Once upon a time there was a girl. This girl had red hair, freckles, and a temper deemed socially appropriate (if not acceptable) for those physical attributes. She stamped her feet when frustrated and firmly believed that if she glared at someone long enough they would obligingly burst into flames. She berated herself on her inconsistent staring into the wee hours of the night (the only possible explanation for her lack of success). Her mother – a patient, kind woman – would very occasionally throw her hands in the air at the intense feelings of her daughter and declare, “One day you will have a child just like you!”

Prophetic.

There was a morning in which my emotional fortitude for the entire day, nay, week, had been used up negotiating footwear with my three-year-old. She does not look much like me. People get confused when I stride across the playground to pick up this tall, brunette girl, but her flashing eyes are unmistakable and I find myself checking for flames in case she has more success in inducing spontaneous combustion than I ever did.

 

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I was unwilling to give up my point of view in the morning’s Shoe War – if I was inconsistent then she would never learn boundaries, she would give up extracurricular activities in the second week when we had already paid for the term, she would steal others chocolate, and she would never hand in an essay on time and therefore lose valuable marks.

My daughter was in the middle of the kitchen, shoes surrounding her, fists clenched, and body tense when my own mother walked in. My mother absorbed the scene: The three-year-old stamped her foot, shouted “NO!” and launched onto the couch. This was apparently not quite dramatic enough, because she checked to see if we’d been watching and then did it again. I indulged in an extremely grown-up display of emotion and tossed a tiny gumboot on the ground before hurling myself on the couch too in a very emotionally stable way that conveyed my complete control over the situation. I looked over at my mother, who was grinning.

“She’s just like me, isn’t she?” I asked.

“Yes!” was the gleeful response.

Backing off

Consistency is thought to be a cornerstone of parenting. Yet I wonder if we really understand what that means? My daughter is clearly capable of holding fast to an ideal and never budging in the face of opposition. Perhaps what she needs to see is someone who backs down occasionally. Someone who says, “Wow, maybe we need to look at this from another angle,” or, “I can see you’re really upset about this!” and, “Lets find a solution that works for everyone.” And maybe a very occasional, “Fuck it, do whatever you want.” Maybe consistency has less to do with punishment and more to do with the parent-child relationship.

What is consistency?

Consistency in parenting is usually referring to punishment. We are told that we cannot back down. We cannot be inconsistent or our child will smell our indecision and we will be doomed to 16 hours of whining because that one time we broke down and bought the lolly and now our offspring know that we’re weak and candy is inevitable.

However, when I looked at consistency in psychological research the most frequent use of the term was in relationship to consistency of responsiveness. Responsiveness is “the use of warm and accepting behaviors to respond to children’s needs and signals.” Indulging in my own tantrum over shoes with my daughter was not responsiveness. I may have been setting a limit about her wearing shoes, but it was a ridiculous one. It was not warm, or accepting. It was equally childish and meant I had to pack up the shoes because I was the one who threw them (house rule).

Tantrums signal a need that’s not being met, and the behavior we need to engage in is not consistently imposing a limit, but consistently imposing love within those limits. Rules and regulations are far less important than a consistent understanding that one is acceptable, and loved.

Why is responsiveness important?

Parental consistency of responsiveness has been shown to be positively associated with social and cognitive development. Six-month-old babies who had responsive mothers were more socially conscious at four years of age than those children whose mothers were not responsive.

Further to this, children’s pro-social behavior at four years of age was positively associated with their behavior as young adults. Responding appropriately to children’s needs means that they have a better chance of being a good person throughout their lifetime. If they know what it feels like to be understood and treated with kindness then they’re more likely to confer that respect to others.

Research also showed an interesting relationship between sympathy and pro-social behaviors, with small children who showed sympathetic behaviors (sharing a toy with a peer) having increased social skills as an adult. Parents can actually increase empathy in their own children through modelling and basing discipline on feelings rather than behaviors. This means instead of taking a toy off your kid who took it off that other kid with a cry of, “Do not snatch!” you base your responses on feelings and ask your child, “How do you feel when people take toys off you? How do you think your friend feels?” You can make your child hand back the toy as many times as you like, and they may even hand it back themselves, but developing true empathetic behaviors relies on teaching children to think about others feelings rather than forcing them into outwardly pro-social behaviors.

Are you teaching what you think you’re teaching?

This made me wonder if I was being responsive. I might be certain that I’m teaching my eldest kid about gratitude and patience when I say no to his request for a new dinosaur toy. I may praise myself on being super-consistent after two weeks of denials. Surely he’s learning to value the things he already has (and isn’t he getting tired of this?). Nevertheless what he might be learning is that I’m untrustworthy, and that if he presents his need over and over I will do my best to make him stop asking rather than seeking to understand his point of view.

This is where consistency of responsiveness may be more beneficial than consistency of response. I’m the parent and I have the credit card so I can say no consistently. A more responsive way of interacting might be to have a conversation with him about why this toy is so important. I can show I understand wanting new things, I can even tell him I wish I could buy it for him and maybe work out a date on the calendar where it would be possible to purchase the Scary Dinosaur Toy. Responding with warmth maintains our relationship – it results in his feeling heard and increases my understanding of his needs. Plus, it boosts his likelihood of being empathetic to others who want things but have to wait to get them.

Responding to children’s signals consistently is more beneficial in the long run than setting a limit that your child may not understand and sticking to it. Discipline is meant to be about teaching our kids to make good decisions for themselves. When we seek to extinguish a difficult behavior without examining the actual need behind it then we deny our children a teaching moment. To be effective, discipline has to be self-enhancing. Which means we have to talk about feelings.

Again with the feelings

It’s really hard to learn from someone with whom you don’t have a strong relationship. It’s also really hard to learn from a punishment when you think it’s unfair. Children who received a punishment they felt was unjust were not only unlikely to improve their behavior, but more likely to act aggressively in the future. What if the first step in disciplining a child was considering, “Why are you doing this?” A curious approach to your offspring’s behavior will help you re-frame their systematic tipping of the bath water onto the bathroom floor from something that they are doing specifically to mess up your day into a child’s natural inquisitiveness about the world around them. This encourages them to look for motives in other’s behavior as they grow older and maintains trust.

This is not to say that children don’t need boundaries and consequences, or that being wildly inconsistent is a great parenting strategy (it’s not) but that true discipline is undertaken with warmth at the heart of it. The ideal outcome should be helping your child achieve their goal, whether that’s re-directing a splashy toddler to the backyard after explaining what bathrooms are traditionally used for and assisting in clean-up or commiserating with a huffy teenager that, “Yes, it is totally annoying to clean stuff when you want to go out, but thank you for being responsible.”

When your child believes that you have their best interests at heart and that you understand their needs, they are more likely to trust your limit as something which is good for them. They are also more likely to be empathetic and understanding with others. If you could work on one parenting skill this week, the one to target is not being consistent with punishment, but being consistent with warmth. Try it, I know I will be.