foster Cline and Jim Fay, who wrote the definitive parenting book, "Parenting with Love and Logic", the basic steps for effective parenting, starting with babies as young as 6 months old, are: set firm limits with enforceable statements and allow the child to make choices and experience logical consequences of those choices. This parenting style, known as being a "Consultant", consistently teaches kids to think for themselves from a very young age, and serves them well through teenage years into adulthood.
For parents in blended families, finding a parenting strategy that you can both agree on and support each other in applying will make a world of difference. The more united you are in your parenting ALL the children in your home, the better off you will all be. Children learn early on how to manipulate their parents, and with the added issue of guilt that is so prevalent in blended family situations, kids do not end up getting the consistent parenting they need. The nice thing about the "Consultant" approach is that it puts the parent in a role of empowering your children and not being the heavy or the bad guy.
When Emily's granddaughter would go from her dad's house to her mom's, she would often get confused about what behaviors were allowed in which home. Where she got away with a lot of manipulation and whining and tantrums at her dad's house, she encountered clear expectations and boundaries from her mom.
A gentle reminder from her mom, such as "Hmmm, I think you've forgotten about your choices here in this house" would often transform my granddaughter from complaining and demanding to being respectful and cheerful -- her mom couldn't get over what a difference being a consistent consultant made in the level of peace in their life, even when her dad didn't use the same strategy in his home.
Resource:For less than $6 you can buy the very humorous but informative booklet: Helicopters, Drill Sergeants and Consultants, by Jim Fay, to learn about parenting styles and the messages they send to kids. This is an excellent little guide to help explain why parenting style matters.
Even the youngest kids want to control their environment so setting age appropriate limits with choices is a great way of giving a sense of control to them within safe, secure and reasonable boundaries. As they grow, the boundaries widen but the essential thinking skills are firmly in place, making it more probable that the child, by the time the teen years hit, is adept at thinking for himself and making choices that are thoughtful and responsible and not rash or self destructive. A young child experiencing the logical consequence of missing a meal because of choosing to play on the floor rather than behaving at the dinner table is a lot easier to deal with than the more serious consequences of an inexperienced teen choosing to drink and drive.
Cline and Fay recommend the use of thinking words from the get go. These can be expressed as a question or as enforceable statements, such as, "Yes, you can play outside in the snow when you put your jacket on". Children are encouraged to think about choices of behavior and if they can't choose themselves then parents can make the choice for them, not in anger, or as a threat or a warning. Rather than overuse the word "No" or constantly issue commands (which are forms of setting limits which the child eventually ignores or rebels against) they recommend using questions, offer choices or make enforceable statements.
Recommendation:Please refer to Parenting with Love and Logic by Cline and Fay for a more detailed explanation of thinking words and the effectiveness of questions, choices and enforceable statements
From the time babies are born parents set limits for them in terms of their care and protection, and babies and young kids thrive on consistency and a feeling of security. As they grow they want to test the limits and it's the parents' job to let them know the boundaries are strong and the child can safely and securely explore and experience his world while learning that behavior has logical consequences.
It's never too early to start setting limits and allowing kids to learn from the logical consequences of choices. The joy of parenting takes lots of practice. Here are a few areas where you can begin setting foundations of raising responsible, thinking, cooperative children in your blended family:
Many families struggle with setting up a bedtime routine and as a result find themselves in a battle zone every night with youngsters refusing to go to bed or constantly invading the parental bedroom in the middle of the night. Everybody ends up sleep deprived and very grumpy. If this sounds familiar, read on...
Action Step:Set a bedtime with a consistent routine that leads to the child being in her bedroom with the firm expectation that she will stay there, settle down and fall asleep. Parents can't force kids to fall asleep but they can set limits for the child staying in her room and allow control or choice about story or not, cuddle or not, light on or not, and so on. A calming down period 30 - 45 minutes before actual bedtime is useful to help a child wind down, prepare for bed by washing and brushing teeth, and feel sleepy.
2. Meal times
Having a regular mealtime helps parents model good food choices as well as create a sense of responsibility and cooperation in kids of all ages. Younger children can contribute to meal times by choosing between setting the table, clearing the dishes, or selecting a favorite meal once a week. As they get older they can increase responsibility and cooperation by helping with shopping and meal preparation. For blended families, meal times offer a consistent and fun opportunity to connect and learn the importance of choosing cooperation and responsibility.
Table manners can also be modeled and reinforced by allowing children to choose between behaving at the table as determined by the parents, or missing a meal.
Action Step:Plan a meal where everyone contributes from a list of food choices and preparation jobs and clean up. Allow the youngest kids to choose from the easiest jobs to make them feel responsible and valued. Model and reinforce family table manners. The meal you choose could be once a week (like a Sunday Brunch; or every Wednesday night), but if you're only going to do it once a week, be sure to choose a meal when the most children (if not all) can be present. The meal you choose could be every night for dinner -- but only do this if it is realistic and can be follow through on with ease and grace. You don't want to create more stress for yourself. The idea is to come up with a plan together as a family that you think could work, give it a try and see how you feel about the results.
Every parent wants to raise responsible, self confident happy children, and even though it's hard to imagine getting serious about this when they are cute babies or adorable, energetic toddlers, it's important to expose them to the logical consequences of behavior. As soon as they understand the connection between their behavior and the responses and reactions of their parents, it's time.
Emily's grandson showed her stepdaughter he understood choices at age 13 months. "Katie" told him that they could go outside as soon as his shoes were on. She went to get the diaper bag, and he came toddling towards her with his shoes in his hands! A good thing to keep in mind is that by 8-9 months your kids surpass the family dog in intelligence and grasp the connection between their behaviors and consequences.
One More Resource:If you're finding yourself struggling with persistent, out of control behaviors and you need serious answers NOW, we strongly recommend The Total Transformation Program.
If you find yourself needing additional help,
contact one of our blended family coaches to schedule a session.
Wishing you and your blended family
all the best this year,
Emily Bouchard, founder,