Why Does Consistency Matter in Parenting?

Small girl having a tantrum on the pavement.

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Consistency is one of the most essential and productive strategies for effective parenting. In practice, this means being consistent in your schedule, routines, and rules; in your discipline patterns; and in how you connect with your child emotionally.

Consistency means purposely choosing how you are going to engage with or respond to your child. The key is not varying that intention and practice over time. For example, choosing not to yell and to calm yourself down before responding to your child is one of the greatest gifts you can give your kid.

Consistency in structure, rules, and routines provides limits and boundaries for children. These help them to organize and integrate information and gain an understanding of how the world works and how they should behave.

Most importantly, consistency lets children know what to expect. That strengthens their sense of stability, security, understanding, trust, and comfort.

How Consistency Helps Kids

For children, the learning process involves observing, internalizing, rehearsing, and repeating. Just like when they learn that 2+2=4, kids need to use this same process for behaviors. When parents are consistent, children know what their parents want them to do.

Your child will be able to predict how you will react to specific situations, such as when they throw food or when it is time for bed. This does not mean that your children won't push your buttons or try to see if your reaction changes. It also doesn't mean you can't be flexible when the situation calls for it.

But in time, your child will come to feel secure and less prone to act out. Children understand the world through this safety net. When kids are able to predict how their day will go, they feel more comfortable and can make better choices.

Why Inconsistency Is Harmful

Inconsistency can be confusing for children. If one day, their parent yells about something they do, but the next day it's tolerated without a word, the child learns that adult responses are not predictable and that they can't count on their caregivers' rules and expectations. This can cause aggression, hostility, complacency, confusion, unruliness, and/or passivity.

When children face unpredictability, they can become anxious and unsettled. If children have to develop a large capacity to cope with anxiety at a young age, it can overwhelm their defenses, and cause them to solve problems with undesired or inappropriate behavior like whining, rudeness, or tantrums.

Why Is Consistency Hard for Parents?

Parenting can be exhausting and frustrating. If you're feeling stressed and are just trying to get through the day, it can be tempting to let consistency slip. Sometimes, expediency can take precedence over consistency. For example, you may get very frustrated that your child won't clean their room, and after asking multiple times, you get fed up and do it yourself.

We are all human and make mistakes. Be empathetic to yourself. Putting in an effort to be consistent can be really challenging. Being consistent is time-consuming and requires thought and patience, but it is an investment in your child's development and will make your relationship stronger as your child grows.

Consistency With Other Caregivers

Consistency is important not only between parents, but ​with any caregiver in a child's life, including grandparents, babysitters, nannies, and teachers. All caregivers should use simple and concrete practices that facilitate consistency. All of your child’s caregivers should be working together to help your child learn and grow.

To make this happen, keep communication open between caregivers so that everyone understands the consistent message you want to give your child and provides the same rules. For example, decide on some simple house rules and enforce them in a similar way to how rules are enforced in school. Make sure that your rules (for bedtime, morning routines, etc.) are realistic, and that your expectations are age-appropriate.

Many children are better behaved in school because of consistency and clear rules. In school, when there is a rule, everyone must adhere to it; there are no exceptions. When a student breaks a rule, the consequences are the same. Predictability helps children feel secure.

How to Address Difficult Behaviors

Difficult behavior is developmentally normal and age-appropriate for children, especially during the early years. Children test limits in order to figure out their world and their place in it.

Kids need consistent consequences for undesirable behaviors. If you are trying to change a behavior, consistency is the way to do it. It may take a long time, but if you are consistent with your response, your child will begin to adjust their behavior. 

It's important to be consistent in how you react when your child does something you don't approve of. The consequences you use are key to discouraging a behavior in the future. Note that the consequences should fit the behavior, and your tone and demeanor should match the severity of the behavior.

Time outs and similar forms of punishment are often unrelated to any specific undesired behavior. This approach can be confusing and foster a sense of loneliness and disconnection. However, when framed as a chance to reset and cool down, time-outs can be an effective way for a child to calm down and reflect. However, a logical and related consequence is often the best way to nip the undesired behavior in the bud.

Giving Choices Is Giving Power

An important component of child development is allowing kids to make choices and gain independence. When caregivers are not consistent about the amount of freedom and choices they give, it can feel undermining and confusing to a child. If your child engages in power struggles with you but behaves well for their teachers, one reason may be a lack of choices.

Giving kids more independence helps them to feel empowered and take ownership of their experiences.

Giving children choices might include letting them pick out their clothing, their lunch food, and their nighttime books, and giving them household responsibilities, such as helping with the groceries or the laundry. These tasks give children autonomy and independence, which helps them to develop skills in a safe and secure way.

How to Maintain a Consistent Routine

One of the most important things you can do for yourself and your child is to know what your schedule is—and stick to it. Having a set routine helps everyone in the family to know what will be happening each day and understand the expectations for both parents and kids. It is your job to teach your children what your expectations are. Your routine creates a framework for letting them know what they need to do and when to do it.

As most parents know, a tough night or morning can throw a wrench into the whole day. Many people have bedtime routines that began when their children were very young. But those routines can get derailed very quickly by kids asking for water, a snack, to wash their hair, or any other creative thing they can think of to make the nighttime continue. The same thing may go on in the mornings before school.

Set Clear Expectations

Strengthen routines by making sure everyone in the family knows what is expected of them. Depending on your kids' ages, have them get themselves dressed or brush their teeth on their own and take on a variety of household chores. When kids know their responsibilities, they feel empowered and are more likely to respond positively to the task. This repetition builds mastery, independence, and self-confidence.

Handle Adjustments

Once you establish a routine, do your best to stick to it. If you need to make adjustments or there is a major change to the routine, share it with your child. This lets them mentally prepare so they will not be anxious or surprised by the change. 

Most importantly, if disruptions occur, just aim to get back on track as soon as you can. Being calm and consistent gives your child security and tells them that you are a safe person to go to when life feels chaotic to them.

Keep Communicating

Plans change and that is a part of life. The important thing is that you share those changes with your child in a clear, age-appropriate way. We usually expect kids to do as we say, but many times, we don't provide them enough information or the space to process these adjustments. We expect them to be flexible and respond easily to life changes. But to do that, we need to give them the time and tools to cope with change.

Have a conversation with your child and allow them to ask related questions. Every child, family, and situation is different, but if you begin with open communication, you’ll continue to foster a relationship with your child based on trust.

A Word From Verywell

Consistent parenting takes time, energy, and dedication. Give yourself grace if you occasionally let things slide. No parent will be perfectly consistent all the time—that's understandable. Plus, it is also important to be able to be flexible. Being both consistent and flexible are choices, and making these purposefully is what will help your child develop into a confident and secure adult.

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