Parenting Traps

The power of treats

Defining the rules by bending them a little

By Virginia A. Smith
October 18, 2009

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On the morning of her 15th birthday, my older daughter came out of a North End pastry shop carrying two huge boxes of cannoli and the parental credit card. She had been authorized to buy nine cannoli, but she had bought 20. Normally we’d have her make up the difference, but it’s her birthday. “Special treat!” we say.

Special treats are what they sound like: special. Not part of our usual family routine. Not precedent setting. With three children ages 6 to 15 whose argumentation skills portend successful careers as lawyers, we parental units have learned to watch our words.

I’ve learned the hard way never to set a precedent unless I’m prepared to do it 1,000 more times. So I eschew the cutesy things advised in parenting magazines -- cutting toast into geometric shapes, making “faces” out of vegetables -- that turn parents into short-order cooks. I aim for consistency and stick with our family rules for TV, money, bedtimes, sweets, and behavior.

“Rules need to be clear and consistent,” says Dr. Joshua Sparrow, a psychiatrist at Children’s Hospital Boston and coauthor of Discipline the Brazelton Way. “If you need to break a rule, recognize in the moment that you’re doing it, and present it as a one-time event.”

Later that day, Katie suddenly decided that her birthday would be absolutely perfect if I took her to a beach, despite the fact that she had been saying for months that the only thing she wanted to do on her birthday was go to the mall with her best friend on the T.

It’s already well into the afternoon. It will take an hour and a half to get to the beach, and by the time we’re ready to leave, we’ll be knee-deep in traffic. If she’d asked earlier, I would have happily taken her. But today I can’t.

Or can I? She’s my first baby. It’s her birthday. Of course I’ll take her. She will remember riding the waves on Singing Beach for a long time.

But the next time she asks to use the credit card or take a last-minute trip to the beach? I’ll say, “Last time was a special treat. This time the answer is no.”

Send comments to Do you ever bend or break household rules? When and why? Next week: The tough transition to preschool Last week: When your adult child shacks up

  • October 18, 2009 cover
  • october 18 globe magazine cover
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