With New Year’s here, I imagine that you are setting resolutions around your parenting. Among your resolutions, perhaps you have a goal of being more consistent. Great. I’d like to help with that. However, becoming a consistent parent is almost impossible if you leave to will power alone. It is much easier if you build for success step by step. I have a plan for doing exactly that.
STEP ONE: Understand why consistency is important and be clear on what it is NOT.
Consistency is not about doing the same thing the same way all the time just for the sake of being the same. (Yes, routines and systems can help kids, but that is the topic of another blog.) Consistency is about building trust. Children have a lot to learn about the world. The first thing they learn about is you. Will you come if they cry? Will you see that they are hungry and feed them? If you say something is hot and will hurt them, is it really hot? Will it really hurt them? With every interaction where you match your actions to your words, you are teaching your child to trust you. Knowing she can trust you allows your child to go out into the world to explore and try new things. When you are inconsistent, she has to put energy into tracking you.
Most likely you were consistently responsive to your newborn. But somewhere in the first year or two, you might have had some doubts about whether your child was manipulating you with her cries or refusals. Maybe you felt that it wasn’t that she was hungry or wet but it was just attention she was crying for or she was just being deliberately stubborn. Perhaps the day came when you said no about something—perhaps playing with something delicate or breakable like a figurine. You put your foot down, denied her what she wanted and allowed her tears and upset. Then perhaps you gave in and let her hold it because you couldn’t stand her shrieks. Or perhaps you stood firm one day and gave in another day when you just didn’t have any more patience with a crying baby.
It is Baby's job to test.
I am not saying this is right or wrong; I am just pointing out that in that moment of giving in, you were teaching your child her own potential power that she now had to explore. (Believe me, even the most consistent parent has had moments where she changed her mind about something, so don’t waste time feeling guilty about it.) Remember, your child has been exploring all along. When a child drops something from her high chair over and again, she is exploring the natural world. She is asking the question, if I drop this, will it go down to the ground every time? Every single time? With enough repetition, she finds that 99.9% of the time it does (and then helium balloons come along). In her interaction with you, though, she now finds that sometimes you respond one way and sometimes (especially if she cries!), you respond another. Because of the lack of consistency, she has to explore that scenario over and over and, yes, over again. In this case, when you feel like your child is just testing you, you are right! That is exactly what she is doing. She is establishing the boundaries of her world.
Learning how the world works--including your boundaries--is an essential task of childhood.
Over time, your baby will learn where your boundaries are. She will test them less if they are consistent. My baby, for example, learned that she could touch and explore my face (gently, please!) but not my glasses. Because I am blind as a bat, I am particularly sensitive about people messing with my glasses. My sensitivity made it easy for me to respond the same way quickly and decisively every time. As a result, she stopped reaching for my glasses—she stopped testing—much sooner than in other areas. Where I wasn’t as clear, of course she continued to test me.
That’s really the first principal of consistency: It is natural and desirable for a child to test the world. She has a lot to come to understand. She will flip the light switch hundreds of times to see if the outcome is the same. She will look at the same book every day to see if the pictures will still come in the same order. And when you tell her no, she will repeat the action again and again until she feels she can trust your reaction. When she is satisfied that she knows what your reaction will be, she can go on to new learning. That is key. That is what being consistent allows your child to do.
Learning about when there is no consistent rule:
Now, you know it is not actually that simple because unlike gravity, human reactions are very variable. And over time, your child will learn that, too. Ask Mom to play when she is in a good mood, and the answer will be yes. Ask her to play when she is busy or tired or distracted, and the answer will be no. As you gently explain to her you are busy or tired and that is why you are not playing with her, she will establish that as the rule and will gage your reaction ahead of time more accurately. Eventually, she will see how she can manipulate the rule positively. My daughter learned to bargain with me. When she saw that I was tired, she would offer, if I play by myself while you sit and drink your tea, then will you take me to the park? When I agreed that yes I would—and then I really did—we were establishing mutual trust with each other.
The more erratic your response, the less secure your child will feel and the more your child will have to test you. Children go on testing things until they can establish a rule about them. They are not testing you with the purpose of annoying you, but they are testing to see where your annoyance trigger is. If your trigger is pretty consistent, they will test you less.
Okay. I promised a practical plan, and so far all I have done is lecture on the principal of consistency. Come back next week, and I will get down to the details. Your homework this week is to just be aware. Start thinking of the things where it is really easy for you to be consistent (seatbelts, maybe?) and where it is hard (cookies? bedtime?). Track when your “yes” and “no” are clear and when they get muddy. See if you can get clear on your patterns.