Here’s a Parenting Tip: Consistency is Overrated

I think I’ve read it in every parenting book. Heard it from the lips of all the parenting experts. “Consistency is the key to good parenting,” they say, and, “there are few principles more important.” And I bought that message for years. Like all my friends, I was a hook, line and sinker Consistency Believer. Because OF COURSE consistency is the key to good parenting, I thought. Duh.

Now that I’m 16 years and 5 kids into this parenting gig, though, I gotta say, where the rubber meets my parenting road? Consistency is overrated, friends. Way, way overrated. And mostly impossible. And pretty much a set-up for feeling like failure.

Consistency for me, it turned out, meant consistently falling short of the Consistency Goal. Every time I let them have a cookie for snack instead of fresh fruit because I was too tired to cut another apple, INCONSISTENT. Every time I let them watch just one more show or talk me into a late bedtime or delay a chore, INCONSISTENT. Every time Greg and I didn’t agree on the rules. Every time I was merciful instead of swiftly just. Every time I let them skip that mandatory bite of veggies at dinner. INCONSISTENT, and a Parenting Failure, and my kids were certain to grow up to be rule breakers, authority shunners, and probably, in the end, serial killers. Or worse; serial killers who’d refuse to eat their vegetables. 

I spent a lot of my early parenting years beating myself up for my lack of consistency. It didn’t occur to me then that the unrealistic Consistency Ideal was more of a problem than my abject failure to be consistent in all things. It didn’t occur to me that I might even be teaching my kids better things than consistency. More important things. Things that might prepare them more completely for a life that’s full of change. Things like flexibility and adaptability. Mercy and understanding. Grace and kindness. And the fact that Who People Are and What They Need are always more important than strict adherence to the rules.

It’s just that the Consistency Argument is so compelling, so universally understood as the Way and the Truth, that even though there was always a twinge in my gut, something that made me feel uncertain and unsure, I clung to Consistency like it was the Answer. An answer I kept getting wrong, sure, but still a Magical Answer which is the Holy Grail of Parenting, really… something that would Fix All My Parenting, if only I could find and master it.

You have to consistently communicate well with your partner, the experts would say. Parents have to be on the same page! Present a united front! Never have different opinions or – God forbid – different rules in front of the kids. Except this isn’t war, with parents on one side against kids on the other. This is a family, and we’re learning how to be a family together. Out loud. Where it’s messy and muddy and we’re neck deep in the muck. We’re all on same team – not rushing away to make plans behind closed doors or regrouping in secret to launch a new offensive – and it turns out our kids learn more about teamwork from watching us have our conflicts (with each other and them) and resolve them well (and poorly), as they do from our easy, peaceful exchanges. We’re teaching them to be human, after all; flawed and still fabulous. Messy and still magnificent. Weird and still wonderful, and always deeply, deeply worthy of love.

But you have to be consistent about the rules, they’d say. What the parent says, goes! Except sometimes, after I say NO WAY and ABSOLUTELY NOT, my kids ask me why. “Why can’t we go to the park without a grown-up, Mom? We’re ready. We’re old enough. The park is close. We’ll stay together.” And they’re right. And I’m wrong. And the rules need to be changed. And I need to be both brave and humble. And because my kids are human beings with thoughts and feelings and desires that deserve my respect, they need answers to their Whys. I want the rules to make sense, rather than be about exerting my power over them. I want the rules to have reasons, rather than be arbitrary or because I’m being consistent, Kids.

The things is, life is not consistent. Not even a little. Life is crazy. Just nuts. Life changes like the seasons, except sometimes more often, and we must change with it. How many of us are living our lives according to Plan A? Not many, I suspect, or there’d be a whole lot more Princess / Mommy / Zookeepers out there, and Policeman / Superhero / Garbage Truck Guys. Right? Life changes with giant pendulum swings, and the kids who learn to think things through and to adapt and to love themselves and others through the wild ride are going to have an easier go of it than the ones (come on, you see ’em on Facebook; I know you do) yelling, Why can’t everyone just do what I say and follow the rules?!

Kids feel safer with consistency, though, they say. They need solid boundaries and clear expectations. And that’s true. Partly. With the tiniest kids, it’s true more often than it’s not, and we do consistently tell them they cannot, in fact, clock the other littles over the head with the sandbox Tonka Truck, even if that other little kid totally had it coming. But as kids age, even a little, they start needing more than consistent rules. They need discussion. They need explanations. They need collaboration and ownership and the practice of leadership. They need give and take and a sense of camaraderie and we’re-in-this-together. 

Now, listen. I’m not against rules. I’m really not. But as our parenting has evolved, and as I’ve released the Consistency Ideal, our rules have changed to better reflect our parenting values and our family goals, and they are these: 

Choose Kindness.
Show Love.

Give Grace.
Act Fair.
Be Merciful.

and also
Make Sure Mommy Knows Where You Are!
and
Make Safe Choices; I mean it.

And my kids, whether they follow the rules or not, have the right to expect to be consistently loved. Consistently cherished. Consistently safe. Consistently respected. But the rest of the rules? Those things are fluid. And, let’s be honest; we’re making them up as we go, anyway. They need to be challenged and changed to so we all – parents, included – can grow. 

I don’t know; maybe we can give ourselves a break, parents. Maybe we can be who we are – flexible, creative, adaptable, loving, flawed, fabulous, fallible people – and celebrate our successes instead of raking ourselves over the consistency coals. 

………

hand

I know I’m messing with one of the Great Tenets of Parenting here. I’d love to know; what do you think? Do you agree? Or am I off my rocker?

ABOUT BETH WOOLSEY I'm a writer. And a mess. And mouthy, brave, and strong. I believe we all belong to each other. I believe in the long way 'round. And I believe, always, in grace in the grime and wonder in the wild of a life lived off course from what was, once, a perfectly good plan.
37 comments
  1. You always write exactly what I need to hear. Our province is in the middle of a school strike and so summer vacation started 2 weeks early. Ugh. Nothing has been consistent. I was NOT prepared at all for having them home with me every day. And I have been raking myself over the coals for messing the kids up by winging it everyday. Perhaps I am teaching them some good lessons in survival instead?!? Ice cream for lunch anyone??

  2. I think it is important for kids to know what to expect on a daily basis. That type of consistency makes them feel secure and they want and need the boundaries. We can take away our guilt from being inconsistent by asking ourselves “If I can’t follow through with what i say then don’t say it”. it is the mixed messages that make kids crazy.

  3. Thank you! I feel a lil bit more normal now 🙂

  4. I think perhaps you (and a lot of other people) have misinterpreted what “parenting with consistency” really is supposed to mean. What you are actually *doing*, is much more in-line with what is developmentally appropriate than both the total free-for-all-from-day-one parents as well as the regimented-’til-they-go-to-college types. (Yes, I have a degree in neuroscience; please do continue!)

    Babies and toddlers thrive from routines, and develop a lifelong sense of security which will carry them through the insecure times, both physically and emotionally. Predictability is an excellent gift that will last them their whole life. It can also make certain things easier (like singing the “Diaper Time” song* when carrying them to the changing table lets them know they will have their clothing messed with, and allows for them to mentally prepare themselves).

    All through the preschool years, predictable rhythms in the day and week give a framework for learning. For instance, my 2-year-old knows what day of the week it is, because each family member has an assigned day to pick the bedtime song, and gee, today must be Joshua’s Day, because yesterday was Jerilynn’s Day. (We announce whose turn it is to pick the song by saying something usually resembling, “Hey, it’s Thursday, which is Joshua’s Day to pick a song. Josh, what song would you like to sing?”) Likewise, if you have a particular snack food or repeating craft project that you always consistently do on the same day, then they will also be better able to understand the flow of the week. (Yeah, I gave up on the consistent snack and craft thing, but for those who can manage, it is a great learning tool.)

    Sometimes those consistent routines (besides signaling what is happening next) can become a fun part of the day! We sing grace before lunch and dinner, every day. Even the teenagers enjoy a rousing chorus of “The More We Eat (Tiddly Pom)”! (A take-off on the Winnie-the-Pooh poem about snow, with a tune we came up with ourselves.) When “routine” becomes “ritual”, you have hit pay dirt. 😀

    As they age, the number of things that need to be consistent for them to thrive decreases, to the point where when they are ready to leave, the most consistent thing is your love, and the notion that yes, there is likely to be food around a few times per day. 😉

    Kids *do* tend to function better with a regular sleep schedule. Hold the presses! *ADULTS* function better with consistent sleep, too, which is why us parents are always a total mess! My 15-yo has an 8:30 bedtime. Every few months, we experiment with letting her go to bed later for a few days, and usually we end up back at 8:30. (It used to be earlier; when the change worked, we kept it.) We also occasionally let her stay out later than her bedtime for something special, and we *always* regret it, because her behavior/mood/etc over the next couple of days really suffers. I highly recommend *trying* to have a consistent bedtime to everyone, because you may find that other aspects of your life suddenly get easier when everyone is working on a full tank of sleep.

    Feeling *guilty* about falling short on consistency is just a bad scene all around! Guilt, sadly, is a prime feature of many mother’s lives these days, so kudos to you for taking on a topic that causes a lot of pain.

    (*The Diaper Time Song is, in our house, sung to the tune of “Summertime” with the following lyrics: I-i-it’s diaper time, it’s diaper time, it’s time to change your diaper time, diaper time, it’s diaper time, it’s time to change your diaper time, diaper ti-i-i-ime!)

    1. Could you share your lyrics to “The More We Eat” too? We love Winnie-the-Pooh in our house and regularly sing “The More it Snows,” even though it doesn’t snow much where we live.

  5. Thank You. Just thanks!

  6. This is my favourite thing you have ever written. Thank you! You have completely turned my day around. I constantly cop flack for being “inconsistent”. I believed I was weak and somehow cheating my kids out of the structure and rules they apparently needed. But you know what, my kids are strong critical thinkers and master negotiators who know that what they need and want and feel matters. This will serve them much better in life than a blind obedience to some authority figure. So again thank you, I feel like you have given me a huge boost of mummy confidence!

  7. The ONLY thing I can consistently do is love them and say I’m sorry when I don’t do it perfectly…

  8. Thank you! I have been failing on the consistency scale for three years, it really does need to go.

  9. Oh my, how Consistency ruled my life when my children were younger. And you know what? I THOUGHT I WAS consistent!!! Then it got better—I became a single mom to 5 kiddos ages 9 months-11 years. Oh yeah, LOTS of Sleep, LOTS of free time to patiently take a child aside and gently explain WHY we don’t kick holes in our walls. Even more energy to CONSISTENTLY get up early to fix them a nourishing breakfast before school FAIL!!!
    Then when I was remarried and pregnant with #6 I had an epiphany. A friend was over and explaining the “Consistency” story to me–once again. And I realized something. I DID teach my children how to pick up, do dishes, sweep floors, clean bathrooms, etc etc etc–but just because it worked well one day–didn’t mean that the nest we started from square 1. So my question was “Who is more consistent?” The Mom who begins ever day as if it is a brand new lesson? or the Mom who “consistently” returns the child to the task 4-5 times until they finally “get it right. And from then on, I never had to tell them how to do it?”
    Heck yeah! I would LOVE to have one of those kiddos. But I didn’t. So I chose to consistently and tenderly (and sometimes maybe not so tenderly) work with my 3 with ADD and my 2 Aspies and my blended family in hope and faith that they WANTED to learn and be successful. Five are out of the home now. One graduated college last night with her AAS in Horticulture and has already started her own business. She’s 28–but she did it. And I want to give a big hug to all the mamas who get beaten down with that consistency paddle. If you aren’t locked in your room (except for the occasional ‘necessary time out”) If you are getting up every day and trying ONE MORE DAY!! THAT is consistency. Pat yourself on the back. Drink a toast. And trust that you are doing the best you know how to rear these kiddos of yours to be good human beings. And then shove that “Consistency Theory” (hm pretty close to Conspiracy Theory!) down the toilet. Good job Beth and all us mamas!

    1. I have four with one form or another of ADHD and learning disabilities, and one neurotypical kid.

      With ADHD kids, the need for consistency can be even stronger–but so is the need for flexibility!I struggled for years to try to maintain “normal” family routines, and all we got for it was frustration, tears, and yelling. (On both sides.) And after all, “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”, right?

  10. I love it. I love every word. That was my life. I had the Consitency Crap thrown in my face for so many years (it was really big in the early 90s when I was having babies). I felt like such a failure but finally gave up. I decided consistency was one of those mythical beasts, like Bigfoot, though less hairy.

  11. Love this post! And love the comments, too. I think MamaJedi has a great view of it — consistency is the frame and life is the picture. You give us all a great frame to think about — when they’re consistently loved, treasured, respected, then there’s plenty of room for the messiness that is life. Also really like your family goals — think I’ll put those on the fridge as a reminder. 😉 If we can teach our kids (and grandkids, as in my case) to be kind, fair, and show grace then we and they will have truly succeeded.

    And, I can say with complete truth, that I *consistently* love your blog! Keep it up.
    –arden–

  12. Do you agree? Or am I off my rocker?

    Are those choices mutually exclusive? I think (Gosh, I HOPE) you are right.

  13. Yeah, I’ve always hated the whole “consistency!” thing….I prefer predictability. Children want to know that if A then B. We may not go to the park every day at 10. But my children know that if the weather’s nice and Mommy is rested, we’re walking to the park sooner or later. They can predict that if Mommy is tired and cranky, it is NOT a good idea to climb on her. Meal times aren’t consistent. But my son knows that if he walks into the kitchen and yells “FOOD!” he’ll get something to eat (It may not be terribly polite, but he’s 2 and a half. I’ll take it over a meltdown). Predictability!

  14. Ah, the good old “you’re not good enough” message, the boon of the self-help industry. Thanks, Beth for pioneering the “relax, you’re doing fine” industry.

    I’ll adapt Julia Child’s advice: “Moderation in all things, including moderation”–and consistency.

  15. To be honest, I didn’t hear anything inconsistent in what you do! You consistently love them. You consistently give them choices. You consistently listen to them. Sounds consistent to me…

  16. Consistency is the frame. It gives us something stable in an unstable world. But what good is a frame without a picture? The exceptions to the rules, common sense (or uncommon sense), life, taking a break from routine for fun, grace, etc. – these are the paints that make the picture! It is important to not be too consistent. By nature both my husband and are and so is our firstborn. So we went with this when she was little. Now, 18 years later and 5 more kids, she has a very difficult time dealing with change, grace for others, changing rules to fit new circumstances or different people with different needs. Looking back, I wish we had introduced more inconsistency into her life when she was younger – it might make things easier for her today (and she might not have to learn it the hard way like her father and I have had to).

  17. The only consistent thing in life is the inconsistency! While I think I have always been adaptable – multiple children will do that to you – I pride myself on my unerring flexibility. My favorite quote come from a M*A*S*H episode where the shrink says, “Ladies and Gentlemen, take my advice; pull down your pants and slide on the ice.” Planning to slide on the ice makes the slipping so much easier!

  18. God, I love you.

  19. Nope, you’ve got it right! This is exactly what consistency in parenting means – love and noise and ice cream and mistakes within boundaries. There’s no question – your kids know what to expect from you. You have beautifully illustrated the true meaning of consistent parenting. Way to go!

  20. Love this!! As a momma of a toddler, I am fairly new to parenting. I love the idea of flexibility, not consistency. So much more realistic. And definitely a better example of real life. Thank you, again, for reading my mind when I didn’t even know it.

  21. I’m up WAY too late after a long wonderful day. I was inconsistent with my girl tonight, and she’ll be okay for it but I was wondering if I was letting her walk all over me. I don’t think so, now, but we’ll see if she tries again. 🙂

    Sometimes as parents we are the ones making the electrified fence that the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park kept poking and poking, looking for the weak spots. And sometimes we have to turn off the fence and let them go.

    Love your blog, love this one especially.

  22. Totally off your rocker… But in fabulous company.
    Sure, there is a place for consistency. It is NEVER ok to put the cat in the toilet bowl… BUT if we can’t teach our kids to be flexible and embrace change and enjoy spontenaiety in in their lives then I think we’ve missed the point.

    I blogged something similar (though much ruder) about being “organised”.

    Love your work chick, love your work.

  23. Oh yes! And also, amen! And, will you come to Oz and be my neighbour?

  24. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Inconsistency can lead to worse outcomes. They could grow up to be bloggers.

  25. Oh.my.goodness. Yes.
    I am so tired of feeling so consistently inconsistent. Our life is wonderfully complicated and messy and beautiful – but consistent? Not even one day.
    Thank you for taking on the ingrained and the assumed…you might be my hero.
    That and I love the put down the urinal cake story. ‘Cause I have two boys. Been there.
    Love,
    Shawna

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.