Best to make expectations fit the age

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Sometimes I think my biggest parental challenge is figuring out what’s a big deal and what isn’t.

The occasional pair of kids’ socks found hiding under the couch? Not a big deal. Every pair of their socks MIA? A big deal. Picking the cat up from a nap because they couldn’t resist that soft orange fur? Understandable, and as far as I’m concerned, the cat’s price of admission into a house with young children. Never allowing the cat to have a moment’s peace? Not OK.

Basically, if something isn’t a big deal, you want to let it slide. Few of us want to be dictatorial with our children, or unnecessarily stern. When something is a big deal, you want to respond appropriately, and teach them the proper way to act and react. It sounds simple, but in reality, this path is filled with enough holes to make even the most well-meaning parent stumble and fall  occasionally.

I feel myself sliding down this slippery slope quite a bit. If my daughter is 10 minutes late coming inside, or isn’t ready to leave on time, it’s easy to understand she was having fun with friends, or was caught up in an activity and didn’t notice the time. I empathize, I know how it feels, and I don’t want to be too much of a stickler. But lately I’ve been wondering if this approach, which I previously felt good about, is really the best thing for her. After all, our primary job as parents is to prepare our children for adulthood. So isn’t it better if she learns the importance of punctuality? If I don’t make an effort to instil punctuality and respect for people’s time into her when she’s young, might she not grow up into the type of person who is chronically late or even the sort who (gasp!) never RSVPs?

It’s the little things that, started early in life, breed either bad or good habits. At the same time, it would be difficult to justify taking a hard stance on something like interrupting or table manners with very young children. It’s best to make expectations age-appropriate (for instance, I know it’s impossible right now for my three-year-old to sit still at the table, but he is reminded to try), while also making certain they know the reason behind the rule. I’ve certainly been in situations where I wondered if I was the only person left trying to teach their kids manners, but I’ve also seen parents berating kids for minor infractions. It seems that, as with most other aspects of parenting, it comes down to a balance. A little consideration for others goes a long way, as long as we don’t exclude our kids from that equation.

The disappearance of manners seems to be a common modern complaint. Hold the door open for someone, and chances are you’ll be stuck there holding it for the next dozen people, none of whom will thank you. When my daughter was little, I always stressed the importance of not pushing past others to get things or be first, and then watched in dismay as other more assertive kids got all the candy from the piñata or were first to be picked for something fun. It’s hard to argue for manners and politeness when all it seems to do is put you last.

I’m certain that most parents don’t intend to teach their children to be impolite. Parents are busy and distracted, so they let rules and manners slide in an effort to get things done. The problem is there is always someone watching, and learning, those same behaviours.

When children show bad habits, it’s because they either don’t yet know better or haven’t had enough practice to create good habits. We can always create learning opportunities. One of the best ways is to just watch for those times when they exhibit a trait you don’t want them carrying into adulthood, and create a teachable moment.

Stressing traits such as punctuality, respect, and consideration might seem like big concepts for small kids, but it’s all about the snowball effect. None of us are perfect and we could probably all benefit from a little more awareness. And if that means that maybe people think twice before breaking the rules of the school’s pickup area, then so much the better.

And since I have been continually interrupted while attempting to write this, I think I’ll take my own advice and create that teachable moment instead of a big deal.

Susan Whistler is a local writer and co-creator of the children's book, "The Great Crow Party." She enjoys her family, walks by the ocean, and perfectly placed apostrophes. She can be found online at

Organizations: Great Crow Party

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