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The Challenge and Importance of Consistent Parenting

Feb. 18, 2022 Psychology Today

It’s the middle of February, which, if you’re like most people, is right about the time those New Year’s resolutions taper off, and we tell ourselves something along the lines of “I’ll get back to it later.” Whether that was a healthier eating routine, exercise, reading, or waking earlier to start the day, what you’re experiencing is one of the great challenges of mankind—consistency.

As humans, we have a hard time sticking to something long-term. The reason? It’s hard to delay gratification when something else can grab our attention or be easier for us right now.

We can’t argue with the logic that consistency, in some things, is the best path, though. If we consistently eat better, we’ll consistently feel better. If we consistently improve our communication with a loved one, our relationships get better. If we consistently avoid drinking, our health gets better.

Consistency in Parenting

In no sphere of life is the power of consistency more valuable than in parenting. Parents have the particularly sticky job of raising little humans—little humans who have never experienced the world before. Every single day is a lesson in “how to be a person.” Along the way, they make many mistakes and push many boundaries—that is, after all, how we learn.

But to parents, those pushing boundaries and making mistakes is a call to action. Parents, the good ones, know that they can’t allow their children to go without redirection when they stray off course.

It would be easy if all it took was a parent applying a rule one time, and the child understood it immediately, obeyed immediately, questioned nothing, and internalized that desire for obedience. But who are we kidding?

What is more likely to happen is that the child will listen… a little… then get bored, or think that the parents forgot and go right back to pushing and testing the limits. They’re trying to learn, yes—but how do you help kids learn effectively without pulling your hair out?

Where It Goes Wrong

The instinct in these rebellious moments is to argue, lose your temper, and go to an all-out war with your child. Alternatively, if your child is the one who chooses war, sometimes it’s easier to just give in. You decide to skip the war altogether and just say, “Fine, do what you want,” and you figure it’s better to lose the battle than fight the war.

Enter delayed gratification. You know in your heart that you need to be consistent with what you said, but you really want to avoid this meltdown in the grocery store, so you’re just going to give her the candy bar. Or you know that he hasn’t gotten home by curfew the past three nights, but taking away his car like you threatened would really make it difficult for him to bring his brother to soccer practice, so maybe you’ll just let it go this time. Etc. Etc.

But we have to be aware of what we are communicating in these moments of inconsistent parenting.

In effect, we’re saying: “Hey kid, while you’re learning to test limits and trying to figure things out, I see that you’re outright pushing the boundaries, and I know you know that what you’re doing is against the rules—but I’m not going to punish you every time, so good luck knowing which parent you’re going to get, and good luck knowing which rule really matters. It’s up to you to read my mind to get what you want and for us to avoid fighting.”

Spelled out like this—we can see the error of our ways. Spelled out like this, we see that this is not the message we want to send. So what do we do?

Get On the Same Page

One of the first things I stress to the parents I work with is that you must agree on how and when you discipline. Your child doesn’t have the capacity and shouldn’t be responsible for switching between parenting modes that the two of you dance around.

Second, get on the same page with your kid. Have a sit-down with them to explain the rules clearly and concisely, as well as the consequences for when the rules are violated. Make this developmentally appropriate for your child’s age. Depending on your child’s age and temperament, I recommend regular family check-ins where you discuss what went well and what was hard each week and a refresher on what is expected.

Third, stick to what you say. Even if you have to delay punishment for a few hours to get your head straight, simply let your child know that you’ll have a discussion later about what the consequence will be for their actions so that you can stick to your consistent plan.

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