Consistency tops the list of parenting ideals, along side unconditional love. But watch out – reality has a way of tripping up perfect principles. Wise parents learn quickly that parenting young children requires consistency and flexibility. Rules are important but they are not static. Parents must be predictable but parenting is an on-going process of change and growth.
Children thrive in stable environments where they know what’s expected of them and they can predict what will happen next. Consistency cultivates emotional security as well as a sense of competence. The foundation of all consistency is a daily/weekly routine that brings order to your child’s experience. Then, your child learns to act purposefully with confidence in his abilities.
Consistency must always be tempered by balance. Too much structure and your child becomes rigid in his expectations. For example, he can’t sleep without absolute quiet or without the same person tucking him in at night. Parents walk a fine line of creating structure without becoming a slave to the structure. So, choose a routine that you can replicate easily under a variety of conditions. For example, make a favorite book or the teddy bear (yes, buy three of the same) the consistent center of your bedtime routine instead of one person or an impractical requirement.
Be consistent with language
Young children learn language “literally” before they can appreciate the complexities of innuendo and metaphors. There’s a time for silly-speech, for nonsense words, exaggeration and humor, but there’s also a time when you need to communicate clearly and directly. Those times, when you are giving your child directions or establishing limits, are times to mean what you say and say what you mean.
Your child learns to listen the first time when he knows you only say things once. Your child learns the power of words when he knows that “bedtime” means it’s time to stop playing and be in bed by a certain time. Give your child choices only when you will accept “no” answer; otherwise it’s not really a choice is it?
Be consistent over time
Consistency teaches children that they can make reliable predictions about the future. They learn to wait – for a special day, or to do something they don’t want to do – like go to bed, because they know good things do come and difficult things don’t last forever. They learn, through consistency, that choices have consequences. Words and actions are connected. Grown-ups keep promises and remember things that children forget. Consistency over time is security to a small child.
Be consistent with yourself
Children are studying you; they study your words and your actions. If you change your mind or your priorities every other day, children get confused. They don’t know what’s important or how they are supposed to act. Before you set a rule in your household, be sure it’s a choice you want to make. If you aren’t willing to stand by a rule tomorrow or next month, you’re probably better off without it.
Similarly, your parenting messages are stronger when you model your values. If you scream at your child to “calm down” when she’s frustrated, your child has to work harder to decipher the mixed message. Consistency isn’t being perfect (never making mistakes or never getting emotional); consistency is making sure your actions match the message.
And, don’t worry about everyone else being consistent with you. Other people do not have to do things your way as long as they don’t undermine you in front of your child. So for example, grandparents might have a later bedtime at their house but the “rule” at your house doesn’t change.
Consistency with a touch of realism
Real life is messy: people make mistakes, parents get emotional, rules get broken, and some situations warrant exceptional responses. Consistency is essential to raise happy, responsible children. Consistency is critical when children are pushing boundaries and testing limits. But consistency can go too far. Everyone needs a break sometime. Sometimes your child will need an extra hug instead of a being on-schedule. Some days were meant for playing hooky. Beware of absolutes like “always” and “never”. A little thoughtful “inconsistency” may be the perfect compliment to consistent parenting.