Is Inconsistent Parenting All That Bad?
The one thing all the parenting gurus agree on is the importance of consistency. Yes sir, to raise responsible, moral, emotionally healthy kids that will someday move out of your house and support themselves, parents need to be consistent. We must mean what we say and say what we mean each and every time. After last Thursday night, I realized my kids are screwed. Is inconsistent parenting all that bad??
Early that evening I reminded my eighth-grade daughter that she needed to get to bed early that night. She was getting over a cold and was spending the night with a friend the following night. We are at the evolving bedtime stage with her. When my kids were younger, we had a non-negotiable 8:00 bedtime; as they aged, we moved it to 8:30. This firm bedtime was partly because I believe kids are easier to live with when they are well rested, and partly because I know I’m easier to live with when I have time off from parenting in the evening.
But at some age, parents need to step out of the bedtime setting business. I don’t know if there is one best way to abdicate this job, but usually, around 7th or 8th grade, I stop talking about a firm bedtime each night. I do talk about what their bodies need. If they are in a sport, I remind them that their bodies need more sleep to repair and build muscles. If they are getting over an illness, I become the concerned Florence Nightingale (just call me “Flo”) encouraging an early bedtime. I will often help them with their nighttime routine and chores to make it easier and offer a back rub to seal the deal. I usually only step back in if they are grouchy. I become the anti-Flo and tell them that they need more sleep or at least more room time.
Setting the Scene
Last Thursday, I was in Flo mode—concerned about my dearest’s health and the fact that she didn’t want to miss the sleep-over on Friday night. She dutifully headed upstairs around 8:30. When I checked on her about 45 minutes later, I reminded her that she needed to turn out the lights and offered to help pack up her backpack while she brushed her teeth. She said she could handle it and would be in bed shortly. So imagine my surprise when I passed her room at 10:30 and saw that her lights were still on. I ditched Flo so quick her little nurse’s hat is still spinning.
I was ticked!
I barged in and let fire. “You need sleep for your body to heal” “10:30 is too late on any night, much less the night before a sleep-over when you have a cold.”
And here’s the real point:
“It is disrespectful to disregard my instructions and just do what you want.”
This is the abridged version of my tirade, which ended with “Since you decided not to get enough sleep tonight, you can just jolly well get lots of sleep tomorrow night since you won’t be spending the night anywhere but right here!”
That last statement felt good, really good.
It wasn’t until my daughter wailed “But Mom, I have a history test tomorrow” that I noticed the spread of history books and notes surrounding her on the bed. She sealed her side of the argument with “I didn’t do good on the last test, and I need to really study for this one.” Nothing like a studying child to take the wind right out of your parental indignation sails. But there was still enough wind left to fuel my parting shot: “You should have thought about that earlier this evening!” Hah, take that.
By the time I reached the bottom of the stairs, the second-guessing had begun. Yes, she needed her sleep; yes, she should have started studying sooner; yes, she could have explained this to me earlier rather than just blowing me off. But, she was studying rather than listening to music or talking on the phone. Is it fair to take away the sleep-over, especially since it was with a friendship I am trying to encourage? (Read: with a child whose parents have similar rules to mine.)
I reacted so strongly because I felt that she had blatantly ignored me. Respect is the cornerstone to our family relationships, and her behavior felt disrespectful. On the other hand, it was possible that the time had crept up on her.
Wish-wash. On the one hand…but on the other hand.
Is This Lazy Parenting or Wise Parenting?
Oh, how I hate the second-guessing. Am I being wishy-washy or am I being reasonable? I don’t think of myself as inherently indecisive, but as my children have aged, I find myself sitting in the gray zone more. Is this wise parenting or is this lazy parenting?
It seemed a whole lot clearer when they were younger. Nothing bugs me more than hearing parents of a five-year-old not following through. If you tell Johnny to pick up his toys and he doesn’t, then you need to do something other than keep reminding dear little Johnny. In my house, I would have picked up the toys for Johnny and put them in a sack, preferably a see-through sack, just out of his reach for at least a week. If he didn’t seem to be suffering enough that week, I’d likely drop hints about the absent toys to increase his remorse. That seems clear, but how is this situation with my daughter any different? I told her to do something; she didn’t, so I followed through by removing a privilege.
Round and round my thoughts went when I should have been sleeping. The irony of my losing sleep over her lost sleep wasn’t entirely lost on me. The next morning found her sullen and me tired and still confused. I suggested that we sit down and talk after school. After she threw her “Fine, just fine” response at me, I suggested she carefully think about what attitude would be in her best interest and adjust hers accordingly.
Consistency is Good, Isn’t It?
I believe in consistency. Children thrive when they know what is expected. Some kids need the lines drawn clearer than others, but all kids need to know that there are boundaries. But don’t kids also need to know that they can present new information to us and that we can rethink our original positions.
A friend once called to tell me she had just thrown away every Lego in her house. She has caught her sons in the act of throwing Legos out their second story window. She lost it. How could they be so unappreciative of their toys? If they had so many toys that they could literally throw them away, then clearly they had too many. To drive the point home, she marched through the house gathered all the Legos together in a bag, and dramatically threw them in the trash. To drive the point completely home, she made the boys carry the trashcan to the curb. A couple of hours later, she called me questioning her decision.
After the initial exhilaration of having taken a stand, self-doubt had crept in. After we talked for a while, I told my friend I had always wondered how far a Lego would fly. We started laughing. The bag of Legos was sitting at the kitchen table when the boys came to breakfast the next morning. She explained that toys cost money, and they needed to take care of what they had. She also explained that after she had time to think about it, she decided that throwing the Legos in the trash wasn’t a very good idea either. She then sent them to the backyard to pick up all the leftover Legos.
In an ideal world, all our decisions, parenting and otherwise, would be well reasoned and thought out. We would have little reason to question them. But in the real world our decisions often must be made in the heat of the moment, when we are tired, or worried, or angry over something else. In the real world, there are times when we should reconsider our decisions. The punishment that flew out of my mouth last Thursday night was too big for the crime. Our children will have these moments in life as well, and I think part of good parenting is modeling the ability to back down.
After school, I sat with my daughter and explained that I felt that I was being ignored, and I didn’t like that feeling. She (sensing a reprieve) wisely checked her attitude and told me she didn’t mean to be disrespectful, but that she was panicked over the test. She had underestimated the time she needed to study and acknowledged that she should have started sooner. I admitted that I probably overreacted by taking away the sleep-over. We both agreed to work harder at communication. She went to pack her bag.
Now, did my daughter play me? Yes, probably. Did I overreact? Yes, probably. Both sides, as is often the case in life, share the blame. I can only hope that rather than seeing me as weak, she learns that there can be strength in admitting when you are wrong.
Please tell me that I’m not the only one who worries about being wishy-washy!
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First published in 2009; Updated in 2018 Image credit: Ali Rae; Jenna & Tristan Shouldice