The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

March 14, 2013

Sarah Coyne: Love should be the only consistency for parents

By Sarah Coyne
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — Most of my online reading these days comes in the form of headlines rather than actual articles. This means I sometimes form snap judgments without waiting for details, but fortunately, it also means I can glean life lessons in ten words or less. I choose to see the positive.

The other day, I noticed a headline that said something about "the myth of consistency." Without having time to settle in and see what the author thought about the topic, I was immediately lost in my own considerations of parental consistency.

Later, I kept coming back to the idea that consistency alone wasn't ideal. It's something I'd already been pondering for quite some time.

Whenever a new parent (or even a seasoned veteran) comes up against a sticky spot in child-rearing, somebody is usually ready with the advice to remain consistent. Consistency is the magic glue that will hold their disciplinary tactics together long enough to have the desired effect. It's the fastball that will strike out bad behavior; the happy pill for us all, if we would only remember to use it.

This is where I check out, though. Because I feel pretty strongly that consistency pales in comparison to intentionality.

My feelings about consistency can be reduced to one basic concern: escalation of commitment and the sunk cost fallacy. Those phrases sound more complicated than they are, but stay with me.

In behavioral economics, there's a well-established idea that the more invested we are in a project or campaign, the more likely we are to continue with it, even if it's producing mediocre (or worse) results. We'll continue because we're inclined to be consistent; we can't bear to waste the sum of our previous efforts (our sunk costs) by throwing them down the drain to try something else Ñ even if that something else is preferable.

As parents, when we resolve to be consistent just for the sake of consistency, we open ourselves up to second-guessing and regret when the plan doesn't go perfectly. And what plan, where kids are involved, ever goes perfectly?

When something is working particularly well for our families, then by all means, it's a good idea to continue it. But to say that consistency of punishments, disciplines or routines will cure all of our ills only encourages us to continue with what might very well be the wrong plan.

On the opposite side of consistency, however, lies intentionality. It is the ability to discern when our kids or our families need a change simply by observing and being open to new possibilities.

It's the thought that by loving our kids so openly and hopefully, we cannot help but stumble upon some right paths. It's the truth that our instincts can guide us towards new strategies that cannot be declared right or wrong until we've observed their results within our own four walls. It's the willingness to throw out a dated plan of action in favor of something new and untested if we think there's a chance for greater benefits to our family.

If we try our hardest to be good parents, there's still no guarantee that we're doing the exact right thing. But let's give up the notion that consistency alone can save us from mistakes.

Let's instead be intentional about raising our kids, even if that means a sudden change of course. Let's let our unconditional love be our most consistent quality, and see where we'll go from there.

Sarah Coyne lives in Joplin. She writes about life and motherhood at her personal blog, http://thisheavenlylife.