Life’s Little Things

The key to family harmony is realism

When I was growing up one of my neighbours was an exuberant woman notorious for her short fuse and colourful outbursts, particularly when dealing with her children.

Her son, a diminutive child, was often seen tiptoeing carefully away from her, arms outstretched, tone conciliatory, as he attempted to explain some mishap; ìnow Mammy, donít start shouting, now Mammy itís really not that badî.

Predictably, this never had the desired calming effect and she routinely launched into histrionics whatever his alleged transgression. Mischievous pranks were treated with the same response as downright dangerous behaviours with the result that the poor child never knew whether he was coming or going.

Sided monologues

Their interactions were one sided monologues consisting of Mum yelling ìdonít open the kitchen cupboard…donít take out the cookie jar from that cupboard……donít open that jar and donít you dare eat any of those cookiesî and so on. Needless to say he happily ignored everything she said and enjoyed his cookies immensely while mum threw her eyes to Heaven and said ìhe never does anything I tell himî.

Is that really so surprising? He ate the treats he wanted and there were zero consequences for cheerfully ignoring her. Clearly, issuing a request is not the same as having it carried out. In business as well as in family life, directives are only as powerful as the will to carry them out. Some parents think that because they have established a rule their child will automatically fall in line, thereby absolving the parent of the responsibility of following through with enforcing that rule. This goes hand-in-hand with setting boundaries, you can set as many of them as you like for your child but if you donít enforce them you might as well whistle Dixie.

That wonderful Far Side cartoon comes to mind; pet owner says to dog, "good dog Rover, fetch the ball Rover, bring it here, good job Rover", but all Rover hears is "blah blah blah Rover, blah blah Rover, blah blah blah Rover". I am sure that many children operate in the same way, blithely ignoring most of what their parents say and responding only when they hear their name or the words "ice-cream" or "television".

I have been told that this selective hearing is the secret of many long-lasting marriages but when it comes to our children why do we allow our voices to be ignored? We know that following through with a golf swing or following a recipe from beginning to end increases the likelihood of reaching the intended goal yet we can be so poor at following through on what we say we will do.

Family harmony

There is no shortage of TV programmes highlighting the consequences to family harmony when parents fail to follow through on what they say. Practitioners encourage parents to communicate clearly what they expect from their children and the consequences if they do not do what it asked. Above all, parents must consistently enforce both these things. Simple in theory but it requires paying attention and expending some effort and these can be in short supply in busy households.

The key here is realism. Parents need to ask can I reasonably expect what it is I am asking of my child and will I really enforce some consequence I devised in frustration? The only sensible starting point is to figure out what you want to happen and say and stick to saying just that. My neighbour's son now has three boys of his own. I am reliably told that they open their fair share of cupboards and eat pretty much whatever they fancy too.