Consistency is not key.
It is a common refrain among parenting coaches and educators that one of the most important things that you can do for your children is being consistent.
Which forces us to ask what the benefits of consistency are.
Consistently responding sensitively to your child’s needs creates a secure attachment.
For children and adults, there is a real upside to having routines and schedules. It allows us to be centered and mindful.
But consistency for the sake of consistency is garbage. Things for the sake of themselves often are.
What if you told your kid no ice cream, then thought about it, and you realized it really wasn’t an issue with you? What if you were angry in a moment, and disciplined your child—and then realized that it was disproportionate or useless?
There are many times when not being consistent is extremely important. Saying, “I’m sorry” means that you’ve changed your mind, or your behavior, or your attitude towards something. You in the present and you in the past do not agree on how to handle something.
Change isn’t always a good thing; but we have to be willing to change our minds. With new information comes new possibilities. With new energy comes new alleyways to discover. With new surroundings comes new structures.
What we create constantly gets knocked down, and that includes ourselves. The principle of non-self (anatta) tells us not to hold onto an idea of a solid, unchanging self because it is a lie. If anatta truly does reflect reality—and I very strongly believe it does—then to be totally consistent overtime is impossible.
One reason people think consistency is so important is because they think children are less intelligent and flexible then they are.
When I was a kindergarten teacher, I would let my students jump up and down on my stomach. It was very fun for the all of us, and I like to make kids feel big and powerful. The owner of the kindergarten asked me not to do it because she was afraid that they would think it is okay to do with other teachers.
I talked to her about all of the different ways that the different teachers run their classrooms. About how I teach letters this way, but Teacher Ryan taught his this way. About how I played these games and Teacher Claire played those games. About how I let my kids scream, and Teacher Sean always liked his classrooms quiet.
We shared students, and of course, the children had no problem switching from one situation to another. They didn’t get confused with the different English speaking accents.
I asked the students: Who it was okay to jump on? They screamed, “Teacher Amelia.”
As excited as I could, I said, “Can we jump on Teacher Ryan?” and the kids laughed and laughed and said “No!”
“Can we teach on Teacher Claire?”
These were 3 and 4 year olds, and we were talking in their second language. They were not confused at all that different people want different things, and that even different times required different behaviors.
If I came in feeling unwell one day, the kids did not feel uneasy when I said, “We have to be quiet today because Teacher is feeling sick. We won’t play many games.” Did they require a reminder or two?
Sure, of course.
But it didn’t make them fundamentally distrust me, or feel confused about our relationship, or feel that the rug had been pulled out under their feet.
There are ways in which consistency benefits children. Again: responding sensitively to their cues, and having some semblance of a schedule so that they aren’t all over the place. Having an attachment figure, of course.
But children are very smart and adaptable. They start gaining the ability to empathize very young, and they live in an ever changing world. They are humans. Human are excellent generalists. We are amazing at building tools and finding ways to adapt to a variety of situations. We know how to reorient ourselves to new people, new rules, and new cultures.
The concept of consistency is important in a few domains. But in most, it is not. Not only do our moods change over time, but so do our values. What our children are capable of is constantly changing, and if you’re sensitive to their development, you will open up new doors for them at every opportunity. Today’s “No, it is too dangerous,” often can and should be Tomorrow’s “Yes, please give it a try.”