You might wonder how important it is to be consistent when setting limits. Should you stick with a rule to help your child learn what’s expected of him? Does consistency teach your child that he can’t always have his way? Will bending the rules harm him or cause you to lose control?
When you’re consistent, you provide your child with a sense of what is and isn’t acceptable behavior. And in some areas, such as vital safety rules, consistency is essential. Yet, if you tried to enforce every rule you set, you’d spend so much of your time saying, “Don’t do that,” and “I already said you can’t have that.” Virtually every parent makes exceptions to the rules, depending on circumstance and personality. Some parents are quite flexible; others generally inflexible. Yet all parents find themselves at some point saying, “No, not today,” then changing that to “Maybe,” and finally saying, “Okay.” This is part of parenting.
When one father took his daughter to a convenience store, she asked, “Can I get soda?” But her father said, “I’m only going in this store for milk and eggs.” His daughter repeated, “But I want a Sprite for me.” And her father said back, “I’m not buying you a soda, but I’ll give you a drink when we get home.” Minutes later the father and daughter walked out of the store. The father held his bag of eggs and milk, and his daughter walked out with a Sprite, with a straw in it.
You may fear that when you give in, your child will expect the same response the next time a similar situation arises. But as long as you’re generally firm about discipline, you can make exceptions and still stay in control. When you show some flexibility and let your child know that his desires are important, and that life is not too rigid, he’ll learn that sometimes people get what they want, and sometimes they don’t, and he’ll learn what compromise feels like.
You probably find that time, place, and mood influence your decision to stick to a rule or give in. That’s okay. Sometimes you feel tolerant, and other times you’re impatient and tired. In public, you don’t want to be embarrassed by your child’s behavior, so you might give in. You may be especially likely to give in when you need to distract your child because you’re working or you’re on the phone.
One mother wouldn’t generally let her son mix spices and water together in a bowl as he had done with great enjoyment at a friend’s house. But he learned a way around this. Whenever his mother took a business call, he would start getting spices off the shelf, usually with his mother’s reluctant help. She needed to keep him quiet when she was on the phone and gave in.
If you’re concerned about consistency, consider your overall relationship with your child. If you generally give the message that he’s loved and accepted, and that you have basic, firm expectations about how he should behave, you don’t have to worry about incidental exceptions you make. Being reasonably consistent is good enough. After all, you can’t enforce a set of rules at all times. Flexibility is an important part of life, and give and take is an important part of parenting.