There’s no question about it:  consistency is crucial when it comes to raising and disciplining our children.  Many parents I see in my office realize that they need to work on being more consistent – with bedtimes, limiting junk food, or just in general – when they interact with their kids.  But there are others who have placed such a high priority on consistency that it’s moved into a rigidity that’s not good for their kids, themselves, or their relationship. Let’s begin by getting clear on the difference between the two terms.  Consistency means working from a reliable and coherent philosophy so that our kids know what we expect of them, and what they should expect from us.  Rigidity, on the other hand, means maintaining an unswerving devotion to rules we’ve set up, sometimes without having even thought them through.  As parents, we want to be consistent, but not rigid.

Kids definitely need consistency from their parents.  They need to know what the rules are, and how we will respond if they break (or even bend) those rules.  Your reliability teaches them about cause and effect, and about what to expect in their world.  More than that, it helps them feel safe; they know they can count on you to be constant and steady, even when their internal or external worlds are chaotic.  In this way, we provide them with safe containment when they’re exploding because they want an extra scoop of ice cream.

So how do we maintain consistency without crossing over to rigidity?  Well, let’s start by acknowledging that there are some non-negotiables.  For instance, under no circumstances can you let your toddler run through a busy parking lot, or your older child swim without supervision or get into a car with a driver who’s been drinking.

However, this doesn’t mean you can’t ever make exceptions, or even turn a blind eye from time to time when your child misbehaves.  For instance, if you have a rule about no toys in a restaurant, but your four-year-old has just received a new puzzle game that he’ll play with quietly while you have dinner with another couple, that might be a good time to make an exception to your rule.  Or if your daughter has promised that she’ll finish her homework before dinner, but her grandparents show up to take her on an outing, you might negotiate a new deal with her.

The goal, in other words, is to maintain a consistent-but-flexible approach with your kids, so that they know what to expect from you, but they also know that at times, you will be thoughtfully considering all the factors involved.

The biggest deciding factor when it comes to discipline is what you’re hoping to accomplish with your child.  Remember, the point of discipline is to teach, not to give consequences.  If consequences help you teach the lesson you’re wanting to teach, then great.  But don’t be rigid on this, applying the same consequence to all infractions.  Look for other ways to accomplish your goal, and to effectively teach what you want your kids to learn.

For example, try a “do-over.”  Instead of immediately offering a punishment for speaking to you disrespectfully, say something like, “There’s a much more respectful way to talk to each other.  I want you to try that again. You can tell me how you’re feeling, but use respectful words and tone.”  Do-overs allow a child a second chance to handle a situation well.  It gives them practice doing the right thing.  And that’s often much more beneficial than a time-out.

Or, if you do decide to go the consequences route, be creative.  Saying “I’m sorry” doesn’t fix the broken Buzz Lightyear nightlight that was thrown in anger.  An apology note and using allowance money to buy a new nightlight might teach more.  Try asking them to brainstorm with you:  “What can you do to make it right?”

The point is that in your efforts to be consistent, remain flexible to other alternatives.  Kids need to learn about right and wrong.  But as an adult, sometimes you need to be able to see the gray areas, and not just the black and white.  Make decisions based not on an arbitrary rule you’ve previously set down, but on what’s best for your kids and your family.