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Consistency, boundaries key to healthy child development

SYRACUSE — It's bedtime, and there's not much fuss as seven little Hydes trot off to their rooms. Trenton and Camilla Hyde tamed what had been a cranky, crazy winding-down by creating a paper schedule outlining the most important things that need done each day. It concludes with a simple declaration: "9 p.m. Bedtime."

In their rooms, the older kids — Dax, 12, Laryn, 10, and Davis, 8 — can read or do something quiet for a few minutes before they nod off. For Gabriel, 5, William, 2, and year-old twins Hazel and Hattie, it's a back rub, a song and "nighty-night."

The Hydes know routine is important, consistency tames chaos and setting boundaries begets strong relationships and good behavior.

"I think routine is very important to kids," said Camilla Hyde. "I think the most important thing is that we're all working together with a happy attitude because we are grateful for our home, our things, that mommy doesn't have to do it all by herself, we are a team." The kids, she said, "feel better knowing what they are supposed to be doing and what's expected of them. We get better behavior and they don't fight us on the schedule."

Boundaries, consistency, compassion and respect are the basics of good parenting, said Judi Lirman, a family and child therapist in Tarzana, Calif. "The parents or caregivers provide security, guidance and love in a frightening and chaotic world. … So many adults feel guilty about setting boundaries and being consistent. In truth, as long as they set these with logic and love, they are two of the most valuable gifts adults can give children."

One great boundary is simply to be clear that you're the parents, said Jerry Cook, associate professor of family and consumer sciences at California State University. "A lot of times we tell our children it's time for bed or they need to do a chore or whatever and they don't want to and we keep arguing with them. … Once you make a decision, that decision needs to mean something. Once you set clear boundaries — 'Here are the consequences' — the best thing is to walk away and distance yourself a little from whatever the child decides to do."

Too many parents, he said, tie their own identities up in what the child does and how obedient or accomplished she is. It's a mistake. Children need to learn to make the best choices they can and to live with the aftermath of those choices, he said.

Living with rules

A family's values drive their boundaries and in what ways they are consistent. The Hydes are most consistent, said Camilla Hyde, about their morals — "everything from not lying or talking dirty to being nice. Sometimes we don't get the homework done and we don't eat at 6 o'clock, but we are consistent with character."

They are also consistent with chores. They believe in hard work, so playtime is deferred until chores are done and each child has asked if there's another way he or she can help. Even Gabriel, at 5, regularly unloads the dishwasher and cleans his room.

"We are trying to keep them on a schedule, keep them grounded, with good morals," said Trenton Hyde. "We find if the kids are not on a schedule, they run five or 10 different directions all the time."

He and his wife are also united on what they believe is important, he said.

Cook and other experts say consistency is essential for a child's healthy development. One of the first things a child tries to establish is who can be trusted. "If there's not consistency in regards to decisions, children learn they can't trust their parents," Cook said. That includes seemingly innocuous failures like saying you'll play in a minute and not doing it or threatening consequences that never materialize. It undermines trust.

"By setting limits for children, you help them learn self-regulation and prepare the brain for more complex executive-function demands as they grow," said Dr. Rita Eichenstein, pediatric neuropsychologist in Los Angeles who works with families, blogs and is working on a book called "Resetting Normal: the Emotional Journey of Parents with Atypical Kids."

Drawing a line

Consistency and consensus among the adults in a child's life produce calm, care and comfort, said Dr. Daniel Bober, assistant clinical professor at Yale. Kids need routines and structures, especially when young. That doesn't mean you can't bend, for example, when you're on vacation, "as long as there's a warm and genuine caretaker who is generally consistent."

Parents may behave differently in different settings, Bober said. A child can cry to get a pack of gum at the store and perhaps win because it embarrasses an adult. At home, it wouldn't fly. Don't do it, he said. "No means no and has to mean no all the time. It's easier to withhold power from a child than to give it and then try to take it back."

Praise is often more powerful as a behavior modification than punishment, he said. Instead of feeding into negative behaviors, praise the positive where possible.

Parents often take a backwards approach, focusing on a child's behavior instead of their own, said Neil McNerney, family counselor and author of "Homework: A Parent's Guide to Helping Out Without Freaking Out." He tells them to focus on their own behavior when setting boundaries and keep it consistent. "Often, parents don't see a kid change and they give up. If, instead, a parent says, 'this is what I am going to do every single time,' the likelihood of giving up is less."

Some flexibility is important, "but not a lot of flexibility. People who have issues with consistency tend to be the more compassionate types. Drill sergeant types don't struggle with that. Kids need to know that when X occurs, Y is going to happen. That's the way life works."

Adults have to take into account differences in kids. Some are hardwired to thrive with routine that makes others anxious. Set boundaries and general rules, he said, but know your kids and make adjustments.

Children don't automatically understand why "me first" is not how the world works, Eichenstein said. "The goal of boundaries is to prevent 'me first' thinking, to nurture empathy and regard for others and to promote highly productive, goal-oriented behavior."

"Kids learn by what their parents do. If you want your child to stand up for herself, not get sucked into peer pressure, then he or she needs to see how you set your own boundaries and follow through," said Julia Simens, parenting expert and author of "Emotional Resilience for the Expat Child."

It is easier to set big boundaries, such as not going to people's homes without permission, because they are so significant and perhaps dangerous, said David Simonsen, psychologist and family therapist in Olympia, Wash. Smaller ones, like asking before having a sugar cereal, don't seem like a big deal. "The problem is, when you give up on small boundaries, your kids will push you on bigger boundaries. Being consistent in parenting is one of the most important things a parent can do.

"Teaching consistent lessons over and over can train a child in an effective, positive way so they can face challenges more effectively," he said.


Age matters. How much independence a child gets depends on how old he or she is. "As they get older, give more and more with the expectation that they can handle the consequences for their choices," said Cook. One of his own struggles, he noted, is figuring out how much autonomy to give his recent high school graduate, who still lives at home.

Eichenstein said parents must keep toddlers safe and help them learn to overcome their immediate urges, like taking a toy from another toddler. Social demands intensify for preschoolers, who must learn to delay gratification, adapt to their parents' clock and not bite friends. Learning daily routine, cooperating with the rules and speaking politely while making eye contact are victories at this age.

Limits become very important in grade school, she said, as children learn to shift well between home and school. Waking up on time, getting homework done and starting to help with chores are important.

The boundary battles heat up in middle school as peers become very important, Eichenstein said. As kids go to sleepovers, playdates and birthday parties, strong boundaries are needed. Parents need to pull the plug when a child is too tired or over-stimulated. They have to monitor relationships and make sure homework is done.

As for the teen years, "although teens think they are capable of making good decisions, the neurology of the teen brain research says otherwise. Their executive functions, in terms of making good judgment, decisions and overseeing how they are doing in general is still weak. Parents need to take the lead here and make sure that their behaviors are aligned with their goals for themselves, as well as your goals and expectations for them," she said.

Curfews, unsupervised parties, social groups and driving are all fodder for boundary setting, she warned.

McNerney said distraction works better with young children than punishment does. For older kids, he suggested "passive" punishment that doesn't require their cooperation. It's the difference between telling a child to clean his room as punishment, which requires action, or simply taking away his phone.

Bober offers a final word of encouragement: "When it is the most difficult to deal with your child, when you feel like you can't stand them, that's when they need you the most."

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