Updated: Feb 16
Consistency is a much-celebrated word in the parenting world. I have not had a discussion among professionals in the parenting world that hasn't included the term in the last ten years. And when I ask them specifically what they mean, they can't tell me. I ask parents what they have been told, and they can't tell me. I ask kiddos in my practice if they think their parents are consistent and I haven't heard one "yes" yet. Hundreds of kiddos, not one "yes" to consistency.
Research tells us that outcomes for children are best when there are two basic elements achieved by their parents. These are considered the two pillars of parenting:
a high degree of expressed love and nurturance (pillar one)
a high degree of demonstrated control over circumstances (pillar two)
Kayden wants to drive the car to a party. He just got his license, wants to pick up four friends and the group has a history of getting themselves into trouble. Kayden hasn't been responding to your texts recently when he is out and he wants to take the car to the lake where he is likely to ignore his phone even more. Let alone the fact that there might be no cell reception. He has approached the request with some entitlement and much debate. You and your spouse have both arrived at a resounding "NO". Kayden is none-too-happy. And the discussions ensue...
What most parents don't realize is that the parenting isn't in the decision about whether he gets the car. That is only one small element. In fact, there is another universe in which the answer is "yes". (We could have gone that way also, but that is for another post.) In any scenario, the parenting is in the whole larger picture: the delivery, the response, the fights, the discussions, the interpersonal engagement and how the event is handled by the relationships with your kiddo. Yes, plural. There are two distinct, meaningful and very different human relationships. This is to be nurtured, celebrated and leveraged. Not deconstructed for consistency's sake. If we focus our efforts there, we miss the benefits of the features in these distinct relationships.
So how do we build the two pillars of parenting in this scenario (expressed love and nurturance and expressed control over circumstances)? Well, what we don't want to do is become overly concerned with consistency. In fact, this can get in our way. If we are more focused on that, then we have Mom and Dad parroting each other and saying overly-reductive, often black-and-white, non-productive things. And kiddos stop taking us seriously. "Because I said so; Just not today; Don't be ridiculous; You didn't clean your room, why should I let you..." (And just for the record Mom and Dad, foster parent and foster parent, grandparent and grandparent, Mom and Mom, the combo is irrelevant). In fact what we need here is precisely the differences between the two. Not in the decision, but the approach and the processing afterwards. It is far more beneficial for one to say:
"Kayden, I am way too nervous about you going out like that. I would need so much more from you to help me feel that you are safe. I just couldn't cope if something happened to you, you are the most important thing to your Dad and I. What we can do is start to work on the ways in which you can help me to feel that you are safe and responsible. It is your job to make me feel that in our relationship. That is the way we might get to a "yes" in the future." (Nurturance of the personality trait of trustworthiness - pillar one)
and for the other...
"Kayden, absolutely not. You haven't shown the responsibility or avoidance of risk for me to let you have the car. I am not changing my mind, your behaviors would need to be different to earn that privilege..." (Setting and enforcing behavioral expectations - pillar two)
He'll pick one of you to be mad at for sure. And take it out on you. But he will orient to the other one and work his way towards his goal on that path. Don't expect him to admit it to you, just watch for it and check on it and keep at both approaches. He might be more behavioral or more relational...but it is always one. And now he has a path with at least one parent to take.
Parenting is about nurturing the traits in a human being that will guide their behaviors for a lifetime. It is also about expecting behaviors out of our children and setting a bar for them to rise to. Those are the two sides of the same coin and children need both to do well. We can let go of needing to be the same and consistent as each other and start focusing on parenting as a system of relationships and behavioral expectations that guide our children to their best self. Talk with your partner and figure out which one of you is more behavioral and which is more relational in your parenting approaches. VALUE BOTH. It is a fascinating discussion and might be different for each child. But leveraging these differences can work wonders for you family and your children.
And prevent risk. Don't take chances. You have to enforce what you say...keep those keys on you all night if this happens :)
Britta Regan West
MA, RCC, TITC/CT-CFST
Clinical Counsellor, Clinical Traumatologist, Compassion Fatigue Specialist