Everyone knows that parents need to be consistent. But what exactly does being consistent mean? The trouble is the word ‘consistent’ conjures up images of parents rigidly acting in the exact same way, following exactly the same detailed rules, inflexibly sticking to the same script day after day. It suggests that one deviation, on one day, even for perfectly good reasons, will court trouble. It suggests that parents must be consistent with each other, right down to the details, and grandparents and other relatives need to fall into line. That there is no room for spontaneity or individuality.
And that’s plain nonsense. In fact, it is dangerous nonsense. Because flexibility and creativity is a strength. Because being rigid about the details can actually make us vulnerable to becoming inconsistent in the worst possible way.
To understand what I mean, let’s delve into the scientific literature. When you look at how parental consistency is discussed in the scientific literature, and the empirical evidence for negative effects of parental inconsistency, there are two types of inconsistency that might become a problem:
- Lack of follow through. This is the big one. It goes like this: you give your children a reasonable instruction, maybe to go to the bathroom for a bath or to stop throwing their toys. Your child either kicks up a real stink or flat-out ignores you. You might fight it at first, but eventually, you just give in. After your child has chucked a big tantrum, you let them avoid their bath. After you’ve told them not to, you sit back and watch them throw their toys. So your child learns that tantrumming is a great way to make demands go away and that they don’t need to listen to you because you don’t really mean what you say.
- Unpredictable chaos. If children are unable to predict when particular behaviours may be acceptable and when they won’t be, then they’ll struggle to behave as you’d like. If your responses are chaotic, that, in and of itself, can be distressing for children who are trying to make sense of their world.
But, here’s the thing, so long as you follow through, it is okay to be predictably inconsistent. Children are perfectly capable of learning that their house works one way during the week, and another way on weekends. That certain rules are relaxed when family members are sick. That mummy is strict with some things and daddy is strict with others. That grandparents have their own unique routines and special treats. Children can learn to follow, not just simple rules, but the kinds of complex and nuanced social rules that actually work in society. Your child can learn, for example, that they can eat in the lounge room picnic style at grandma’s house anytime but at home it is for the weekends only, unless everybody is sick in which case mummy might declare it a special picnic day.
In fact, understanding that you can be predictably inconsistent and using that to your advantage is an important way of preventing lack of follow through. Because, you know what? You are human. No matter how good you are at following through, there are going to be times when you are really vulnerable to caving in. Times when follow through is going to be a really big ask. It is better to declare a temporary amnesty than to start a battle you’ll only retreat from. It is better to flexibly change the rules of the game than to rigidly stick to the usual rules and lose. Children are capable of understanding that certain rules, routines and expectations can be temporarily suspended when family members are sick, or exhausted or even just occasionally for fun. That doesn’t make you weak in their eyes, it makes you flexible and kind, to them and to yourself.
Children are also capable of learning that people are different. Of course, if parents are taking completely different approaches to parenting or are undermining each other this can create the kind of unpredictable chaos that can be distressing and confusing. Yet, you don’t need to get every detail exactly the same. There’s plenty of room for individuality. This is particularly true in terms of those rules and routines that aren’t there for safety or because they are vital to building your child’s character in the long term, they are just there because they make parenting easier. It is possible, not just to vary some of those details between caregivers but to show that you support your child’s other caregivers in their individuality. Again, that doesn’t make you weak, it makes you tolerant. And tolerance is a pretty awesome quality to model.
Apply it in your life: Are you predictably inconsistent? Experiment with being flexible, does it help you to follow through?
Dwairy, M. (2010). Parental inconsistency: a third cross-cultural research on parenting and psychological adjustment of children. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 19, 23-29.
Gardner, F.E.M. (1989). Inconsistent parenting: is there any evidence for a link with children’s conduct problems? Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 17 (2), 223-233.