Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Foolish Consistency

OK, I thought about a goblin pic, but went with waffles instead, because, well, who wouldn't prefer to look at yummy waffles?  And while I don't really advocate waffling, I do appreciate the option to flip according to new info or circumstances.  Photo by TheCulinaryGeek on Flickr
I've gradually found that I flat out disagree with a lot of the common sense, middle-of-the-road discipline principles that parenting magazines love.  Things like "parents must present a united front", for instance.  And, the most sacred of all, "You must be consistent."  I realize that I am going against established precedent here, but I honestly don't see it as a good idea for real life.

Real life is constantly adjusting to new circumstances.   On a day when we have plenty of freedom to structure it as we wish, I might welcome and even initiate a lot of games, and day dreaming or "dawdling" wouldn't be a problem.  Other days, we might have obligations that cause us to be in a hurry, and I find myself trying to rush them through things. My tolerance for some things fluctuates quite a bit.  If I have a bad headache, I am going to be much more sensitive to noise, for example, than I would be on another day.  Do I be consistent, and just forbid boisterous play all the time?  Or do I be authentic and explain that this day, my head hurts and ask them to please be sensitive and use quiet voices?

In real life, if I make a decision without having all the facts, I may change my mind once I become aware of new information.  I certainly don't want to teach my kids to never admit when the are wrong or to continue with a bad choice out of stubbornness.  In real life, we make course corrections as we grow.

I believe that the obsession with consistency is really just a product of punitive parenting.  If you are going to punish a child for going against whatever rules you set, then yes, it is better to be consistent rather than impose arbitrary "consequences".  However, if you are not operating from a punitive paradigm, then there is nothing wrong with inviting collaboration for each new set of unique circumstances. 

Perhaps the biggest point that the consistency-camp makes is that if you change your mind, you are giving in.  That, of course, "teaches children to tantrum in order to get what they want."  Really?  What if, instead, it teaches them to speak out about situations that need improvement, and that their needs are important to us?  If tantrums are the problem, you can give them more appropriate ways to express themselves, but don't feel the need to punish a tantrum by being inflexible.  If they are so genuinely at the end of their rope that they lose control, they aren't learning anything positive.  Deal with the issue of tantrums separately.

While some parents cling to the consistency excuse from fear, others want to cave from fear, too.  If you grew up with disapproval for any expressed emotion besides "happy", your child's unhappiness can cause big feelings in you, too.   Is it fear or true compassion that is motivating you?  Do you need to take some time to achieve clarity on the issue?  Telling your child, "I didn't realize how important this was to you.  Let me think about it some more," is a valid, authentic and helpful response.

Kids are brilliant problem-solvers, if we invite their help.  Often, if we explain what our goals are, they can come up with creative solutions that we would never have imagined that meet everyone's needs.

The next time you come up with a conflict with your needs and your child's needs, sit down and explain what you need.  Invite them to help with solutions.  Take them seriously.  If this is a new thing for you, they may be a little suspicious of your motives.  Keep working.  Be respectful of their contributions.   You might be delighted with the results!

If you make a mistake, own up to it.  If you say no hastily and later reconsider, explain the whole process to your child.  Sure, it is better to think things through properly the first time, but we are human.  Besides, you may later find that information or circumstances have changed and warrant a different response.

Discipline is about moving beyond contrived situations into authentic life together, about equipping my children with the tools they need to be successful.  One important skill is to recognize the need to adapt.  Creativity, the ability to problem solve from different angles and the humility to admit mistakes are also skills that I want for my children to develop.  I believe that they have great minds, and a little inconsistency now and then will nourish that greatness.

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds..." ~ R. W. Emerson  

Ah, well.  Here is a goblin anyway, just for fun.  After all, a post on inconsistency needs an example, right? Photo by herval on Flickr


artfulstampin said...

Thank you thank you thank you, for this post. I have been a reader for a while and have been blessed with your posts. This post has struck a chord with me, and I'll be pondering on it's content and thinking how I can change my approach. Go BLess you x

dulce de leche said...

Thanks so much! <3 Blessings to you and your family.

Claire in Tasmania said...

Wow what a lot of wisdom you've squished into one post! I will have to go back and re-read a few times, I think!

Staci said...

Thank you for this post! It makes so much sense. I'm not in a consistent mood and don't always do the same things, so why do I expect my children to be different? Very wise and a lot to think about.

Anonymous said...

I would argue that consistency is incredibly important in discipline, but that the understanding of 'consistency' most people have, is flawed. It does NOT mean that each rule and corresponding consequence has to be forever unchanged and upheld by every person your child comes into contact with.

Consistency is not important in specific rules or consequences, but in overall values and guidelines. I would say that non-punitive households are MORE consistent. 'No hitting/restraining/controlling others' is consistently applied to everybody, to start with. It is not consistent to say 'We do not hit people because it hurts. But I can hit you if you do wrong. But you aren't allowed to hit me or others when they do wrong.'

It is very visibly demonstrated to a child that you are being considerate of other people when as a parent you choose to problem-solve instead of trying to control them. When that value is a consistent example, and consistently expected of every person in the home, the child learns it thoroughly. However, consistency also does not mean always living up to our ideals or never changing them - admitting when we have failed to be perfect still shows that the goal we are striving for is the same. Changing our minds is not inconsistent unless one of your values is 'never changing my mind', because then it is inconsistent with the 'rule'.