If you struggle with enforcing consequences, this is for you ...
I don’t know about you, but for me one of the hardest parts of parenting is consistency. I’ve cycled through various excuses for this over the years, but I’ve finally realized that I was ignoring the biggest reason of all: I hate seeing my kids suffer consequences.
That’s true for all parents to some degree — none of us likes to see our kids suffer and we don’t enjoy their unhappiness. But I’ve come to realize that I shy away from enforcing consequences not so much because I don’t want them to suffer, but because I don’t want to see them suffer the consequences. It’s easier and far more pleasant to be the good guy than it is to be the bad guy, after all. And as my kids have gotten older, the consequences have gotten harder to swallow, both for me and for them — but that’s because the issues are bigger and a lot more serious.
I’m starting to really see just how poorly I’ve served my children by not being consistent when the issues were smaller. In an effort to right the ship, I’ve buckled down, laying out rules and consequences and then following through no matter what. Honestly, it’s been kind of brutal. But even so, I can already see good things starting to take root. They’ve been more thoughtful and deliberate, quicker to do tasks in advance, and even … on very rare occasions … have accepted a consequence without mounting a defense and counter-attack.
Still, it’s been hard for us all. I wish I’d had the strength of character to enforce consequences all along so they didn’t have to suffer a regime change now, but it’s better than failing them entirely. So I’m writing this as a kind of pep talk form myself about why we as parents need to enforce consequences and be consistent, even when it’s hard. Hopefully you won’t need this but if you do, consider this your handy reference guide for those days when you really want to give in.
1Consistency creates security
Being consistent with expectations, limits, and consequences gives your kids a sense of security. They’re never surprised by a swift and sudden consequence, nor are they tempted to gamble on whether you’ll enforce a consequence on any given day. They know the boundaries of their life, which is vital, because they absolutely will test those boundaries. They need to. Teenagers and toddlers push boundaries constantly because they’re trying to figure out where those boundaries are, and where they are in relation to them. Their brains are changing at such a rapid rate that they desperately need the security of testing boundaries and finding them intact. Granted, their tantrums and attitudes definitely don’t communicate gratitude when they come up hard against a boundary, but don’t let that fool you. You’re giving them a foundation they can build their identity on in the future, so stay strong.
2Consistency teaches respect
If there’s one thing my kids have learned through the years of erratic and inconsistent discipline, it’s how to argue. These kids could give any trial lawyer a run for his money — misdirection, leading questions, they’ve got it covered. What they haven’t learned is respect, especially for authority; after all, they’ve learned it’s possible to argue their way out of many situations. Why in the world would they just accept a consequence? It’s understandable, but it’s ultimately disrespectful. They’ve learned that the hard way, because their teachers are far less easily swayed than their mother. My kids have been blessed to run up against kind but firm teachers whose expectations are clear and whose consequences are unyielding … and my kids adore these teachers. To be honest, so do I — they’ve given me many wonderful examples to follow. The best way to start teaching my kids to be respectful is by changing my own expectations and demanding consistency — from myself first and foremost.
3Consistency teaches responsibility
Last weekend I had a come-to-Jesus meeting with all five of my kids. I sat them down, looked them in the eyes, and told them that from this moment on I would not bring things to school if they forget them. Not lunches, not homework, not violins, not even projects the day they’re due. In a departure from tradition, I didn’t go into a long explanation for why or wax eloquent about the virtue of responsibility — I just said I wouldn’t do it, and told them they’d have to suffer consequences at school as well as loss of weekend activities at home for repeated infractions. When they inevitably began to protest, I simply held up one hand and said, “This isn’t a debate. I’m telling you how it is, and there’s no conversation to be had.” Then I walked away. And y’all, I know it’s only been a week, but it’s like invasion of the body-snatchers around here. These kids are putting things in the car the night before, they’re prepping lunches and leaving notes for themselves … I mean, they’re actively engaged in their own responsibilities rather than me forcing them to half-heartedly participate. And guess what? No one forgot a single thing this week, which literally has not happened since September.
And next week or the week after when they do forget something, I won’t waver for an instant on the consequences. After all, responsibility is a skill they’ll need for life. Far better to learn it now, when the consequences are a weekend grounding, than as adults when the consequences could be life-altering.