Fleas In A Jar: A Metaphor For Parental Consistency

Perhaps you have heard this factoid: If you place fleas in a jar, without a lid on the jar…they will eventually jump out. However, put a lid on the jar, and leave it there for a while, and the fleas quickly become conditioned to jump no higher than the lid. Even with the tiny size of the flea brain, the repeated pounding on the lid drives the point home: Don’t jump that high! Fleas get it.

Here’s where it gets really interesting: given some time, you can take the lid of the jar off, and the fleas continue to jump ‘as if the lid was still there. Not just for a while, but forever…until they die!

What can fleas teach us about parenting?

Lesson 1: Consistency works, because even a flea brain learns from a consistent limit.

The small flea brain may not learn quickly, but it still learns…when bumping up against a clear limit (i.e., the lid). But for a moment, imagine the opposite: the lid is constantly moving. First a few inches lower, then higher. Completely inconsistent.

How would the flea learn how much effort to exert, to avoid a flea migraine? We all quickly realize that the flea would not know where the limit is at? One time it’s here, and one time it’s not.

The same is true for your children. While their brains learn much more quickly, behavioral limits require consistency IF we want our children to honor them. Consistent limits make it easy for children to learn how far they can go. When this happens, your life becomes much easier and more enjoyable.

This is critical because we want to set up our parenting plan so that limits are honored without much drama or repeated battles. Consistency is the glue that makes behavioral limits stick. If we have no consistency, we see that limits become relatively meaningless and are often ignored.

Lesson 2: Consistent limits teach healthy boundaries, which remain long after our job is done.

Like the flea that honors the lid even after the lid is removed, consistency in the limit setting tends to have a prolonged effect. Our goal is to have our children honor these healthy limits, even when we aren’t watching. That’s when we have real success!

If our children grow up with only healthy food, we see that this natural limit tends to last a lifetime. If children experience consistent limits on TV, video, and “electronics” we see more balance and a lower risk of video addictions.

Remember: parental limits (consistently maintained) often set healthy habits that persist for a lifetime.

Lesson 3: Choosing any limit is better than an inconsistent one.

Research suggests we are all a bit like the flea. We learn best from consistent limits.

Inconsistency wreaks havoc. There is confusion, frustration, and continual drama around the (inconsistent) limits. And, no long-term (healthy) patterns are put in place.

Thus inconsistency is double trouble. There is drama and arguments, combined with little learning.

Thus, I suggest choosing limits that you can stick to consistently. Rather than stretching for some ideal, choose limits that you know you can maintain. This will create a more enjoyable home, and the limits you put in place will be honored.

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