There is a lot of information on consistency out there. "Have a consistent bedtime routine". "Keep your boundaries consistent". "Make sure you follow through and are consistent". I’m not saying there is anything wrong with these things necessarily: but I want to stretch your mind a little.
So often, we do things to children. We expect them to fit in around us. We set limits that are not always developmentally appropriate because they are based on outcomes that we want, not what children need. But what about if we turn this upside down? What if we start with what our children need from us; what is realistic to expect of them given their developmental stage; and do things with them instead of to them. I believe this type of age-appropriate, respectful parenting - with the child’s needs at the centre of what we do - will lead to a more rewarding and freeing experience of parenthood.
Children want to be the centre of your world. That doesn't mean the world revolves around them. It doesn't mean being permissive and giving no boundaries. So what does consistency in this context mean? First of all, children need to know that we are operating from a position of love: Let them know they are loved unconditionally, no matter what they’ve done, what they look like, how they behave, what they say….. Second, have their best interests at heart. Third, decide what your boundaries are and stick to them – develop a gentle but firm approach to dealing with anything that is outside of your boundaries. Fourth, know what is reasonable to expect from your child at their age and stage – educate yourself! There are great resources out there. Finally, don’t take it out on your child! Develop a collaborative approach if they are old enough. Children need to know you aren’t going into battle with them. Make your response about their behaviour, not them. It might sound like semantics but this subtle change in use of language will change the way you tackle problems. The same goes for when they behave well! Don’t praise them, admire the way in which they behaved. Otherwise, they will think that your love and acceptance of them can be influenced by how they behave – which is not healthy.
Parenting needs to be responsive to the needs of children. This means that sometimes progress with sleep and behaviour isn't linear, but more of a zigzag! Don't be discouraged by this. It's unrealistic to think you will always get good behaviour or a solid nights sleep from your children. Illness, teething, holidays, major life events, nightmares, bed-wetting, developmental stages, starting nursery or school, excitement and anxiety will all mess things up from time to time. This is especially true of sleep; even once you've reached a point where you're happy with the way your child sleeps in general, temporary setbacks are normal. Again, we can’t expect children to always be consistent – but our response can be.
Children expect, need, and deserve consistency from their parents, night or day. They don't care if it's 3am or 3pm - they expect you to be responsive. If you respond in one way during the day but then ignore them or parent vastly differently at night it will confuse and upset them. So, when you're looking at the behaviour or sleep habits of children, you need to consider what is happening over the entire 24 hour period, not just from lights out till the morning. Try keeping a log of what’s going on and see if you can spot patterns. Children don't save up a certain type of behaviour for the nighttime - it's usually us parents who have different expectations of nighttime behaviour. Work on the daytime, and nights may follow suit. Put their needs (not wants) first, and they’ll be easier to steer in the right direction. Parent respectfully, and as they watch you model good behaviour, they’ll be inspired to copy! Treat them as allies, not enemies, and they’ll want to tackle it with you rather than kick back.
You see what I’m getting at here. Choose not to blindly expect children to toe the line, respect their elders, do as they’re told or instinctively know what you want from them. Instead, know these simple truths:
1) Kids will be kids! Be patient with childishness, it wont last forver!
2) All annoying phases come to an end eventually. Just when you think you have something nailed, another phase will come along, snapping on the heels of the last one!
3) You can never give a child too much love. Nobody looks back when their child is 18 and wishes they had cuddled them less, or thinks that they may have told their child they love them too many times
4) Children will model the behaviour of those they see around them. So make sure that you are behaving the way you want your child to behave. Don’t let an opportunity to teach your child something positive pass you by.
Families are never static. We can't hope to keep everything the same. Our best bet is to have a loose framework around which everything else can change and evolve, within the reassuring consistency of YOU! You can change anything else, but make sure if you’re striving for consistency that you start with yourself.