How to Parent With Both Strength and Flexibility

How to Parent With Both Strength and Flexibility
Photo: Vasyl Dolmatov, Getty Images

A big part of parenting is setting rules, expectations, and boundaries — and then enforcing them. Every parent learns at some point that if we’re not consistent with our rules, they pick up on that real quick, and they start to test the strength of our resolve at any given turn. Let them skip brushing their teeth just this once and they’ll plead every night for the next month to skip the chore.

But sometimes, we find ourselves stuck in a constant battle over a rule or routine we started way back when. If we think long and hard about it, we may not even remember why we made this specific rule — but to throw our hands up and say, “Fine! Have it your way!” feels like an invitation for them to push back on other rules, too.

That’s why one parent wrote to Washington Post parenting columnist Meghan Leahy for advice. They’d been struggling to get their eight- and 10-year-old kids to shower and have the table set for dinner by 6 p.m. every night — to the point where the eight-year-old was skipping dinner entirely in favour of playing instead. Although it’s unclear why it was so important for the shower to happen before dinner or why dinner had to hit the table at that exact time, the rule had created an inflexibility in the home that just isn’t worth it.

As Leahy explains:

As our children grow up and develop, we parents must remain flexible and strong. In my book, Parenting Outside the Lines, I liken our parenting stance to marsh grass. It is deeply rooted and strong but utterly flexible up top. To avoid or sidestep unnecessary power struggles, you must zoom out and ask yourself: “Is the boundary I am upholding an important value? Or is it about me and fear?”

By creating boundaries that are about values and not “because I said so,” you stand a great chance of developing with your children; you are rooted and strong where you need to be, and open and flexible when the family calls for it.

The “marsh grass” analogy is a more helpful version of the classic “pick your battles” parenting advice. We know there are certain things we have to give in on so that every day isn’t an hours-long battle of wills. But deciding which battles to wage and which to surrender to can be tricky in the moment. Running the debate through the filter of “Does this uphold an important value, or do I want compliance for the sake of compliance?” actually gives us a more consistent measurement for when to be firm and when to be flexible.

In this parent’s case, the core value might actually be wanting the family to sit down together for dinner every night (or most nights). To achieve that and alleviate the ongoing headache of getting the kids showered and present to a fully set table by 6 p.m., they might move the shower time later, or have the kids clean up the dinner plates rather than set the table, or push dinnertime back by a half hour.

Doing any of those things keeps their core value rooted and allows for flexibility on how to actually achieve it.

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