An area of parenting that gets a great deal of attention is being consistent. As parents we have an idea that consistency is a “good thing” but you may not be fully aware of just why. This month I’m covering what consistency in parenting really means and its impacts on children, along with effective strategies for you.
What is consistency in parenting?
Consistency is a two part process. One is likely more familiar to you and refers to your commitment as a parent to establish rules and procedures and to follow through. But consistency in parenting also means how you respond to your child in interactions. Here, consistency taps into the degree parents respond in a uniform way and stick with that regardless of if the situation they are handling with the child has positive or negative aspects.
How does being consistent play out?
Parents who practice consistency establish with their child they are reliable and dependable. Consistency allows the child to know what to expect from his/her parents and this fosters a sense of security. When parents are inconsistent, this shows as a cluster of behaviors such as a lack of rules, not monitoring the child, and being erratic in the use of consequences and rewards. Inconsistent parents are more likely to either avoid negative situations with the child or to give in or make a compromise when faced with challenging child demands.
What are the impacts of varying degrees of consistency on kids?
Parents who practice a high degree of consistency have a set of well-defined and meaningful rules and routines that they are able to enforce. They are regularly successful in practicing patience and determination to stay consistent in spite of how hectic and demanding daily life can be.
Ample research shows consistency in parenting is associated with children who are less likely to push boundaries, who show higher levels of responsibility in their personal actions, who feel more secure, and who have a stronger sense of self-esteem (liking who they are). It is important to note that the consistent parent may not react consistently to every single and small situation or behavior but that in the end and as a whole they are consistent with the child.
Parenting in an inconsistent manner due to a lack of attention to rules and monitoring is associated with low involvement with the child, less positive reinforcement, and fewer positive interactions between parent and child. Repeatedly, research reveals inconsistency in parenting plays out in two different ways.
For some children this is related to reports of poor child behavior, including aggression and delinquency when kids are older. Children in inconsistent parent-child relationships are more likely to push back harder when they are confronted with rules because past experience has taught them this will result in parents backing off or giving in.
Other children react to inconsistent parenting with feelings of confusion and eventually anxiety as they are regularly unsure of which of their actions are acceptable. As they become adolescents and young adults they are more likely to suffer from low self-esteem and are more vulnerable to depression.
Parents themselves when low on consistency with establishing and enforcing rules and procedures report lower confidence in managing their child’s behavior. The negative impact on children and the parent-child relationship appears to be greatest when parents swing between being rather extreme in setting and enforcing rules and then being very permissive.
How to improve your consistency as a parent
Expectations. A great place to begin is to evaluate your expectations for your child or children. Considering their age and maturity level is key. Having reasonable and age-appropriate expectations is a huge help to you as a parent trying to improve being consistent because this keeps unnecessary and damaging conflict down in the first place that will try your patience and ability to be consistent. If you don’t feel up to speed do a little research on child development to get a sense of what is appropriate. Check out KidsHealth or the Child Development Institute to get started.
Limits and Boundaries. Think about this in terms of your “family policy”. Decide on a few key but meaningful rules matched to your child’s developmental age. Consider just what is high priority and what you can let go. With too many ‘rules’, neither you nor the kids can remember them all and/or a rule is constantly being broken which means your work to be consistent feels unending. Being consistent is not the same thing as being overbearing to children. Remember too that for younger children you will need to be more specific about what a rule entails. The rule ‘Do homework’ for younger child might need to be accompanied with ‘after dinner and before bath time’ while for older kids could be ‘an hour before bedtime’.
Consequences. Even with a great set of limits and boundaries based on appropriate expectations, there will be times for consequences. Preparation is your friend! For each of the main rules you have, construct a consequence. To be effective, it needs to be fair and logical and a teaching moment. This means along with a consequence you spend time dialoguing about the ‘why’.
For example your child losing phone privileges for one day because they played online games when they were to be doing homework and got a poor grade, is accompanied by a conversation asking your child why he/she made that choice, you respectfully listening, and then helping your child recognize not only did he/she lose the phone but they lost out on a learning opportunity as well as taking a hit to their grade. This is followed by working with your child to help them be able to articulate how they can avoid such a situation in the future; for instance that they will do homework first, then play.
Taking a moment. When you have all of the above in place, it certainly helps when you feel upset and angry. Before engaging with your child, take a moment if you need this in order to get calm and collected, remembering that a key element of consistency is how you respond no matter if the situation is positive or negative. Telling your child what you are doing is recommended. For instance, “This is upsetting me. I need to take a moment and then I will talk with you.” “I’m not sure if I want you to go to that party. I need to think about it and I’ll let you know.” You are showing them you are a thoughtful person and parent, and also modeling for them how to manage their own emotions and decisions effectively.
A united front. Being on the same page as your parenting partner is a huge part of consistent parenting. If you work together on the expectations, limits/boundaries, and consequences you will have made great strides towards this. Kids quickly see if one parent is consistent and one is not. In the short-term they may go to the inconsistent parent to get something they know the consistent parent may say ‘no’ to; however over time the more important issues will be taken to the consistent parent who they will see as more informed and thoughtful about repercussions and benefits.
Being consistent as a parent has the obvious payoff of better child behavior and a calmer, more peaceful home but it also has the benefit of a healthy, close parent-child relationship and your child enjoying better self-esteem and personal competence.
Ajilchi, B., Borjali, A., & Janbozorgi, M. (2011). The impact of a parenting skills training program on stressed mothers and their children’s self-esteem level. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 30, 316-326.
Hoskins, D. H. (2014). Consequences of parenting on adolescent outcomes. Societies, 4(3), 506-531.
Kerr, D. C., Capaldi, D. M., Pears, K. C., & Owen, L. D. (2009). A prospective three generational study of fathers’ constructive parenting: Influences from family of origin, adolescent adjustment, and offspring temperament. Developmental Psychology, 45(5), 1257-1275.
Luxton, D. D. (2007). The effects of inconsistent parenting on the development of uncertain self-esteem and depression vulnerability. ProQuest.
Written October 2016
About the Author
Lilla Dale McManis, MEd., PhD., is President & CEO of Parent in the know. She uses her training and experience as a psychologist, child developmentalist, educator, and parent to promote positive child outcomes through informed and effective practices. Dr. McManis believes strongly in and enjoys translating research into meaningful practice.
About Parent in the Know
We specialize in parental role and child social-emotional research-based assessment and reporting for parents of preschoolers through adolescents. If you are interested in knowing where you fall on the continuum of parenting wellness and/or if you would like to know how your child is doing with regard to social-emotional wellness, I invite you to learn more and get started at www.parentintheknow.com. If you are a counselor, therapist, or parent educator who would like to include assessment in your practice through us, please visit the Partner Program on our website to learn more.