Parenting With Consistency

“You gotta be consistent,” might just be one of the most oft-repeated parenting phrases out there, second only perhaps to “sleep when the baby sleeps.”

It seems like such a cliche that it’s almost tempting to write off this advice as overrated, but I think it’s important enough to go back to now and again.

What is Consistency in Parenting? defines the practice of consistency as “steadfast adherence to the same principles, course, form, etc.” while the Myriam Webster Dictionary states that the practice involves a “harmony of conduct or practice with profession.”  For our purposes, I would equate “parenthood” and “profession.”

In other words, we need to mean what we say and it has to “make sense” to both child and parent in the context of reasonable parenting. Note: I mention child and parent.

It’s difficult to follow through on something that, when you get down to it, is actually unreasonable for the child or unrealistic to enforce for the parent.  And, each family is different when it comes to how to gauge this.  We all have different needs.  For example:

Family A: Child is highly reactive to sugar.

Child: “Mum, just one more Hallowe’en candy!?”

Parent: “We need to stick with one a day so that we can keep getting along with one another.”

Family B:  Parents wish to avoid dealing with a protracted Hallowe’en stash.

Child: “Dad, could I have another Hallowe’en candy?”

Parent: “You’ve reached your limit of three a day.  You can have three more tomorrow.”

Why Do It?

Being consistent in our parenting decisions is perhaps one of the biggest anxiety reducers that we have available to us.  And it’s anxiety reducing for both children and parents. Why?

  • Over time, children learn what to expect, where the boundaries are; this fosters feelings of emotional safety and security.
  • Parents and the family as a whole benefit from the increased harmony that comes with everyone knowing where the limits are.
  • Avoids tantrums in the long-term, although not necessarily right away (especially if the child has grown accustomed to variability in parenting response).
  • Promotes prosocial behaviour in children because they have a “secure base” to try new things.

Why We Don’t Do It

We know why parenting with consistency is good to do, but why do many of us stumble?

  • Family background.  Things about the way we were raised which are influencing our parenting decisions today. For example, we may have been raised by very strict parents who offered little latitude when it came to our choices as children.  We decide to be freer with our children, maybe even spoiling them.
  • We feel bad (guilty).  This can especially arise when we’ve enforced a limit that is actually unreasonable.  For example, “If you don’t brush your teeth this morning, there will be no sugar in your diet for the next month!” vs. “If you choose not to brush your teeth today, I can’t allow you to have any sugary snacks today.” Parent follows through after child declines to cooperate.
  • We feel bad (guilty).  We think that seeing our child cry when we’ve been consistent is somehow unhealthy for the child or we feel like we “made” our child cry.  Crying is an emotional release and is part of the child’s process of coming to terms with the limit you’ve set. The crying may, however, be being used by the child to try to get you to change your mind, especially if that technique has worked before.
  • Circumstances. Sometimes things change and there’s nothing we can do about it. For example, routines have to sometimes be broken because of illness or something no longer seems like a good idea. If you change your mind, do so early on, to minimize the child’s belief that they got the desired result from a tantrum or protracted protest.

Tips For How to Do It

  • Avoid empty threats.  Children can see through these and when you can’t follow through, your credibility is undermined.
  • Avoid moralizing – being consistent is far less complicated when we leave out the sermon.
  • Keep it Simple – Less is more.  Leading your 3 year-old child back to her bed every time they jump out of it sends the message that you mean business; arguing with them tells them that you are willing to engage in a debate.
  • Set standards that are workable, limits that you can live with an enforce consistently.
  • Be aware of how unresolved issues and past experiences, particularly childhood ones, influence parenting decisions.  If these “ghosts from the past” continue to have you in an emotional stronghold, counselling can be helpful in working through these issues, increasing our awareness and coming up with practical alternatives.