Why Consistency in Parenting Isn’t Always Best

Parents are often told that consistency is the key to successful parenting, especially in the areas of children’s bed times, expectations about behavior, and discipline. I agree with the first two: most of us benefit from a consistent bed time and sleep pattern, and it’s really helpful for children if they know what their parents’ expectations about behavior are. However, the last one, I’m not so sure.

As a therapist and a mum, I’ve read a lot of parenting books, watched a lot of programs, and been to a lot of parenting workshops, and consistency is always promoted, especially in relation to discipline.

When professionals talk about consistency and discipline, they often suggest that parents:

  • Have a set of family rules about acceptable behaviors,
  • Apply a consequence any time children break the rules, and
  • Act quickly when applying consequences.

This might seem fairly straight-forward, but … what if a child has good reason for breaking the rules? What if applying consequences doesn’t actually teach children to behave differently, but instead to not get caught next time? What if the consequence isn’t understood by the child? And, what if a child doesn’t accept the consequence?

Children are smaller, younger, and less experienced than us, but they’re not stupid, and they have reasons for behaving in the ways they do — even if we don’t understand or agree with those reasons. As parents, we have a responsibility to keep our children safe, and to teach them (that’s what the word “discipline” actually means, “to teach”), but we don’t have a responsibility to confuse, shame, or hurt our children in the name of consistency.

I wonder what would happen if next time your child broke the rules, you approached the situation from a position of curiosity, and encouraged your child to share their perspective about what had happened and why? And only after this, you decided what, if any, consequence was needed.  

So, how do parents actually do this?

After a family rule has been broken, parents can encourage their child to have a conversation with them by using an empathic opening statement. This lets the child know what is going to be talked about, and invites them to share their views and experience.  

For example: I know you love Fluffy the kitten so much, it’s hard for you to share him with your brother without fighting.

Parents can continue the discussion by asking their child open-ended questions, repeating back to their child what they’ve said (but in different words), and leaving time for their child to think about what’s been said. For example:

So you felt he’d already had a really long turn with Fluffy, and it was time for your turn?

How do you think Fluffy felt being caught up in the middle of you and your brother?

Once parents have heard and understood their child’s perspective and reasons for the rule-breaking behavior, they can then decide what needs to happen next — which may or may not involve applying a consequence.

Here’s an example from my own family …  

Our daughter loves being on the iPad, but we have rules about how much time she is allowed to be on it, and when she uses apps like YouTube she needs to be supervised. One day, our daughter decided she was going to use the iPad and go on YouTube without supervision. She knows the rules, but she did it anyway.

I found her behavior frustrating, but instead of immediately confiscating the iPad and banning her from YouTube (which was my initial thought), I sat down and asked why she was on YouTube unsupervised. It turned out she’d asked her Dad many times that day to play with her, but he’d been busy. Eventually, she thought she’d just quietly entertain herself without bothering anyone else. Yes, she broke the rules, but it wasn’t to annoy us or hurt us, and I could understand where she was coming from.

The thing is, she’s not allowed on YouTube unsupervised for her own safety, but it occurred to me when we were talking that:

  • She’s only young, and she probably doesn’t appreciate how unsafe the internet can be,
  • A lot of her friends are allowed on YouTube unsupervised, so it probably seems unfair that she isn’t, and
  • In the grand scheme of things, her infraction wasn’t awful, but it also wasn’t okay.

With this in mind, I talked with her in more detail about internet safety, and our responsibility as parents to keep her safe, even if that makes us unpopular with her. I also empathized with her situation, and asked her what we could do to avoid a repeat of this situation in the future?

We decided that although she couldn’t watch videos on YouTube unsupervised, she could record her own videos that could maybe go up on a private YouTube channel in the future. We also downloaded a few more apps that she can use on the iPad without supervision. In the end, I decided she didn’t need a consequence for breaking the rules because we’d already achieved the goal of having her learn from her behavior.

Parenting can be difficult at the best of times, and trying to teach children to abide by the rules isn’t always fun, but it is necessary. To avoid it becoming a battleground, maintaining a focus on the definition of discipline (that is, “to learn”) can be helpful, especially when combined with parents’ own knowledge about their children’s personalities, experiences, and needs. If as parents we must be consistent in this area, let it be in relation to our own thoughts, feelings and behaviors, and in responding to our children with respect and kindness during these tricky times.

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