Consistency: The Key to Discipline


Written by Regine Galanti

Discipline. It’s a topic on every parent’s mind – what’s the best way to get my child to listen? To obey? To become a healthy adult with self-control? How does a parent raise these obedient, independent, self-disciplined children without using excessive punishment, control, or other methods that might hurt my child’s self esteem, or our relationship?

There is a great deal of controversy revolving around the subject of discipline, possibly because some equate it with punishment and control. Rather than using it as a punisher, however, discipline can simply be a very effective means of limit setting. When used appropriately – using the guidelines of modern behavioral science – discipline can help a child learn self-control, but help strengthen the parent-child bond.

To be effective, one of the main ingredients in good discipline is consistency. From the perspective of the child, consistency means that the world becomes a more predictable place, and therefore much less confusing. I often tell parents that good discipline is like a brick wall: It doesn’t move, and if you crash into it, it hurts. Every. Single. Time. Discipline which is consistent teaches children an important life lesson: Sometimes there is no movement, no flexibility, just reality.

More often than not, parents treat discipline as a rubber band, expanding and contracting to different lengths based on how angry they feel at their child. For example, on Monday, when mom asks the kids to brush their teeth she is ready and willing to follow through with consequences if they don’t listen the first time, but on Tuesday, she’s willing to give the children three warnings, and on Thursday, she don’t follow through at all. This approach is tantamout to putting children second. Think about the message this gives to children: It basically begs them to test limits. The inconsistency of consequences teaches children that they should test limits, because they’re likely to get away with not listening.

From the perspective of the adult, consistency has value as well. It forces parents to think about what really matters to them (and their children), because it is impossible to be consistent about everything. Therefore, maintaining consistency helps parents to limit the number of rules, keeping them the same from day to day, and respond to rule violations in the same way every single time. Committing to consistency requires thinking before you speak, and asking yourself the question, “am I willing to respond to this behavior the same way every single time it happens?” If the answer is yes, then this is a behavior worth addressing.

Finally, consistency in discipline means being firm and showing your children that you will do what you say. This does not mean that it is necessary to raise your voice. Instead, if you consistently follow through in a calm but firm manner, your child will learn to listen the first time. If, on the other hard, your child throws a tantrum for a piece of candy and you give it to him, you will teach him to throw a tantrum when he doesn’t get his way. To teach a child that your words have value, you need to stand by your words, instead of encouraging inappropriate behavior by giving in.

There are no magic discipline techniques, but almost any consequence can be effective if it used consistently (i.e., logical or naturalistic consequences, withholding privileges and time outs are all effective discipline strategies, in general, but that’s for another blog post). A good guideline, however, is that the consequence should be fair and developmentally appropriate. When used consistently and fairly, discipline is an effective way to help children change their behavior, and grow into health, self-disciplined adults, and enhance the parent-child relationship.

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