I can’t imagine there is a parent out there who hasn’t heard that consistency in parenting is important. But why is consistency so important? How can we achieve it? And how do we know when to stick to our word and when to be flexible?
Because, let’s face it, some days consistent parenting is easier than others. When you are well rested, unstressed and have had a good day, sticking to your plan in the face of a protesting child is achievable. But what are the chances of you being well rested and unstressed as a parent of a young child? (Or indeed of a partying teenager!)
And what about consistency between parents? How am I supposed to make consistent parenting decisions with a partner who is so clearly wrong?! Not to mention Grandparents who ignore your rules and feed the children sweets on demand. Or those hours that they spend in childcare.
Consistency in parenting is important but it isn’t always easy. Here’s why you should be aiming for it and how to make it happen.
Consistency in parenting helps children learn quickly
Now, I’m not exactly comparing your children to mice or birds, but let’s take a detour via Skinner’s Box. Skinner was a psychologist in the 1930s who explored the effects of consistent responses on the speed at which animals learn. He designed a box with a lever that animals could press in order to release a pellet of food. What he found was that when the pellet of food was delivered consistently every single time the animal pressed the lever, those animals learnt very quickly to repeat that behaviour. When a pellet of food was released only sometimes (i.e. inconsistently), those animals learnt more slowly the link between lever pressing and food delivery. And when a pellet of food was never released, those animals quickly stopped pressing the lever at all.
Interestingly, those animals who received pellets of food inconsistently were observed to press the lever frequently even when they weren’t hungry, stockpiling food that they didn’t need. And they were slow to adapt to change. Even when the lever stopped producing food, they would keep pressing that lever for much longer than the other two groups.
Now imagine a child in a supermarket who wants a doughnut. If making a huge big fuss in order to get a doughnut never works, the child will quickly abandon that strategy. If they are consistently rewarded for staying quietly in their trolley with a doughnut at the end of the shopping trip, they will quickly learn to stay quiet every time. But if making a huge big fuss sometimes (i.e. inconsistently) gets the doughnut, they will keep making a huge big fuss every shopping trip regardless of whether it succeeds on that visit or not.
So inconsistency in parenting actually increases difficult behaviour.
What helps parents to be consistent?
If you want to be a consistent parent, it’s best to think ahead. If you’re going to that supermarket, make a plan before you get there about the doughnut issue. Introducing clear ground rules is a great way to establish consistency in parenting.
Following through with the same consequence every time is a good way to tackle difficult behaviour like hitting. So plan ahead and decide on which consequences you are going to use and when. Don’t rely on explanations and reasoning to tackle misbehaviour in children who are simply too young to understand the subtleties of what you are saying – provide a consistent positive pay off (praise or a reward) to encourage them to learn the right behaviour.
And look after yourself. I can’t say that enough times. Consistency in parenting takes energy and internal resources. Take a break. Eat well and exercise. Laugh (with or without your children!). No one is a calm, consistent parent when they are stressed-out and frazzled.
When is being flexible a better choice?
There will always be times when your child is poorly or ill or in need of a response that you otherwise would not offer. We can’t plan for everything. Tuning into your children and reading their needs is one of the key jobs of every parent. But reading their needs doesn’t mean letting your child dictate your decision: making difficult judgement calls is the parent’s job. And, no, you won’t always get it right.
Is your child one of those kids who is really well-behaved at school but a handful at home? When you describe your child’s at home behaviour does their teacher look at you in disbelief? Well, that could be a sign that your child thrives on clear rules and predictable responses (like they have at school). So consistency in parenting is going to be really important for them. Every time you are flexible and make an exception, you take a step towards inconsistency. So choose your exceptions wisely. And, if it’s a lesson that really matters, choose exceptions sparingly or you will make it harder for your child to get it right.
Consistency across parents and settings
No two parents will ever have exactly the same views on parenting. And that’s ok. Different parents bring different strengths to the parenting team. Do try to agree the big stuff, though, and avoid undermining each other. The less consistent the two of you are, the harder it will be for your child to learn. So plan ahead and talk it through. And remember, there is seldom just one right way to do things. So just because you have different views doesn’t always make one of you right and one of you wrong (see When parents disagree about parenting).
And as for Grandma? Well, if you apply rules consistently, even if those rules are different in different places, children will learn to follow them. The fact that Grandma always lets the kids fall asleep watching TV means the kids will always expect that at Grandma’s house. It doesn’t mean that they will expect it at home if there is a different (consistent) rule at home. And sometimes, you have to choose which battles to fight and which to let go…
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