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What If Consistency <i>Isn't</i> the Key to Good Parenting?

We're teaching them to be human, after all -- flawed and still fabulous. Messy and still magnificent. Weird and still wonderful, and always deeply, deeply worthy of love.
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I think I've read it in every parenting book. Heard it from the lips of all the parenting experts. Consistency is the key to good parenting, they say, and there are few principles more important. And I bought that message for years. Like all my friends, I was a hook, line and sinker Consistency Believer. Because OF COURSE consistency is the key to good parenting, I thought. Duh.

Now that I'm 16 years and five kids into this parenting gig, though, I gotta say, where the rubber meets my parenting road? Consistency is overrated, friends. Way, way overrated. And mostly impossible. And pretty much a setup for feeling like a failure.

Consistency for me, it turned out, meant consistently falling short of the Consistency Goal. Every time I let them have a cookie for a snack instead of fresh fruit because I was too tired to cut another apple, INCONSISTENT. Every time I let them watch just one more show or talk me into a late bedtime or delay a chore, INCONSISTENT. Every time Greg and I didn't agree on the rules. Every time I was merciful instead of swiftly just. Every time I let them skip that mandatory bite of veggies at dinner. INCONSISTENT, and a Parenting Failure, and my kids were certain to grow up to be rule breakers, authority shunners and probably, in the end, serial killers. Or worse: serial killers who'd refuse to eat their vegetables.

I spent a lot of my early parenting years beating myself up for my lack of consistency. It didn't occur to me then that the unrealistic Consistency Ideal was more of a problem than my abject failure to be consistent in all things. It didn't occur to me that I might even be teaching my kids better things than consistency. More important things. Things that might prepare them more completely for a life that's full of change. Things like flexibility and adaptability. Mercy and understanding. Grace and kindness. And the fact that Who People Are and What They Need are always more important than strict adherence to the rules.

It's just that the Consistency Argument is so compelling, so universally understood as the Way and the Truth, that even though there was always a twinge in my gut, something that made me feel uncertain and unsure, I clung to Consistency like it was the Answer. An answer I kept getting wrong, sure, but still a Magical Answer which was the Holy Grail of Parenting, really... something that would Fix All My Parenting, if only I could find and master it.

You have to consistently communicate well with your partner, the experts would say. Parents have to be on the same page! Present a united front! Never have different opinions or -- God forbid -- different rules in front of the kids. Except this isn't war, with parents on one side against kids on the other. This is a family, and we're learning how to be a family together. Out loud. Where it's messy and muddy and we're neck-deep in the muck. We're all on the same team -- not rushing away to make plans behind closed doors or regrouping in secret to launch a new offensive -- and it turns out our kids learn more about teamwork from watching us have our conflicts (with each other and them) and resolve them well (and poorly) than they do from our easy, peaceful exchanges. We're teaching them to be human, after all -- flawed and still fabulous. Messy and still magnificent. Weird and still wonderful, and always deeply, deeply worthy of love.

But you have to be consistent about the rules, they'd say. What the parent says, goes! Except sometimes, after I say NO WAY and ABSOLUTELY NOT, my kids ask me why. "Why can't we go to the park without a grown-up, Mom? We're ready. We're old enough. The park is close. We'll stay together." And they're right. And I'm wrong. And the rules need to be changed. And I need to be both brave and humble. And because my kids are human beings with thoughts and feelings and desires that deserve my respect, they need answers to their Whys. I want the rules to make sense, rather than be about exerting my power over them. I want the rules to have reasons, rather than be arbitrary or "because I'm being consistent, Kids."

The thing is, life is not consistent. Not even a little. Life is crazy. Just nuts.
Life changes like the seasons, except sometimes more often, and we must change with it. How many of us are living our lives according to Plan A? Not many, I suspect, or there'd be a whole lot more Princess/Mommy/Zookeepers out there, and Policeman/Superhero/Garbage Truck guys (or vice-versa). Right? Life changes with giant pendulum swings, and the kids who learn to think things through and to adapt and to love themselves and others through the wild ride are going to have an easier go of it than the ones (come on, you see 'em on Facebook; I know you do) yelling, "Why can't everyone just do what I say and follow the rules?!"

Kids feel safer with consistency, though, they say. They need solid boundaries and clear expectations. And that's true. Partly. With the tiniest kids, it's true more often than it's not, and we do consistently tell them they cannot, in fact, clock the other littles over the head with the sandbox Tonka Truck, even if that other little kid totally had it coming. But as kids age, even a little, they start needing more than consistent rules. They need discussion. They need explanations. They need collaboration and ownership and the practice of leadership. They need give and take and a sense of camaraderie and we're-in-this-together.

Now, listen. I'm not against rules. I'm really not. But as our parenting has evolved, and as I've released the Consistency Ideal, our rules have changed to better reflect our parenting values and our family goals, and they are these:
Choose Kindness.
Show Love.
Give Grace.
Act Fair.
Be Merciful.

and also

Make Sure Mommy Knows Where You Are!


Make Safe Choices; I mean it.

And my kids, whether they follow the rules or not, have the right to expect to be consistently loved. Consistently cherished. Consistently safe. Consistently respected. But the rest of the rules? Those things are fluid. And, let's be honest: we're making them up as we go, anyway. They need to be challenged and changed so we all -- parents, included -- can grow.

Maybe we can give ourselves a break, parents. Maybe we can be who we are -- flexible, creative, adaptable, loving, flawed, fabulous, fallible people -- and celebrate our successes instead of raking ourselves over the consistency coals.

Beth Woolsey is the writer and humorist behind the 5 Kids Is A Lot of Kids blog. Beth is described by readers as "optimistic, authentic, poignant and laugh-out-loud funny, [capturing] the mom experience with all its pathos and humor."

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