Must Parents Be Consistent?

We’ve all been told, “Kids need consistency!” But what does that mean?

Does it mean that we have to mete out consequences for every one of our children’s poor judgment calls? Does it mean that being flexible with them will pamper and spoil them? How can we tell when it’s important to be consistent, and when it’s not?

PL BoydadwrestleI think that the consistency our children need lies in our ability to think about each situation flexibly. If they can depend on us to think, rather than react, they have the security they need in the jumble of daily life. When we can treat our children with respect and love, even while saying no to them, we’re being consistently on their side. That’s the consistency that matters.

For instance, take bedtime. A parent can hold to a consistent bedtime on school nights, but loosen that policy for a child’s birthday celebration on a school night, when grandparents or cousins are visiting, or on a night when there’s a meteor shower that’s best observed after 9 pm. That’s thinking. That’s setting limits well, and making exceptions well. Both the limits and the exceptions reassure a child that he’s well loved, and that his parents have his best interests in mind.

Setting family policy is important.

Policies are the expectations we set to guide how we treat one another in the family, and how we take good care of ourselves. Policies express what it means to treat others as we would like to be treated. They also cover things like safety, health, pet care, and as children grow, how money is saved and spent. It’s good to include children in the making of policy by having regular family meetings, where everyone, no matter how young, gets to have their say about what would be fair and good.

We communicate good policy best by modeling it. Policies like “We always let one another know where we’re going and when we’re coming back,” or “When you want to borrow something, ask first,” sink in when they’re quietly followed day by day, by parents with one another, and with their children. Lectures about these expectations don’t really help children much. Limits and caring reminders, followed by Staylistening or Playlistening, do. “Oops! Looks like you took your sister’s new gel pen without asking her. Please go and ask her now,” gives a child a reasonable expectation. If she can’t respond cooperatively, she’s not thinking. She’s not feeling connected enough to take others into consideration. This is the time to move closer, offer connection, and use Listening Tools to bring the limit, listen, and help your child reconnect.

In a family in which children are treated with respect, they will be helpful by letting parents know when they see them crossing policy lines. “Don’t talk to me that way, Mommy. There’s some mean in your voice,” is the kind of reminder that a young child who hasn’t been intimidated will give a parent. It’s very helpful to have our children help us when they see us being inconsistent and off track. They want us at our best, and so do we!

Focus on connection as you follow through with a limit.

Help your child keep commitmentsChildren need sound policy, lovingly delivered. They never need harshness, but they do need firm boundaries on important issues. They never need lectures, but they will learn much from their parents’ example. They never need punishment, but they do sometimes need tighter boundaries until they can laugh and tantrum and cry enough troubles away to feel less threatened and better connected. In the meantime, those tighter boundaries will most certainly trip up big feelings for them. The boundaries aren’t punishment. They’re a recognition that this child can’t handle certain situations well yet. For instance, a child who tends to run away from his parents in public might have to stay home while an older child, who doesn’t, gets to go with Daddy to the park today. The healing process lies in our ability to listen to our children’s feelings, so eventually the child can connect in and cooperate more fully. The promise of “There’ll be a chance to go to the park with Daddy another time, when he can help you stay close to him” lets a child know, while he’s crying, that he’s loved in spite of his difficulties.

With our children and with one another, we need to focus on the high priority issues, and sometimes let the little stuff go, to preserve our own energy. Whether the clothes mom folded are put away by the children is truly less important than whether the siblings pummel one another in a moment of fury. However, a child’s refusal to put the folded clothes away might signal the kind of disconnection that can result in a sibling battle ten minutes later. So setting limits about a minor issue might allow a child to cry hard about not wanting to cooperate. When a parent listens, cares, and stays warm but firm with, “I know it’s hard. But the clothes need to be put away before anything else happens,” a child can cry his edginess away. The connection that the parent’s listening brings will head off trouble later.

The kind of consistency a child needs is her parent’s fresh thinking.

The consistency a child needs most is her parent’s ability to think. When a parent can think, he can tell the difference between a minor goof which barely needs a mention, and a blatant sign that a child is asking for help.

How we parents become more consistently able to think (and love and care, which comes bundled with the ability to think) is by being listened to. When we have the time to talk about how parenting is going for us, and shed the emotional tension that builds up day by day, we have a way to restore our own sense that someone cares about us. Being listened to returns us to our parenting job with less on our minds and more certainty that our children are good people. When we can remember that they’re good and that we’re good, too, we are better at limits, listening, and caring. We suggest Listening Partnerships, simple but life-changing exchanges of listening that parents can learn do with one another, either in person or by phone.

Here’s an example of a parent being consistent in her caring, and flexible about her policy.

A friend of mine was a single mom with one daughter, and was on a very limited budget. The mom was committed to connecting with her daughter through Special Time, and also worked to feed her daughter healthy food. She didn’t often allow sugary foods at home. She found that it was easier to say “No” at the store and keep them out than it was to be asked for a treat over and over again throughout the day.

For Special Time one day, her 9-year-old daughter asked her for a trip to the ice cream shop. Her mom asked her what she wanted, and she said, “I want to eat as much ice cream as I want!” This mom thought about it for a moment and said, “Yes! Let’s go.” Her daughter was thrilled and surprised.  She had never before asked to have multiple scoops of ice cream, and never expected her mom to agree!

They went to the shop together, and the mom did her best to be enthusiastic and admiring as her daughter ordered 7 scoops of various flavors, all on one plate. She dug in! Her mom didn’t lecture, and didn’t warn her that she was going to get sick. She cheered her daughter on.

She figured that in this Special Time, for once in her life, her daughter could try eating ice cream to her heart’s content. The mom knew she would set limits later, and figured that if her daughter did suffer ill consequences, she’d learn from it. My friend decided that she wasn’t going to spoil the experience in any way. She was going to admire the flavors, enjoy every detail of her daughter’s high time at the ice cream shop, and not dilute it with any “parent downers.” It was just one time, so it could be glorious.

And my friend noticed, afterward, that her daughter felt closer to her and was more relaxed than she’d been in a long time. The mom figured that she had shown her daughter that she trusted her, and trusted what she wanted for this one time. She showed that she could put aside her usual policies, and let her daughter’s wishes come first. It made a difference to allow a special exception. It made a difference to rise above the usual rules, and above her fears of what 7 scoops of ice cream might do. And indeed, no one got sick. Now, many years later, both mother and daughter are healthy, and they’re very close.

And here’s another, about a parent being warm but firm on policy, and freeing her child to enjoy practicing piano again.

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