Father and son on the soccer field

Columnist Ken Witmer this week continues his series about fatherhood.

(Disclaimer: In using the term “father,” I am referring to biological fathers, adopted fathers or any father figure.)

When our youngest son was around 3 years old, I took him with me to a department store. While there, he spotted the toy section. As I often did, I said he could pick out something that did not cost too much. He almost instantly set his sights on a rather expensive toy.

I told him he could not get it and tried to direct his attention to something more reasonably priced. He would have none of my attempt at persuasion, and began screaming and crying outrageously. I told him to stop it! But my words were drowned by the volume of his ensuing temper tantrum.

At that point, I said if he did not stop, we were going to leave the store without him getting anything. He did not stop, of course, so I picked him up and hustled out of the store. As we headed toward our car, he whimpered his willingness to get the less expensive item. But I told him it was too late, since I said he could not get anything if he did not calm down.

So, with us both feeling a bit sad and out of sorts, we went home.

My son learned that day that most of the time I meant what I said. I honestly cannot recall another incident after that uncomfortable experience in which he threw a tantrum when I told him he could not get something. It reinforced in my mind that the times I weakened or yielded to bad behavior to quickly resolve an embarrassing situation, I was not helping my children accept no as the necessary answer.

Similarly, I learned over the years if you say to children, of almost any age in which words have meaning, such things as “We will go to the pool this evening if everyone behaves this afternoon!” — regardless of any amount of misconduct, you will probably end up going to the pool.

Although your message came with a disclaimer, the only words that would stick in the minds of the youngsters are “we will go to the pool this evening!” Even though these tenuous commitments usually relate to minor events or activities, if parents do not follow through, they often result in the parents yielding to the wishes of their children just to end the childish noise and ridicule.

You must stick to your word, or the child quickly learns that whining and fussing is a great form of control. Follow through just several times, and children typically learn there is little use arguing or acting miserable because it will not change the consequence. Be specific about your expectations so, as I mentioned before, you can point directly to the behavior or conditions not being met.

It is much more effective to offer your children rewards and pleasant opportunities after they have completed a task as requested or when you have caught them doing something good. Equally, if you made a commitment that was given with conditions and the children met them, then following through is important, unless serious mitigating circumstances prohibit your ability to do so.

Children do have to understand and adjust to the fact that sometimes our best intentions become impossible to honor. We need to be careful about what we offer our children, particularly when we are happy, excited, and likely to get carried away by suggesting unlikely possibilities. Great flashes of excitement can produce uncomfortable episodes of regret. Often, just a smile, positive comment or a pat on the back is much more rewarding than some material gesture for expressing pride and gratitude.

Being clear about our expectations and rewarding appropriate behavior takes a lot of stress and unnecessary tension out of day-to-day life with our children. They come to appreciate we will approve and reward good behavior, and that we will following up on applying stated consequences if they do not behave as expected. In other words, we are performing good parenting when our children truly understand we mean what we say — as often as humanly possible, that is!

Kenneth D. Witmer Jr., Ph.D., is a former dean of the College of Education & Social Work at West Chester University. A father of four and grandfather of eight, he and his wife recently moved to the Bethany Beach area.