The Single Most Important Parenting Lesson I Always Follow

It's helped me every step of the way.

by Swampy Hawkins

As the proud father of three — with a fourth on the way — I’m finally getting the hang of this parenting thing. I’ve learned many valuable lessons over the years. Be hands-on, change lots of diapers, cook and do the dishes (often), be present for your partner and your kids, be silly, be vulnerable, be fallible, and be teachable. The list is endless and full of beautiful possibilities. But there’s one lesson that consistently ranks at the top: Be consistent.

My wife always tells me that I’m “the best dad she knows.” This is not a humblebrag; it’s a hard-earned badge of honor and one that (I think) all dads should aspire to earn.

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Growing up, I never imagined being a parent. It turns out; I love being a dad.

Some perspective. I’m a 50-year-old dad-to-be with three kids from two marriages. My oldest, son is in his first year of grad school,, my daughter just started college, and my youngest son is just two and a half. I mentioned number four is on the way, right?

Did I plan it this way? Hell, no. Would I change a thing? Not on your life.

I believe it’s my primary responsibility to raise my children to be loving, kind, compassionate, respectful members of society. The past 22 years have humbled me and taught me that accomplishing that goal can tough. The good news? I’ve learned the secret, and I’m here to share it with you.

I’m fortunate and proud to have already raised two well-mannered, considerate, empathetic, productive humans. As a result, I’m often asked, by friends who are just beginning their parenting journey, how I did it. My answer is always the same: Be consistent.

Consistently loving, consistently patient, consistently fun, consistently firm, consistently respectful, consistently present. Be consistent with your expectations, your rules, and your praise.

Okay it’s not really a secret but it’s a crucial ingredient in good parenting.

Consistency provides a stable framework in your child’s life. It assures them, on the deepest psychological level, that, regardless of the uncertain and unpredictable nature of life, they are safe, they are loved, they matter, and they can depend on you. Consistently.

Nothing throws a kid off their game more than an erratic, inconsistent parent. It confuses and scares the hell out of them. Kids are little sponges who learn an incredible amount through osmosis, and if what they’re learning from you is all over the place, well, that’s precisely how they’ll behave.

We all know those kids, and their parents. My wife and I call them Wildlings but they’re simply the living examples of inconsistent rules and behavior. They wreak havoc on everything in their path, like feral, wolf-children. If their parents catch you looking at their child in wide-eyed horror, they’ll offer a weak: “I don’t know what’s gotten into him/her today…they’re usually so well-behaved.” We all know the truth. If you’re inconsistent with them at home, letting them act out and run the show, they believe that’s how to behave in the real world. I’ve learned that acting out is a child’s coping mechanism–when their little systems go haywire — and their only way to get your attention. This is not to say all bad behavior is caused by inconsistent parenting, but, in my experience, it’s often the root of the problem.

This is not a judgement, just an observation. This job is freakin hard.

Being consistent doesn’t mean strict, severe, oppressive, or punative. Quite the contrary. If done consistently, it can be freeing. For you and your kids.

As a 6’2”, tattooed, biker-looking, artsy-type, I’m not what you would call traditional or old-fashioned but it was always important to me that my kids were well-mannered. Probably because that’s how I was raised. “Please” and “thank you” are non-negotiable in our home and it’s been ingrained in our kids…but only through consistent, gentle reinforcement. Friends, family, and total strangers often compliment us on our well-mannnered kids and what a pleasure they are to be around.

Again, not a boast, just a gratifying source of pride.

Every morning, our toddler son asks for fruit snacks for breakfast and every morning we say no. It’s become a fun little game. He’s consistent in his request and we’re consistent in our refusal. The magic happens when he realizes that if he’s consistent with his “pleases”, “thank you’s” and other niceties…he’ll occasionally get fruit snacks when he least expects them. Sometimes, right after he’s finished his breakfast.

The point? He sees that we’re consistent with our rules and learned that when he’s consistent in following them, he is rewarded. Win win.

This doesn’t mean that you won’t make (countless) mistakes, lose your shit occasionally, or fail at parenting along the way. You will. When you do make a mistake, make sure you consistently acknowledge it, correct it, and move on. It does mean that when you’re consistently doing your best it shows and it reassures your kids that they can rely on you.

I learned early on that, while kids are by nature, freewheeling, independent, creative, little wonders, they need rules, guard rails, and structure to help them feel secure. They want you to make a schedule, lay down clear ground rules, and articulate your expectations. This helps them thrive. They also need you and your partner to be consistently on the same page. If not, they’ll exploit that weakness–that inconsistency–every time.

Kids never like a no, but, in the long run, they will be shaped by it and your family and society at large will be rewarded for it.

What a responsibility. What an honor. What a gift.

Is this all you need to be a great parent? Not by a long shot. But I promise, if you’re consistent, it’s a great start.

I’ll let you know how it goes with number four.

Swampy Hawkins is the father of three and a Freelance Copywriter/Producer living in Atlanta, Georgia. He enjoys live music, food adventures, cross-stitching, beekeeping, and mostly just spending time with his family.