Say what you mean. Mean what you say. Why consistency matters.

Four-year-old Katie slips around the corner of the cash register counter in the department store.

“Don’t go behind there,” says her mother, who’s waiting in line for the clerk. “Come back over here.”

Katie, eyes wide and not saying a word, moves further behind the counter.

“Katie, come back here,” her mother says again. “You’re not supposed to go in there.”

Katie glances briefly at the clerk and inches further inward.

“Come on now,” says her mother. “You heard what I said.”

Katie is now firmly behind the counter and looking around, showing no signs of leaving.

“Oh, I give up,” her mother says.

Parents in similar situations know how exasperated Katie’s mother feels. What she doesn’t realize, however, is the message she’s sending her child that says, in effect, “Don’t do what I say.”

When we set a limit, we need to enforce it. Whether it’s “Buckle your seat belt” or “Put away your toys after playing with them,” children need to know that a rule is real. Otherwise, they will follow their natural inclination to test and explore.

Any limit we set must be something we really want. In the example above, Katie’s mother really wants her child to learn acceptable behavior in department stores. But she may be too tired to follow through, or she may be unable to see the effect she’s really having on the child.

Ideally, we say the rule, give a warning, and take action. Saying the rule informs a child of appropriate behavior. It’s best to also explain why it’s needed. “Don’t go behind the counter. We stay over here to give the clerk room to work.” If the behavior continues, a warning alerts the child to expect a consequence. “Katie, this is a warning. Come and stand next to me.” If the child still doesn’t respond, her mother firmly moves her to a space outside the counter, even if it means losing a place in line. “This is where we stand while we’re waiting to pay.”

Such situations can be awkward in public, especially if a child starts crying or continues testing the limit. Parents may have to decide whether to allow the child to continue making a scene, take a break outside the store, or go home. But acting promptly and consistently sends children a clear message about what we expect in their behavior.

Consistency is a key word in guiding children’s behavior. It means sticking to the rules we set and enforcing them fairly and firmly. When we’re consistent, we reinforce the behavior we’re trying to teach. Our consistency shows children they can rely on us, which helps them to feel safe and secure.

More guidance tips:

  • When children test our rules or commands, stay calm. Speak in a caring matter-of-fact way.
  • Give more attention to children when they are behaving appropriately then when they are not.
  • Focus more on the “do” than on the “don’t.” Instead of saying “Don’t slam the door,” for example, say “Shut the door quietly.”
  • If you find yourself saying “no” most of the time, look more carefully at what’s happening. Are you expecting your 3-year-old to act like a little adult instead of a child? Is the child’s behavior really wrong, or could the behavior be telling you that the child is hungry, tired, bored, or frustrated?
  • Remember that the goal of guiding behavior is to help children learn self-discipline. We want them to learn to control their own behavior and grow up to be responsible adults.

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