As parents, we hear a lot about the need to be consistent—consistent in how we treat each of our children and consistent with our co-parents as well. This emphasis on consistency goes back to the idea that kids are looking for some way to exploit a lack of consistency, and if we just toe the line without any exceptions it will lead to better behavior and compliance with our wishes. We also work hard to treat our kids the same so as to not engender any uprisings caused by a perceived lack of fairness, especially since the call of “that’s not fair!” is especially piercing to our adult ears. The same is true at school where teachers often work hard to achieve consistency for the same reasons but with perhaps even more urgency, given the dozens of kids they have to contend with all at the same time.
But is our striving for consistency effective or perhaps even misguided at times?
Parents with multiple children often remark on how different their children are—how they must have “come out wired differently.” I know this stands true for each of my three kids: same parents, same household, same siblings, even same schools and yet very different kids. So why would we ever try to parent or teach kids in the same way if they are so different? In fact, doesn’t treating every kid the same ensure that no one really gets what they need? You see, the fact that kids are so different is precisely why we should strive to do things differently with them. Different kids need different things. In fact, the only way to make sure that each child gets what they need is to give them different things.
We’ve learned this lesson over time in our schools. We used to expect that all kids should learn the same way and at the same pace. If they didn’t, we certainly didn’t want them getting in the way of the learning of the other students. Thankfully, we have realized over time that “differentiating” our instruction (customizing our teaching to the specific styles and needs of individual learners) was not only helpful but necessary, and that doing so helps us to reach all students most effectively. While we have come a long way in that arena, the notion of differentiating our discipline is still a tough reality for folks to accept.
In our schools, I see teachers worry that if they make exceptions or offer individualized support to certain students, all students will want those accommodations. I encourage them to think about behavior as if it were a learning issue. One would never hold back offering support to a child with dyslexia for fear that every student in the class would then claim to have dyslexia! And we would have no problem telling the other students that we only differentiate when needed. In other words, we give help where it’s needed but not where it isn’t! It’s time for us to do the same with behavior and discipline—to not be shy about doing different things for different students and being confident in our rationale for doing so.
Next time we hear “It’s not fair!” in our homes or classrooms, let’s respond with a very clear pronouncement, “Yes, it is. Because fair doesn’t mean equal. It means giving everyone what they need, and different people need different things.”
Let’s let go of one-size-fits-all parenting and teaching. Let’s embrace the messy, remarkable and exciting individuality of our kids and give each other the permission to respond differently to their needs and challenges.
As originally featured in Psychology Today