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
When parents don’t appear to be on the same page in parenting decisions and discipline, there are a few likely outcomes:
- 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
Importantly for parents, being on the same page is different than appearing on the same page. As parenting people who have different family backgrounds, cultural perspectives, and temperaments, we’d be foolish to think that we should always be in lockstep when it comes to our kids. And since my wife and I agreed to ditch the obedience clause in our marriage vows, I really wouldn’t expect her to agree with me on all things or vice-versa.
That’s fine. Disagreements are good for kids to see when the disagreements aren’t about the kids. When parents find themselves in conflict over more trivial subjects, the way they manage the conflict can be an excellent example for children. Kids will absolutely learn how to fight or make peace by their parent’s example.
A 2011 study led by researchers from Harvard Medical school took a longitudinal (long term) look at how conflict resolution is transmitted from parents to children. Researchers observed 47 study participants from across North America in their home at the age of 14 and cataloged parental conflict resolution. They followed up 17 years later to conduct another observational study as to the grown children’s style of conflict management. The results were clear.
“As predicted, levels of hostility and positive engagement expressed by parents and adolescents during family interactions were prospectively linked with levels of hostility and positive engagement expressed by offspring and their spouses during marital interactions,” the researchers wrote. They concluded, “These findings suggest a long-lasting influence of family communication patterns, particularly hostility, on offspring’s intimate communication and relationship functioning.”
While the researchers could not be certain how the children had picked up the parent’s methods (genetics, observation, self-selection), it was clear that the methods had been passed on.
When the conflict between parents is about the children themselves, the stakes are raised. Not only are children learning from their parents, they are also emotionally linked to the fight as the presumed trigger or cause of the fight. It’s easy to pile on the burdens of guilt and fear.
The upshot? Parents need to present a united front, even if they disagree in the moment. And sometimes you just have to fake it.
How to Achieve Apparent Parent Unity
In the heat of the moment, it can be tough to let a partner’s parenting decision stand when you disagree with their judgment. But there are ways to make it happen without undermining anyone’s authority in the eyes of the kids.
Recently, one of our family dinners went sideways. The younger child was taunting the older child with a chicken sandwich (as they do) and their mother, suffering a migraine and at the end of her rope, was done.
She asked the younger child to put the sandwich down. She asked a second time. She gave a final warning. But the child was too slow. In moments he’d been taken from the table to eat alone in his room. There was a great deal of wailing and gnashing of teeth.
I deferred to her discipline until it was clear that things needed to be escalated. So as she stood outside our son’s bedroom door, I asked:
“Do you mind if I try and de-escalate?”
She let me step in, and I was able to start talking to the kid, but I found myself in a dilemma. His mother had ordered him secluded to his room until bedtime. Once he was calm and processed his feelings he looked at me and asked, “Do I have to stay in my room still?”
There are two good options for parents in this situation:
- “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.
These two phrases are wonderful tools for achieving parental unity at the moment. If differences in parenting and discipline fail to coalesce later, then an honest conversation needs to happen. But it should happen behind the scenes — on a walk or after the kids go to bed or during some other private moment.
It doesn’t have to be a hard conversation either. There need be no accusations or finger-pointing. Just talk about the core values of your family and recenter your tactics. Because the way you talk and interact with your kids should always be based on the values your family shares.
In the end that’s what makes it easier to get back on the same page with your parenting partner. Will you stay on the same page forever? Who knows. But, in a pinch, you can always pretend.