Consistently inconsistent

The poet Alexander Pope coined the phrase, “To err is human; to forgive, divine”. Getting things wrong is an unavoidable human flaw. And hopefully our children will one day appreciate that being inconsistent is an equally inevitable part of parenting.

Am I a good parent or a bad parent? If we’re being honest with ourselves, I think most of us would agree we’re a little bit of both. I know I am. There are times when I will have the patience of a saint with one of our kids – and then snap at them for no good reason ten minutes later. I will tell them off for doing something I’m just as guilty of doing myself. And how I treat our youngest, Kara, is definitely not the same as how I treated our oldest, Isaac, at the same age.

Does that make me a bad parent? I don’t think so. Does it make me inconsistent? Yep, guilty as charged.

We’re all winging it, really

Textbooks tell us that consistency is one of the keys to good parenting. They tell us that the hypocrisy of “do as I say, not as I do” or inconsistent behaviours will confuse children because they don’t give them clear rules or boundaries to work with.

I don’t disagree with any of the parenting theory in principle. I just think that in practice it sets a standard none of us can ever hope to attain. To err is human. To be inconsistent is also human. We aren’t mechanical parent-bots. We make mistakes, learn from them and improve. Or, at least, we try to.

This was one of the biggest lessons I learned when I first became a dad. At heart, I’m a bit of a perfectionist. But I soon realised that babies don’t follow the rules. They haven’t read the books. And the books can’t cover every possible scenario that might occur. As parents, beyond certain generalities and conventions you’re pretty much on your own and making it up as you go along. ‘Winging it’ is the default mode that covers 90% of parenting, whether they’re a crying newborn or a sullen teenager.

Consistency is an impossible dream

Consequently, as parents we’re constantly having to deal with new, unexpected situations. Even if we know people who have faced similar scenarios, what works for one family isn’t guaranteed to work for another. It’s inevitable we will get things wrong, or that at times we will handle things inconsistently.

And that’s the thing. Consistency is like perfection – something we all strive to achieve, but never will. In fact, the only consistent thing about being a parent is that we are doomed to inconsistency. So surely what matters more is the self-awareness to recognise when we’re being inconsistent or just plain wrong, accept it, correct it when we can and move on regardless without using it as a reason to flog ourselves.

So it’s okay. Don’t be so hard on yourself because you sometimes feel like a bad parent. Yes, we get things wrong. Yes, we’re inconsistent. But if you’re doing the best you can as a parent and consistently teaching your kids that being good and trying to get better is more important than chasing perfection, isn’t that arguably the best lesson of all?


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