In my last post, I Learned it From the Best, we talked about how influential parenting is for a child’s future. In the long term, some things parents do are positive and some are negative. But which ones are positive? Which parenting styles are good for your children? In this post, I want to go into detail about the importance of consistency - the value of giving consistent rewards, punishments, attention and praise.
In early childhood, parenting in general gives children a toolkit of skills and beliefs they can take with them. It helps them deal with the challenges that life puts in their paths. If parents give their child positive, useful tools, then they are well equipped for the future. Things like praise and attention give confidence. On the other hand, parents who give their children bad habits and poor attitudes are setting them up for struggle. Addictive behaviors and poor eating habits are examples of unhelpful tools.
You might be thinking, that is all well and good. Everyone knows that good parenting will bring good outcomes. But what exactly is ‘good’ parenting?
During my psychology degree, I learned a few things about the impact of specific parenting practices. There is one particular aspect of parenting which is beyond important. It is consistency.
A study we discussed in one of my lectures tested the effects of divorce on children. The study looked at both physical and emotional health, as well as academic achievement. Children of divorced parents showed poorer outcomes in all the areas. Despite these results, you might be surprised to know that it is not the divorce itself that causes these bad outcomes. What happens is that when parents get divorced, suddenly everything becomes inconsistent. The custodial parent suddenly becomes poorer, has more responsibility, is busier and more stressed, tired and distracted. He or she therefore is more irritable and responds much more harshly and erratically to the children's behavior.
Let me give an example. Little Johnny might get home from school every day and ask mom for help with his homework. Since mom is a stay-at-home mom, she has the time and patience to sit down with little Johnny and explain his times tables. Mom explains everything carefully and in her calm way. After every afternoon homework session, she tells Johnny how clever he is and how proud she is of him. Meanwhile, dad is at work, earning money so mom can stay at home.
But what happens when the parents separate?
Well, mom now has to work, because dad is not paying all the bills anymore. She has to do everything she was doing before, plus more! And dad has to work extra too. He has to help finance TWO houses, budgets and living expenses. This time, when little Johnny asks mom for help with his homework, sometimes she sits down to help (perhaps not so patiently) and other times she tells him she is too busy. Sometimes she is a bit irritable. She might be upset with him, for not being able to do it on his own. This time, she forgets to tell Johnny that she is proud of him.
According to my lecturer, maintaining consistent processes in the household is one of THE most important things any parent can do. It's all about consistently responding to behaviors and maintaining consistent relationships.
Since I am not yet a parent, here are some examples of things my parents do that help me and show consistency:
- Each night after dinner, we clear the table together. When I was younger, I would sometimes get up from the table and rush off to play. Mom and dad would remind me that clearing the table is a family job and we do it together so everyone else can go and play too. They would say the same thing each night.
- Healthy eating was always important for my parents. If we asked for white bread, mom would remind us that wholemeal was healthier because the flour was not bleached. If we asked for MacDonald's, dad would say that it was not very healthy and maybe we should have something else instead. Sometimes they let us go a bit crazy. On our birthdays we buy a lot of chips and candy. But on a day-to-day basis, we remember to eat healthy food.
- For as long as I can remember, my dad would say, “always do what you have to do first, then what you want to do”. So homework, comes before TV, movies, games, books or any other play. When we would get home from school, mom would say, “Do you have any homework? Do that first, before anything else”.
- Bedtime at my house, is at 8pm. When I went into high school we negotiated to 9pm. Mom and dad would stick to that time like glue. Sometimes I stayed out late for parties or special occasions. But on regular days, I went to bed at 9pm no matter what.
- When we were young, my mom would never let us watch violent movies and TV shows. Ever. When I was a kid, it sucked. I would miss out on all of my friends’ favorite shows like the Power Rangers and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But she never gave in. Today, I am kind of glad she was so insistent. Violent movies for my age group are not as nice as the Power rangers. They are things like Hostage or Panic Room.
- My mom always told me that gossiping was bad. She would tell stories all the time about people who missed out on friendships and even family relationships because of gossiping. She never let me forget. To this day, if I am on the phone with a friend, and we are discussing a third friend, she will remind me that you should not talk about people behind their back.
What our parents teach us will stay with us for a long time (sometimes even forever!). If they are consistent, we will absorb their messages. We will know the ‘right’ thing to do in a certain situation. For example, if they remind us every day to do homework first thing, we will know what to do when we come home with homework. If they are erratic and keep giving us mixed messages, we will not know what to learn. If they sometimes let us play a game before homework, and sometimes berate us for not doing homework first, we will not know what to do the next day.
Regardless of what you think about any of these topics, the key is to be consistent. It does not matter if you think your children should stay up until 10pm, 11pm or midnight, or whether you think it is OK for them to watch M15+ movies. The most important thing is to give the same response each time they ask.