You have probably all heard the term ‘gateway drugs’. The assumption that certain substances (generally illegal ones such as marijuana, but in some cases even sugar has been given the label -due to its inherent ability to activate reward centres in the brain) function as a ‘gateway’ to heavier and even more problematic substances. Well in an interesting article by Wendy Calise, head of a Montessory school in Illinois, the term ‘gateway parenting’ was coined. This adds a somewhat comical spin to the concept, but it is also a very good way to describe an important set of behaviours that often lead to far more difficult dynamics. It is based on the idea that ‘giving in’ (or more accurately lack of consistency) even if just a little at a time, leads you down a slippery slope of ineffective parenting and misbehaving kids. No matter how small the act of ‘giving in’ is, it counts towards changing your child’s behavior and expectations.
Consistency is extremely important when helping your child make sense of the world thereby raising balanced and confident kids. By saying ‘no’ only to give in afterwards can confuse a child and make them more likely to insist next time knowing you will eventually fold (obviously consistency is just as important when saying ‘yes’). In my experience, both from working with children and at home, giving in once in a while may not be a huge deal as it is still possible to revert back when needed (luckily, as it’s difficult to always get things right first time around!). However it definitely makes the next time you are faced with a similar situation that little bit harder. Being a parent is a 24/7 role and at times it may seem difficult to find the strength, the time or simply be presently aware to keep track of all that is going on. The thing that helps me in being resolute is, obviously, having a good reason. When deciding whether or not to allow my kid something I generally ask myself “what are my reasons for saying yes or no?”, “Is my decision guided by his development or my easy living?” The answer should be that it is what is best for my child not what is easiest or more comfortable for me at that moment in time. That way I won’t change my mind. Furthermore explaining as clearly as possible the criteria for the decision gives me a way to reason with my 3 year old which stimulates his language and provides a greater understanding of the world, different points of views, responsibilities and cause & effect. So when your toddler is repeatedly asking for a treat at the supermarket and you have said ‘no’ because it is soon time for dinner or because the treats he wants are unhealthy or because you don’t want this to become a habit, be consistent. Even if he is on the verge of a tantrum, in fact especially if he is on the verge of a tantrum (as the tantrum might indicate previously conveyed mixed messages). Giving in will just increase tantrum behaviour making trips to the supermarket a less enjoyable and educational experience for both of you. The parent who starts to give in and say “well just this once” several times a day, week etc. is on the slippery slope of gateway parenting.
Another aspect of gateway parenting which is described in the article is the internal need we feel to help our children every step of the way. Even at times when they could potentially do it themselves. We mostly do it out of love or perhaps because we are pressured for time. However, by doing this we take away the opportunity for learning and may even be lowering our child’s self esteem. Not only will they feel successful when achieving new skills but it will also help build a desire to work hard at things later in life, leading to competency and self confidence. Obviously every circumstance is different and it may not always be possible to allow independence and some examples from the article may be viewed as unnecessary for example getting your child to walk to a friends house in the rain when you could drive them instead. Every parent has to decide what lessons they want their kids to learn and to what extent they are willing to go. In that situation, I for one would probably drive 🙂
You can find Wendy Calise’s article here: http://mariamontessori.com/mm/?p=2452&cpage=1#comment-105469