How Kids and Teens Respond to Consistency
No matter how well you've selected your rules, how much you praise your kids, or how effectively you discipline them, you must be consistent, or your efforts will be in vain and your household will still be in crisis. Kids need consistency to get the message because your actions speak louder than your words — it's part of how they're wired.
How Habits Work
Riding a bike is a cliché example of how habits are formed. Think back on the first time you rode a bike, and how difficult and scary it was. Yet you kept trying, and each time, it was a little easier. The more you did it, the easier it became. In fact, after a few days, you probably couldn't even imagine not knowing how to do it! The same holds true with each new endeavor.
Strange as it may seem, all of this has to do with how the brain grows and functions, and it is in children that its growth and function is most marked and amazing. To boil down decades of research into a sentence: brain cells only grow when they are stimulated. Brain cells grow and are strengthened by use; like muscles, using them makes them get bigger. That's the simple reason why practicing makes it easier to do something.
What's more, brain cells don't grow at the same pace or in the same way during a person's life. If you fail to provide enrichment for certain activities during the critical period of time in which the brain wants to work on them, your child's efficient brain will trim those cells or use them for other purposes; or, they'll just fail to grow larger. Language learning, for example, must take place during childhood, or your brain “turns off” the function for learning it, which is why kids can learn languages so much more easily than adults can. Is it impossible to learn a foreign language as an adult? No, but it is much, much more difficult, and very few adults will attain native-like fluency.
Sticking with a new endeavor is what makes it become a habit, and the sooner you start, the easier it will be for both you and your child. What's going on around your child strongly impacts the development of his brain. In order for your child's brain cells to learn the new rewards, rules, and consequences, and to behave accordingly in a way that becomes automatic, you must remain consistent while his brain develops.
Benefits of Consistency
In the emotional realm, consistency makes kids feel safe: when they know what to expect, they feel secure. Clear rules, clear consequences, pleasant rewards, and the knowledge you can count on them like you count on the sun rising each day — this makes a kid feel secure, safe, and stable. Only then can he maximize his potential. In addition, your child will be a better student and future employee when discipline is consistent. Consistency means not only consistent discipline on an individual basis, but from child to child and from parent to parent.
When rewards, rules, and consequences are consistent, kids think, “Okay, I know what to expect. I may not like the rules, but I know they're fair and that I'm not being singled out, and I know what will happen if I don't follow them.” After a few tastes of consistently applied discipline, most kids will choose to follow the rules, which are set up for their well-being anyway. They know they can rely on their parents and trust that their needs will be met. So consistency makes for a happy, relaxed kid!
Without consistency, a child feels his world is in flux and he may grow anxious and more defiant. In addition, he'll need to test the rules much more to see if you really mean what you say. Obviously, that can wear you down in a hurry. Consistency has the added benefit of making your life a little easier.
Think back to the experience of learning to ride a bike — if it became easier over time, you can also conclude that the beginning was the toughest part. Take the courage to start now and trust that the beginning is a “hump” you need to work hard to pedal over before you can start coasting.