Consistency means doing what you say you will do; it means being predictable. With consistency, testing of boundaries is minimized since children quickly learn that you can be expected to follow through. Without consistency, the effectiveness of rules and boundaries is greatly reduced.
Kids whose parents are inconsistent will generally keep testing their parents’ limits and boundaries, since it’s part of learning how Mom and Dad work (and as a side benefit, the kids might also get away with whatever they’re doing).
In my workshops, I like to use the concept of gravity to illustrate the principle of consistency: if, when you dropped something, it occasionally (or even just once) did not fall down, you might keep dropping things to see if and when it would happen again.
Consistency is key to the effectiveness of consequences. If kids perceive that you only sometimes enforce the rules, they are likely to keep testing. Because your response is inconsistent, and therefore unpredictable, kids are motivated to keep trying until they get the response they want.
Parents’ inconsistency usually happens for one of three reasons:
1. Parents aren’t paying attention (so they don’t notice they have just been inconsistent);
2. Parents don’t want to enforce the consequence (often because it’s inconvenient or uncomfortable for them);
3. Parents cannot enforce the consequence (because it’s not within their control).
For example, consider the situation of a child at the grocery store with Dad who keeps pulling items of the shelves. Dad might say, without thinking ahead: “Please stop that, or we will leave the store.”
The child might then look mischievously at Dad and proceed to take one more thing off the shelf. Now, Dad is faced with abandoning an almost finished shopping trip, and he can hardly be blamed for not wanting to do that. In this case, better to specify a consequence he is willing to enforce.
So if you want to minimize testing of your rules and boundaries, be aware of what specific consequence you are communicating, and be sure that you can and will enforce it. More on consequences here.
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