One evening while we were visiting, we were impressed with how our son dealt with our four-year old granddaughter in a discipline setting. Helen had refused to pick up her toys at the appointed hour. Spencer reminded her once of the family rule, and she steadfastly refused. Spencer came over, swooped her up in his arms and said, "Helen, you know the family rule. When it is time to stop playing and clean up, we give you a five minute warning and then tell you when the time is up. If a child in our family doesn't stop playing and clean up, then they not only need to clean up right away, but they also miss their 'special snack' and go to bed without a story because the parents have to help with the clean up. So you will need to start right now cleaning up, and then head directly to bed without snack and story."
Helen protested slightly, but when she was reminded of the consequence of arguing with Dad, she stopped quickly and complied. And I was impressed. I don't recall being quite as firm with him, but Spencer has mastered the art of consistency with his children.
Parental consistency can be defined as doing something the same way from one time to the next. It means that if a child breaks a family rule, it will be dealt with in the same fashion whenever it happens. It means that the same routine is generally followed day in and day out. And it means that parents are in agreement as to how such issues are handled and discipline is administered similarly, no matter which parent is involved.
Consistency is important for both children and parents.
- It makes the world more predictable for children. Expectations are clearly established and reinforced by appropriate and regular discipline. Children know that they can count on how the rules are applied at home, and that the same type and degree of discipline when it is needed. This level of predictability helps children feel secure and safe in their world.
- Children who have a consistent and predictable life and home will learn skills that will help them as youth and adults. The real world is generally pretty consistent. At work, there are some rules that need to be followed or negative consequences will follow.
- Children can and will manipulate parents who are not consistent. If parents are not united, it won't take long for them to figure out how to get away with anything they want to do. And such behavioral manipulation will likely result in a contempt for authority that will create problems for children and parents in the long term.
There are three basic ways in which fathers need to demonstrate consistency.
- Consistency in Rules and Consequences. Being consistent in setting and maintaining rules in a family is one of the cardinal rules of good fathering. Don't set a rule unless it is important to you and you and your kids' mom will enforce it regularly. Once a rule is set and a consequence identified, it is important to consistently apply it. If you set a curfew like we have with our teenagers (10:00 p.m. on school nights and 11:30 p.m. on weekend nights with agreed upon exceptions for special events), then stick with it. Apply the predetermined consequence like grounding if the expectation is violated. And consider a reward for keeping the curfew even when others are not. Rewards can help reinforce appropriate behavior.
- Consistency Between Parents. As mentioned earlier, children can manipulate and lose respect for parents who are not together on the consistent application of rules. They need to be able to count on both mother and father to stick with the rules. If you both can't live with the rule, then don't set it. If you have legitimate differences about the application of a rule, then discuss it in private and come back with a decision you can both support and apply.
The need for consistency between parents even applies when the parents are separated. Whether you live with their mother or not, the children are still yours together, and your parenting needs to be consistent. Curfews, for example, need to be the same at both parents' homes. Disrespect should be treated in the same way at mom's house as it is at dad's.
- Consistent Routines.Particularly when they are young, consistency in daily and weekly routines is an important element of a child's world. The routine for getting up and going in the morning should be predictable for a child. What happens after school and the order in which it happens (after school snack and visit with the caregiving parent, then homework, then free reading, then play...) will help them keep their world in context. Keeping a regular and consistent routine will be a blessing to them in many ways as they put their life together during their growing up years.
"This stuff about consistency is important, I agree. But are there times when it is OK not to be consistent?" The answer to this question is, of course. But you have to carefully decide in specific cases not be consistent. It is not OK to be inconsistent just because you are tired or in a bad mood. But certainly in the case of a parent or child's illness, the rules might need to be adjusted. In an emergency situation, you might just have to suspend the rules or their application. And when there is new information that should enter into the equation, you might have to make a different decision. You and your children should feel liberated by consistent application of family rules, not constrained.
Being a consistent and predictable father will make life better for your children and your family. Making expectations clear and consistent and helping bring order to your child's world is an important gift a father can give in his critical parenting role.