We all know something about inconsistent parenting: you tell your kid they can’t have something, your partner tells them that they can…so you end up feeling upset and undermined, and your child ends up knowing that whatever they can’t get from one of you, they can get from the other.
This type of parenting also occurs when you hold unclear expectations of your child. This may refer to behavioral expectations, for example when behavior for which there are consequences today is ignored tomorrow, or even to personal accountability, for example expecting your kids to do chores but not making them accountable for completing those chores.
There are many ways in which parents display inconsistent behavior.
Examples of inconsistent parenting
Inconsistent behavior takes many different forms. Some of the most common of these include:
- Changing your mind frequently.
- Having a hard time deciding how to react to your child, meaning that there are high chances that you react to the same behavior differently.
- Being unable to take a stand.
- Frequently making empty threats. Not following up on threats is a key characteristic of inconsistent parents.
- Not having clear rules.
- Having different rules in different environments for the same behavior.
- Failing to apply consequences for inappropriate behavior.
- Reacting to the same stimulus in different ways.
- Having a hard time telling your child “no”, meaning that you make it difficult for them to know what you expect of them.
- Inadequate monitoring.
- Expecting different behavior from siblings or accepting certain behavior from some but not from others – in other words, practicing favoritism.
- Giving in is one of the most common forms of inconsistent parents – you tell your child that they can have one piece of candy but then they start begging for more and insist so much that you eventually give in.
How inconsistent parenting affects your child
Many of us practice inconsistent parenting for various reasons. Sometimes, it’s because it just feels easier to let things go, and other times it’s because we are distracted or tired.
There are also times when we practice this form of parenting because we are unsure of ourselves or unsure of how to react to specific behavior. But here’s the thing: inconsistent parenting has a negative impact on your child’s development.
One of the most common outcomes of this form of parenting is that it teaches your child that your word is never final. In other words, it teaches them that a “no” can easily change into a “yes” if they apply just a little pressure.
While letting your child have another cookie or another piece of candy may not be that big a deal, inconsistent parenting may have a major and negative impact on other areas of their lives. It can teach kids that rules are flexible and always negotiable, and that is something that they can carry with them into adulthood.
Being constantly unsure of how you are going to react to your children’s behavior increases their stress and anxiety. It also decreases their trust.
A study focusing on behavior problems in preschoolers found that “inconsistent parental behavior and high levels of family adversity are associated with the emergence of problems in early childhood and predict their persistence to school age”.
The study found that the more parents were inconsistent, the more children attempted to test boundaries, leading to problem behavior. Inconsistent parenting was also thought to affect children’s development.
A separate study found that when discipline strategies were inconsistent and punitive (involving spanking and physical aggression), children displayed more disruptive behavior problems.
Yet another study found that when children felt that their parents practiced inconsistent parenting because they treated their siblings differently, problem behavior tended to increase.
How to stop being an inconsistent parent
Many parents wonder whether they are inconsistent because they use different discipline approaches to their children’s behavior.
But inconsistent parenting is not really about how you react to the different facets of your child’s behavior; it is about reacting to the SAME behavior in DIFFERENT ways. The good news is that there several simple things that you can do to become a more consistent parent.
1) Provide stable and consistent parenting
Being a consistent parent is about having clear rules and ensuring that your children are aware of those rules and the consequences if they are broken.
Having the same rules, always, is one of the best ways to become a consistent parent. But that does not mean having rules for everything, but rather setting rules for specific behavior.
While it is normal to react to your child’s behavior differently depending on the environment in which that behavior occurs, it is possible to ALWAYS react to the SAME behavior in the SAME environment, in the SAME way: “when we get home…”.
2) Identify your key family values
Being a more consistent parent is not about setting rules for everything – that would drive both you and your kids crazy. To avoid inconsistent parenting, each family must first determine their key family values and set the rules that really matter for their family.
In today’s era of social media noise, it’s normal to compare your kids to other kids and to notice “where they are falling short”. But the truth is, comparing yourself or your kids to others is a recipe for failure because different families have different rules and different expectations of their children, and these must be based on personal family values.
3) Clearly define your negotiables
One of the easiest ways to improve parenting consistency is to determine your negotiables and your non-negotiables. This is easy to do if you are clear on your family values. For example, a family whose values revolve around personal accountability may expect all children to participate in household chores every day and apply consequences when those chores are not completed.
Once you decide on your negotiables, it is important to expect the same behavior from all your children and to avoid favoritism. In other words, any rules or expectations must apply to everyone.
4) Get on the same page with your partner around your key values
Being on different wavelengths with one’s partner is one of the most common factors behind inconsistent parenting. If you and your partner have a different vision of parenting, the first thing to do is to get on the same page.
This can be tricky because we all have different memories of our childhoods which interfere with the type of parents that we would like to be. It is therefore important to listen to each other without judgement in order to find common ground on which to base your family values. This means being willing to see things from the other’s perspective and to negotiate.
That said, if you have different views of parenting, there will always be occasions on which you will disagree with how your partner handles a situation.
Should this happen, it is important to avoid contradicting them, or to show your children that although you may not agree with your partner’s decision, they have your full support. Later, you can decide whether to talk to your partner about how they handled the situation or whether to let it go.
5) Choose a plan and stick to it
A good definition of consistency is choosing a plan and sticking to it. The same is true when it comes to consistent parenting: you need a plan, and you need to stick to that plan.
That being said, your family plans must be developed carefully and only include the things that you are willing and able to enforce. Rules, rules, and more rules will only wear out everybody.
To make your rules effective, you need to start with the end in mind:
- What exactly do you want to achieve?
- How will you know if progress is being made?
- How will you apply the consequences if rules are broken?
Focus on the behavior that you are struggling with or on the one that you would like your child to display and be willing to let go of the less important things. In short, choose your battles.
Last thoughts on inconsistent parenting
Becoming a consistent parent is not just about setting rules and consistently enforcing them. It is also about choosing a parenting strategy that revolves around trust and respect.
We now know that children behave better when they are treated with warmth, when they are allowed to participate in certain decisions, when they are encouraged to express themselves, or when we explain our decisions, expectations and rules.
These parenting styles focus on holding children accountable for their behavior and trusting them to make the right decisions while treating them with respect and accepting that they are independent individuals in their own right.