Q. I am a working mother who is employed approximately 20 hours per week. When I get home, I have a very difficult time setting limits with my 2 year old son. I have been away all morning and I hate for us to have any conflicts when I get home. Sometimes I just give into his wishes. I know this is bad for him but when I try to be consistent it gets our afternoon off to a bad start. I end up feeling terrible. Do you have some suggestions?
A. It sounds like your ability to set limits waxes and wanes with your guilt about being away from your son. If you can resolve your feelings about your guilt, the other difficulties will probably resolve. It may help to reevaluate whether your son is receiving good care when you are away. If you feel good about your reasons for working and the quality of your childcare arrangements, your guilt may be alleviated to some degree. If you do not feel good about these issues, you will be more clear about the changes you need to make.
There are a few things you can do that may help the situation. Try to do something with your son as soon as you get home. Spend at least 15 or preferably 30 minutes reconnecting. Usually engaging in an activity that the two of you like doing will help. In this way you can get the afternoon off to a better start and relieve your guilt to some degree.
The second thing you can do is to make a firm commitment to yourself to be consistent. It may help to reassure yourself that consistent limits are very important and in the long run will do more to insure a good relationship between you and your son than if you “give in” to his wishes. Children tend to feel safer when they are with a parent who sets consistent limits. They tend to function better if most aspects of their environment are predictable. Children’s behavior tends to improve when rules and limits are consistent; they know what the consequences will be if they violate the rules so rules tend to be obeyed. This means that there are likely be fewer conflicts between the two of you because you will not have to scold or punish your child as frequently. A second reason to be consistent is that children quickly perceive ambivalence in the parent and play on it. Furthermore, if you are waffling, it is confusing for your son because he does not know what you really want.
Note: This was a question answered by Dr. Cynthia Divino in her column for the Boulder Parent between the years 1991 and 1994. The articles have been updated and republished here to help the BIPR parenting community.