Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Consistency is key

While I was visiting my son’s preschool the other day, I overheard another mom discussing her daughter’s behavior with the teacher. “She actually listens to you!” she said in disbelief. “And she does this on a regular basis?”

I was similarly amazed watching my son, at the sound of a bell, rush around the room picking up toys and tossing them into the correct bins. At home, if asked to help clean up, he will ever so slowly pick up two or three items, then fall to the floor in a dramatic fashion and whimper, “but…I’m…too…tired! Need…someone…to…help…me!”

A preschool classroom has the magical ability to transform unruly children into compliant, good-natured helpers. Of course they slip up sometimes, but often all it takes is a gentle reminder to follow the rules, and they are back on track. School combines those special elements that work to foster cooperation from young children: clear expectations, structure, and, of course, consistency.

Everyone knows that consistency is the key to success when you are dealing with kids. However, any time a parenting book or magazine article mentions consistency, it is followed by a caveat: whatever rules, schedules and structure you put into place, there will be exceptions, such as illness, moving to a new home, visitors, vacations, or the birth of a new sibling.

This is where I run into trouble, because the last five years of my life have been one long string of illnesses, moving, visitors, vacations, and births of new siblings.

Nevertheless, I work hard to ensure that my children have some form of consistency in their lives. So, there are a few things you can always count on at our house:

The sink is consistently full of dishes. The dishwasher is consistently in one of three states: (1) dishes are being washed, (2) dishes are clean, and need to be put away, or (3) it is full of dirty dishes, and I forgot to start it.

Five minutes before we should be leaving the house, we invariably encounter some setback (dirty diaper, spilled milk, missing shoe) which causes us to consistently arrive ten minutes late to our destination.

Regardless of how quietly the children have been playing all morning, if I attempt a phone conversation the noise level in the house consistently rises by 100 decibels.

The floor is consistently covered with various objects, including but not limited to: balls, building blocks, trains, cars, baby dolls, foam letters, books, and scraps of construction paper.

I consistently announce new rules about putting away one set of toys before getting something different out.

My children consistently find imaginative ways to combine the different types of toys. I consistently decide that this boosts their creativity, so I consistently fail to enforce the rules about putting away one set of toys before getting something different out.

We are consistently vigilant about limiting TV time and encouraging healthy eating habits.

If a visitor drops by unexpectedly, the children will consistently be lounging on the sofa, watching Teletubbies and eating Doritos.

We consistently start our bedtime routine around 6:30 or 7:00 p.m. (allowing for exceptions during times of illness, moving, visitors, vacations, births of new siblings, or something just came up.)

All of the children are consistently asleep by 9:00 p.m.

If any of the children are awake after 9:00 p.m., I will consistently lose my composure.

If any of the children are awake and ready to begin the day before 6:00 a.m., see above.

Even our dogs bring a sense of stability to the household. They consistently need to either be let outside or inside, or, alternatively they can be found under the table, trying to steal food from the baby.

Let’s face it, my home will never resemble an orderly classroom. But someday, the floors will stay clean and the kitchen sink will be empty. I’ll be able to talk on the phone in peace. Most likely, I’ll be calling one of my kids, wondering if they might compromise their consistent schedule with a vacation or a visitor so that I can play with my grandchildren.

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