The Fine Art of Faking Domestic Harmony for the Kids

It's essential for parents to be a united front for the kids. No one said it was easy.

An Asian family smiling and cuddling together against a blue starburst background

Recently, my wife asked our 10-year old son why he and his brother don’t do what she asks the first time. The 10-year-old soberly explained, “We want to see how long it will take before you make us.”

Honest answer, sure. But … Wow.

This “wait until inevitable consequences” behavior has created a parenting schism. For my wife, the name of the discipline game is now called Ultimatum. She makes her requests nicely a couple of times, says “final warning” and when the boys fail to comply, she drops the hammer. The result is usually a power struggle of epic proportions (particularly with the 8-year-old), and an unsatisfying conclusion for all.

This isn’t a critique of my steadfast partner in parenting. I’m wholly empathetic. Every parent will go through these kinds of tactical shifts, hoping for better outcomes. It’s completely normal and highly likely in these trying pandemic, lockdown times. I’ve been through plenty of tactical shifts too. She’s working some stuff out.

In a perfect world/family/marriage we’d be in lockstep on parenting approaches. We’re not. Over the last few months, I’ve doubled down on inter-familial communication. I prefer to talk it out with the boys — and not because it’s a better way to parent, but because it feels better to me. Are the results of my tactics more satisfying? I mean, the boys are still pushing back, so you tell me.

But the parenting tactic schism is not necessarily the problem. The problem is that the imbalance in our discipline tactics opens up the possibility of kid-facing conflict between the two of us.

When a House is Divided

  • Good Cop/Bad Cop: Parents who disagree on parenting issues in front of kids risk creating a dynamic where one parent is seen as the hero and the other is seen as the villain. Who’s going to be more popular: The ultimatum parent or the one who talks it out? When parenting becomes a popularity contest, kids start playing favorites and disruptive behaviors grow.
  • Destabilization: Kids thrive when they feel they have a supportive, solid familial foundation. That’s because it allows them to invest thought and energy into growing and exploring. When parents disagree in front of them, the foundation starts to look shaky and kids may not feel safe enough to invest in their own emotional and psychological development.
  • Spinning Up the Cycle of Resentment: If I were to disagree with my lovely wife in front of our children, there’s a good chance she would feel resentful of my behavior. Resentment has a tendency to compound. Her resentment could lead to my own until we become outright angry with one another. Anger, as we all know, leads to the dark side.

Keeping Up Appearances

aren’t about the kidsA 2011 study

How to Achieve Apparent Parent Unity

  • “What did your mother (father) say?”: Unless life, health, or safety is on the line, deference should be made to the parent who first engaged in the discipline. Did I think he deserved it? Doesn’t matter. His mother did. I had to be on her team. Explaining this was sad for my kid, but undermining my wife would have been more damaging to everyone.
  • “I’ve rethought my position.”: I could have also gone to my partner and talked with her about her decision. We could have communicated about what happened and she might have changed her mind. In this case, her “out” would have been to tell the kid she rethought her position and had come to an agreement with me on change of course. It’s not caving in. In fact, it helps children develop an understanding that it’s okay to change your mind based on new information. You don’t have to die on every hill. Sometimes you can decide to enjoy the view from the top instead.