Creating consistency in discipline

by | Apr 12, 2022

Consistency in discipline is vital to create a predictable and safe environment for your child. Consistency means having a reliable response to your child’s behaviour, no matter which person is caring for your child: family member or nanny. Clinical psychologist Michelle Nortje explains how to create this consistency.

Consistency means that a person’s response needs to be constant over time. This is not always easy to achieve when different members of the family may have different ideas about what constitutes discipline. It’s also hard to achieve when your changing moods influence how you might respond to your child. For example, after a long day of meetings, you’re far less likely to be able to be patient and calm if your child misbehaves at the dinner table.

Below are a few guidelines to help your family establish a consistent discipline routine to ensure your child has a family environment that facilitates and nurtures responsibility, safety and love.

1.Agree on the definition of discipline
When a couple marries, there is a joining of two families. These two families may have very different ways of managing discipline. It’s important to discuss the similarities and differences, as well as the way in which you’d like to approach parenting.

Daniel Siegel, a neuropsychologist, offers a helpful definition of discipline in his book, No Drama Discipline. He explains how a child’s misbehaviour can be understood as an opportunity to teach your child the skill they seem to be struggling with.

For example, when your child throws a tantrum when you don’t buy them their favourite sweet, your child may need you to help them learn about the skills of patience and frustration tolerance. Punishing your child with a smack or time-out is only a short-term solution and doesn’t do anything to help your child learn a better response in the future.

2.Establish house or family rules
Once you‘ve established the kinds of rules and discipline you think are important as a family, it’s helpful to write these down and keep them in a central place, like on the fridge. This way, all family members have a consistent reminder of what’s important. For younger children who can’t read, it can be a fun family task to draw pictures and decorate the house rules so that they can be meaningful for the whole family.

For example, a picture of a laundry basket is a reminder for a smaller child to put their dirty washing in the basket and not on the floor. Generally, children are more likely to follow rules that they feel they are a part of creating, rather than rules being imposed on them.

3. Create clear expectations of consequences
Consistency also comes with the predictability of knowing that each time a rule is not followed, the outcome will be the same. The predictability avoids confusion and arguments. The important part of setting consequences is that they need to be established beforehand. The consequences should also be linked to the misbehaviour. Otherwise, they become meaningless.

For example, if your child doesn’t pack away their toys as agreed, a possible consequence is that the next day they can’t play with that particular toy until they feel they’re ready to try again and follow the rule.

4. Rules should stay the same no matter who, what, where, or when
It can be tricky to maintain consistency when caregivers change. This is the case in most households who rely on au pairs, nannies or grandparents to help with caregiving. Again, having a meeting with each person involved in your child’s upbringing can be helpful to explain why consistency is important for the child’s healthy development.
When children are treated differently by different people, it creates splits and a lack of cohesion in the family. It also creates a lot of confusion for children who begin to be unsure of what is expected of them. This can be especially difficult in divorced families. In such cases, it’s recommended that a parenting approach is agreed upon. This can be facilitated by a mediator if necessary.

5. Avoid emotionally guided discipline
When a child misbehaves, it’s not always easy to keep your cool and respond with a level head and in a consistent way. Sometimes, it is actually the parent who needs a time-out to calm down before speaking to the children!

Emotionally guided responses to a child’s misbehaviour can escalate feelings so that the situation feels overwhelming and unsafe. Discipline can also become more about punishment than teaching important skills or lessons. Harsh punishment, such as smacks and time-outs can create distance between you and your child. These responses create more problematic behaviour in your child as they get older.

6. Don’t make empty threats
Threatening your child with a particular consequence and then not following through creates an expectation that the consequence will never happen. This means the child doesn’t have clear expectations about what happens if they behave in a certain way.

For example, threatening to take away their television time and then giving in shows the child that you’re not in control of the home. For small children in particular, this can leave them feeling unsafe because consistency creates safety.

7. You are not your child’s best friend – you are their parent
As a parent, you sometimes may not want to enforce a particular rule or consequence for fear that your child may become upset with you. It’s important to remember that, as a parent, it’s your job to teach your child values and rules to help them become effective and accountable adults. Being overly permissive allows children to have a false sense of how the world works. Even as adults, we need to follow laws in order to be respectful and productive members of society.

8. Encourage helpful behaviours
It’s not helpful to only focus on misbehaviours. Positive reinforcement of positive behaviour is equally, if not more, important. Encouragement of attempts at new or difficult tasks, such as the process of learning to ride a bicycle, and praising helpful activities, such as helping set the dinner table, reinforces those positive behaviours.

9. Mixed messages create confusion
Remember to keep rules and consequences simple. Having long lectures and complicated rules become difficult to follow, especially for smaller children.

10. Have fun
Discipline doesn’t need to become something hard to include in everyday family life. If we use Daniel Siegel’s definition of discipline, to teach, we’re able to use each behaviour and misbehaviour as an opportunity to connect with our children in a meaningful way.

For example, teaching our children to respect nature, allows us to plant seeds together and watch them grow.

Consistency in discipline is important to help our children learn the values of respect, accountability, emotional regulation and safety. It’s not always easy to get it right 100% of the time, but just trying each day to connect and teach your child sends them a message of love and that they’re important enough for you to think about them.