We’ve all heard it: good parenting requires consistency. Does that mean that you have the same consequences and deliver them exactly the same way each and every time? Does it mean that you must be rigid with your children?
In my work over the years with children and families, what I have found most important with regard to consistency is that parents have a framework that is clearly communicated to their children about what behaviors are expected and what is unacceptable. When decisions about discipline are based on variables like the parents’ mood, the setting, or other changing factors, consistency is harder to maintain.
That said, 100 percent consistency is nearly impossible and parents tend to feel guilty when they’re not 100 percent consistent. This type of guilt is usually wasted energy. Almost all children can handle a little inconsistency and still learn what is expected of them. The degree of inconsistency that can be tolerated, however, varies from child to child. In general, children learn from authentic, attuned engagement with their parents, and that’s just not 100 percent the same every time.
The most destructive patterns with inconsistency generally occur when there is inconsistency between the adults involved in caring for the child. When parents and daycare providers, mothers and fathers, or parents and heavily involved grandparents differ significantly in their approach to discipline or routines with children, it can lead to confusion, anxiety, and/or disruptive behavior.
Ellyn Satter’s division of responsibility in feeding provides a framework for adults to approach the feeding relationship between caregivers and children. The division of responsibility model requires caregivers to develop and maintain some structure in the timing of meals and snacks . It also requires a consistent dedication to making varied food offerings available and a commitment to family meals and not pressuring the child to eat more or less than she is hungry for.
But what happens if Alexa goes to a family gathering and ends up filling up on snacks all day? What happens if David spends the weekend with his grandparents who caters to his every food desire or Julia drinks soda and eats lots of sweets at a birthday party? Most children can handle these time-limited inconsistencies and still develop healthy eating habits. Most children respond positively when the usual routines are resumed. Further, since these short-term disruptions in routine and challenges will be present throughout our lives, it’s important to begin to learn how to handle them from an early age.
What is more potentially damaging to developing healthy eaters are ongoing, significant differences among those caring for and feeding children. It’s vital that the adults deeply involved in raising the child be largely on the same page with regard to feeding for lifelong healthy eating patterns. Clearly, this type of interpersonal consistency isn’t always easy to achieve given the realities and limitations of our lives, but I would argue that it’s definitely worth trying for the sake of our kids.
Kathleen Cuneo, Ph.D. is a psychologist, parent coach, and mom. Her mission is to empower parents to find their own parenting voice and develop strong connections with their children. Her parenting e-newsletter and free report, “30 Things You Can Do To Raise Self-Confident, Compassionate Children,” are available at www.drcuneo.com. Dr. Cuneo is also the director of Dinner Together, LLC which offers consultation to families seeking to have more frequent, successful family meals and deal with the challenges of picky eaters. Sign up for her free e-newsletter at www.dinnertogether.com.