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To Give In or Not to Give In

That is the (not as pressing as you think) question.

A client recently came into my office with dark circles under her eyes; she has an intense full-time job and two young children, so those circles weren’t surprising. On this particular day, though, she looked more worn out than usual. After collapsing onto my couch, she recounted an epic struggle she’d had with her toddler the night before around bath time.

Her little guy had refused to get in the tub for over two hours, until my client had basically, in her words, “thrown him in the tub,” through the tears and screams—of all parties involved. After (of course) empathizing, I asked what I thought was a relatively straightforward question: “What stopped you from just skipping the bath?”

dedigrigoroiu/Adobe Stock
Source: dedigrigoroiu/Adobe Stock

My client looked up, and I watched her eyes well with tears. “Wait,” she said incredulously. “I’m allowed to give in?”

“Of course you are, Mama. Of course, you are.”

I sat with my client as she cried—some mix of relief, exhaustion, and regret—and wondered how it was she’d gotten the idea that she absolutely had to get her son in the bath no matter what, that giving in to his wishes would have signaled, as she later explained, “a surrender,” “a huge parenting fail,” and an action that would have a horrible and irreversible impact on her child for years to come.

Wow, that’s a lot of pressure.

How did we get here?

When it comes to parenting, there has been a widespread emphasis on the importance of “consistency” in both the research literature and the popular media—and for good reason. Decades of research show that consistent parenting is a hallmark characteristic of a secure parent-child attachment, which has been linked to a host of positive outcomes for children.

These findings are echoed in behavioral treatment research. Rewards and consequences—often used to shape children’s behavior in these paradigms—are found to be most effective when administered in a consistent, predictable way.

Consistency, therefore, is a concept that gets bandied about as critical when it comes to good parenting.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is how the term, and concept, of consistency has been misapplied to parenting in real life and misinterpreted by well-intentioned, devoted parents everywhere.

Consistency is not a synonym for perfection. A consistent parent is not one who is perfectly consistent, who never, ever breaks from the expected structure to be, well, human.

The mom who gives in to her kids’ demands on occasion to preserve her sanity, and the dad who at times chooses his battles to keep household calm a priority, are not laying the groundwork for an insecure parent-child attachment (associated with a range of negative outcomes for kids). Rather, these negative outcomes grow out of an ongoing pattern of inconsistency, of parent-child interactions largely characterized by unpredictability.

The idea that children do best when adults “say what they mean and mean what they say” is undoubtedly true. But that doesn’t mean that those same adults can never, ever change their minds, lest they ruin their children forever. In other words, “giving in” doesn’t have to represent a “surrender.” Rather, it can be just one simple decision at one moment in time—in a sea of decisions that we, as parents, make every day, all day long.

How do we know when giving in is OK?

Spoiler alert: We don’t. Or at least, we don’t know in any surefire, proven-by-algorithm way. What we do know is that it’s worth trending toward consistency. And that there’s some leeway.

We can stop feeling ashamed of the moments when we give in, be a bit more gentle with ourselves. We can recognize that if we are spinning obsessively in our minds—“Do I give in? Do I not give in? What’s the right answer here?”—our number-one task is to pause. Breathe. There is no “right answer,” per se. There’s just something you do. And then something you do next, depending on how that goes. And then something you do after that.

A quick personal story here. One night, when my older son was about 3 years old, he called me into his room at about 3:15 A.M. to request (read: demand) more ice in his water. I said no and intended to hold firm on this, given the absurdity of the request. But then he started melting down, half asleep, and I was concerned he’d wake up his baby brother in the next room.

I was also exhausted and had a really busy schedule the following day. And so I caved. Except that, because I had made an intentional decision after consciously pausing to weigh the various factors at play, it didn’t actually feel like caving. And so I said exactly that: “OK, I changed my mind. I am going to get more ice for your water because it’s really important to me that we both go back to sleep.”

What do we say when we give in?

Just as I did with my son in the example above, I always recommend that if (and when) you give in to your child, you’re transparent and take ownership of it, so that your child knows that it was not his or her behavior that led to the outcome. The jury’s out as to when they actually understand that piece, but it feels good—and is good practice—to say it anyway. Think about it: “I am choosing to change my mind, and here’s why” is a much more empowering sentiment to express than “Fine, you win, I give up!” It also has the bonus effect of modeling thoughtful problem-solving, so there’s that.

My son didn’t call me in again the next night to address his predawn beverage temperature concerns, but I was aware that he might and was prepared to handle the consequences. It was one choice point. I chose a path. That’s all you can do.

shangarey/Adobe Stock
Source: shangarey/Adobe Stock

The parent-child connection always comes first

Not only is never, ever giving in an impossible goal in the real world of parenting, but also continuing to strive for that kind of a spotless record can—and will—take a real toll on your relationship with your child and the fun you’re able to have together.

Which brings me back to my client. She still has the dark circles under her eyes (because life), but they’ve lightened a bit since she has begun to practice pausing. Most of the time, she holds her ground, and sometimes she doesn’t.

She’s learned not to sweat each and every bath (pun intended). She’s also enjoying her little ones a whole lot more, which has led to a stronger parent-child connection. And that, every bit of science will tell you, is what matters most.

More from Rebecca Schrag Hershberg Ph.D.
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More from Rebecca Schrag Hershberg Ph.D.
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