Parenting is like walking a tightrope, especially when it comes to discipline. It’s a delicate balancing act of staying consistent, but also recognizing that each child is unique.
When you have at least two kiddos, parenting can feel more like walking a tightrope…while spinning plates. Yet discipline is an integral part of parenting because it shapes our children’s behavior and character. Given the importance of discipline, we want to do it effectively.
Parenting advice generally emphasizes consistency because it provides predictability for your child. The theory is that consistency lets them know the consequences of pushing the limits you’ve set. Eventually, they will internalize your rules.
An interesting question arises when you have different expectations or consequences for different kids, however. Is that inconsistent?
Consistency is not uniformity
Parenting with consistency doesn’t mean discipline must be uniform among all your children. The problem with such a “one size fits all” approach to parenting is that it doesn’t consider that each child is as unique as their fingerprints.
Most parents intuitively know this. For example, parents generally don’t have the same expectations for their toddler as they would for their 10-year-old. The toddler may have an earlier time for bed, (s)he may be expected to nap, and (s)he doesn’t drink from a glass like the ten-year-old is probably allowed to do.
Where parenting becomes more nuanced is when it’s not so clear-cut because you’re not dealing with developmental differences between the kids. Instead, you’re dealing with behaviors that are attributable to their uniqueness.
Tailoring parenting based on your child’s unique strengths and weaknesses
Tailoring your discipline to meet each child’s separate needs is not only good but crucial. In fact, research shows that it reduces the risk of depression and anxiety in children.
Tailored parenting means considering your child’s traits, temperament, and personality when setting expectations or addressing misbehavior.
Say you have two children and one of them withdraws when overwhelmed while the second child acts out when frustrated. For the first child, a strict approach to discipline might crush him or her. Maybe that child needs a quiet space for reflection and guidance on expressing emotions. For the child who acts out, you may need other tools in your toolbox. Ignoring the child’s behavior, taking away privileges, or implementing some type of reward system when (s)he behaves properly is likely to be more effective.
I’ve experienced these nuances of discipline along my parenting journey. My husband and I have three kids. One doesn’t even want to see the line, let alone cross it, while another consistently dips at least a toe over the line. And the third child is quite hard on herself, having perfectionist tendencies.
We have often had to parent our more spirited child by taking away privileges or, during the toddler and preschool years, by ignoring the behavior. But we discovered that removing privileges from the child who is hard on herself exacerbated her harsh inner critic. So, we’ve had to adjust how we parent her.
We learned that discussing the issue with her and resolving it together was more effective at changing her behavior. There may have been some type of consequence imposed, depending on the infraction, but more often than not, a conversation achieves our objective. That’s not to say we didn’t have conversations with our spirited child, but it was not effective in itself to change the behavior.
As another (minor) example, one of our rules was that our kids couldn’t get phones until they were 13. When our youngest was approaching that age — about six months before her birthday — naturally, she was wondering whether she’d get one.
Unlike our older kids, she was notorious for losing her belongings and for dropping things. These weren’t occasional instances — they seemed almost habitual. As you can imagine, we weren’t jumping at the opportunity to entrust her with an expensive item to keep track of or to avoid breaking.
We delicately explained our concern and told her we needed to see that she was ready for the responsibility. We expected she would understand that our rule didn’t entitle our kids to a phone when they turned 13 and that she would get one when she was ready. She did understand. And she came up with a plan for how to address our concerns.
(She did get the phone. But we also made sure she had a case that NASA scientists would have difficulty cracking open.)
Even parental praise can differ in type and frequency. Every child needs praise — their personality will dictate the when and how. Take the child who normally acts out. When (s)he controls his or her behavior, praise can be instrumental in improving the behavior. It teaches the child that they get a positive response when they behave as expected. That child may need to be praised more often than the child who withdraws.
Challenges with tailored discipline
Tailoring discipline might seem self-evident, but it can be more difficult to put into practice than we realize. When stressed, we often revert to our innate style of parenting. Maybe you’re in a rush to get out the door or you’ve had a terrible day at work. You want the simplest way to parent, which is the one that comes most naturally to you. You’re human, after all.
Added to that, we all have unconscious biases that we bring to the table as parents. For example, humans naturally have a confirmation bias, meaning we seek information that aligns with a preexisting belief. This bias could’ve made me (or my husband) more inclined to notice when our spirited child did something out of line because it confirmed our beliefs.
Or we might reinforce gender stereotypes by having a daughter do only household chores while the son is given more physically demanding chores.
We often make assumptions based on birth order, expecting more from the eldest child than the “baby” of the family, for example. Or we parent the way we were raised.
This is not an exhaustive list of the biases we have as parents. But the challenge is to self-reflect and become aware of our biases. We need to understand not only our children but ourselves to tailor our parenting properly and effectively.
If we are only seeking information consistent with our viewpoint, we should read up on contrary viewpoints. And we’d do well not to expect certain behaviors based on birth order or gender. Gender and birth order stereotyping limit children’s potential, such as teaching girls to be obedient and boys not to express emotions.
Communication is key
I don’t claim that my husband and I always parent effectively or even properly. Hardly. Like most parents, we’ve lost our cool when we were stressed, we’ve taken the easy route if we’re overly tired, and we struggled to adapt our parenting styles for each child — just to name a few.
But we did learn that open communication with all of our children was vital. It creates a space where kids can feel comfortable coming to you to express their thoughts and concerns. The parenting journey becomes a collaborative learning process with your kids.
Be compassionate with yourself
Parenting is not easy. It’s an ongoing learning exercise. But I’m a firm believer that we should be compassionate with ourselves when we make mistakes as parents.
Instead of beating ourselves up, learn from the experience and maybe even discuss it with our child. Own our mistakes. By doing this we model taking responsibility for one’s actions while also forgiving ourselves.
Parenting isn’t a rigid rulebook. It’s a dynamic, ever-evolving endeavor. And compassionate self-reflection combined with adapting your approach to each child could be the key to unlocking their full potential.
This article was originally published at Medium. Republished with permission from the author.