Consistently inconsistent

In an inconsistent world, how do we manage our children’s need for consistency?

When I was a Child and Youth Care Worker (CYCW) instructor, I had a colleague who believed in consistency.

This man was an amazing educator and CYCW who has been in the field many a year, who has built programs from the ground up, is an incredible supervisor and manager and is respected by every professional, paraprofessional, subordinate, student, manager and colleague he comes in contact with. Practicing and teaching consistency with children and youth – especially ones who have come from chaotic backgrounds – makes sense when the goal is to create a sense of stability. Students hung on to his every word and followed his every move. For good reason: there was a lot to be learned from this guy.

Then one day he decided that he’d been all wrong.

Dealing with the real world

The problem with structuring a consistent world for our children and young people is that the world is far from consistent.

My father is one of those people who loves his routine. Every day of my childhood I remember him eating puffed wheat for breakfast. After supper he’d “watch the news” in front of the TV (‘checking for holes in his eyelids’ after the weather report, of course). Changes in plans and routines threw him off his game. We went on a family trip when I was in high school through parts of Europe. On our way back to England from Paris, we arrived at the airport to find all the monitors flashing “GRÈVE” (‘Strike!’). The airport was empty. We were re-routed through Belgium, had to stay the night in a hotel and take the train the next morning to Brussels to get a flight to Heathrow. I thought Dad was going to have a panic attack.

The problem with structuring a consistent world for our children and young people is that the world is far from consistent.

The inability to be flexible and roll with the punches serves nobody. I’d been deliriously happy that we got to go through another country and couldn’t keep still from giddiness at the news! (mind you, through my travels I have now been to Belgium three times. I am hoping to one day plan a trip or have enough time between connections to actually leave the airport.)

While there are benefits to consistency, the inability to deal with change and with the inevitable inconsistencies that will arise doesn’t serve us well.

Consistency and the early years

Consistency is a notion that we seem to live especially deeply in the early childhood years. Our pre-school and day care programs and structures are licensed by it. Consistent routines, schedules, teachers, and classrooms all contribute to creating a sense of security. However, while we may support the notion of consistency in our pre-schools and daycares and demand consistent classrooms and teachers, somehow this notion disappears from provincial standards when we get to half-day kindergarten.

So, having been a developmental psychology instructor in the past, I thought I’d review the developmental theory on consistency to see where the notion comes from. Piaget, Freud, Kohlberg, Gilligan… only Erikson has something to say about consistency, and only then as important during infancy. An infant’s needs centre on the world of the parent. They look to the parent for an interpretation of the world they must exist in and the parent is that world. If a caregiver is consistent with their reactions, affections, comfort and responses, the child learns that the world is a safe place to be. This is also a dynamic of attachment parenting.

…at some point our children also need to be introduced to the notion of inconsistency and change.

But at some point our children also need to be introduced to the notion of inconsistency and change. The shoes that fit them yesterday may not fit them today. Dance is over for the year and soccer begins. This year’s dance teacher is not the same as last year’s. The pre-school teacher or favorite playmate is sick today. Snack is not prepared the same way at school or at a friend’s house as it is at home. The route to the grocery store is different because of road works.

Sometimes it might seem that change is the only thing that is consistent through the pre-school and primary years (and beyond). For some children, especially those with some diagnosis, consistency seems imperative to their internal needs. The conflict with the external world and the issue of consistency is more apparent with these children. A change in the daily routine can send them into decompensation for more than a day.

No easy answers

How do we respond to the changing seasons and to the changing needs of different children? This may be especially apparent to some parents at this time of the year with the looming reality of early morning wake-up calls for school: wake-ups that may not have been necessary all summer. A shift in bedtime routines and built up sleep debt from the summer months may cause crankiness to ensue. Should we regiment children’s summer and breeze into the school schedule without crooked children in the morning? Or do we allow children to be kids, falling asleep with the late evening darkness and then deal with the end of August when it gets here? Where is the balance between neglectful chaos and over-programmed helicoptering?

How do we teach our children that life is consistently inconsistent?

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