Being Consistent When You Can’t Be: A Parenting Dilemma

Q: I read many parenting books about the importance of being consistent in our responses to our children. I know that it is important, but I get so easily involved with three things at once that I often don’t fill out behavior charts for my children. My children know that they can get away with a good amount when I’m on the phone. If I dock a treat, I may forget about this punishment, or siblings will share part of their own treat. I don’t think it’s realistic that to maybe help my child, I should change my personality and general style and become more rigid. For that matter, I don’t even think I’d like to change my style!

A: No one is suggesting that parents become rigid in order to be consistent with their children. Yet, one should not underestimate the importance of attempting to create a sense of consistency, especially for very young children, who need to feel a sense of security in an ever-changing world. If children generally know what to expect in a given situation at home, their view of life and the world is more solidified, even at an early age. It is true that many parents believe that they cannot be consistent, as they are forgetful due to their ever-changing schedule (“I forgot the punishment/reward that I promised”), and give up on even making an attempt.

Parents need to try to be consistent, while maintaining a sense of dignity along with the flexibility to respond differently when the situation warrants change. The change could be that you, yourself, forgot about giving a consequence. This is similar to the Asian concept of needing to “save face” when a circumstance occurs beyond one’s control.

An example of this would be putting off the consequence of “time-out” to a more workable time (perhaps due to the arrival of an unexpected guest or an impending appointment). Though parents may complain that they will forget to “dispense the consequence” at another time, children have to see some attempt at consistency. It is preferable for parents to write a note and post it on the refrigerator to remind themselves (even if it falls off). If appropriate, parents may verbalize the need to be flexible (clarifying that this is not inconsistency). One can say: “I’m not going to lose out on time today because you have to go in time-out. Then that becomes a punishment for the entire family. Yet when we go out today, you’ll get an orange instead of ice cream.” Though certain parents get distracted more easily and don’t always follow through on “punishments and rewards,” children of such parents need to see such attempts (such as putting yellow sticky papers on the wall), to see that it is everyone’s job to work on their character flaws — their parents’ job, as well as theirs.

One way of saving face is to have a list available (either in your mind, or written on paper) of possible negative consequences for actions, to use with your children when your desirable “consequence of action” is unworkable. A creative example of this is utilizing “cleaning lady time.” A child can owe his parent “cleaning lady time,” to do extra household chores, as a consequence of his negative behavior. A parent can calculate the amount of time spent as a result of the child’s aggravating behavior, and charge cleaning time by the hour. “You caused me not to be able to complete things in the house. The cleaning lady now has to do it. That’s nine dollars an hour that you owe me, for an hour and a half of non-completed work.” In this way, through a parents’ response, a child sees a “rhyme and reason” to change.