Differences in Parenting? How Your Child May Be Using it Against You

by James Lehman, MSW
Differences in Parenting? How Your Child May Be Using it Against You

What do you do when your spouse doesn’t parent the same way you do? Hands-down, this is one of the most frequently asked questions we receive at Empowering Parents. “I want to set limits and give consequences, but he thinks I’m being too hard on our kids,” said one mother recently. “I’m tired of being the bad guy all the time!” Not only is that unhealthy for your relationship, it’s not good for your children, who often use that lack of agreement to take advantage of the situation.
James Lehman, MSW, sat down with EP Editor Elisabeth Wilkins to talk about this difficult issue. Read on to see why fighting with your spouse over parenting actually undermines your own authority in the long run.

"It’s very important to come up with a cohesive plan to which you both adhere—or your child is liable to fall through the cracks of your lack of agreement."

James, why do so many people end up at odds about how to parent their children?

JL: To me, marriage is like a book. There are many pages in the marriage, with different pages representing different aspects of your life. You have parenting, household duties, extended family, and of course, your relationship with your spouse and children.

I think it’s important for you to realize that it’s natural for parents to end up on different pages; sometimes infrequently, sometimes often. People will disagree about a lot of core issues in a marriage; it's very normal for two adults to see the world in two different ways. But things that are subtle differences can become more burdensome over time. So often, something that starts out as a little conflict can grow until you and your spouse aren't on the same page in dealing with that issue—for some reason, you aren’t able to develop a common strategy for dealing with the problem. This may be okay in some instances—let’s say you keep your car very clean but your spouse is a little more lax, and the two of you learn to live with that. But when it comes to your children, it’s a whole different ball game. I think people have to really take a look at themselves and step back and say, “Our children are very important to us, so we need to come together on this.” It’s very important to come up with a cohesive plan to which you both adhere—or your child is liable to fall through the cracks of your lack of agreement. And this is especially true when you have a child with behavioral problems, because besides putting extra stress on a marriage, you need to be united in teaching that child firm, clear rules.

I believe the three main parenting roles for both parents are the Teaching, Coaching and Limit-setting roles. In fact, I can’t stress enough how necessary all these roles are to being an effective parent.

James, you talk a lot about limit-setting in your articles and your programs. Why do you see it as being so critically important for both parents?

JL: It’s simple: the world has a lot of limits. There are a lot of rules around how you treat other people, how you handle your finances, how you act at work. I think kids need to learn to respond to those limits from both parents from a very early age. Part of socialization for kids is learning that there are rules, with consequences and rewards attached. And by the way, by “socialization,” I mean how your son or daughter should transform from being an individual child to being an adult member of a larger group or society. That larger group can be a student in a classroom, a family member, an employee at a corporation or somebody riding a plane with 300 other passengers. Kids need to learn how to handle those situations when they become adults. That’s why both parents need to set clear expectations and limits on their kids’ behavior.

The problem is that a lot of parents aren't modeling this right now. They may be saying “You've got to respect authority” but then they give a policeman the finger with their six-year-old sitting in the car. That's why I always stress the importance of being a role model to parents.

I personally believe in a process where kids are given responsibilities, taught how to accomplish those responsibilities and then held accountable for meeting their responsibilities. So for parents, that means you give clear instructions to your children, do whatever it takes to make sure your child understands what's going on, and then you hold them accountable for maintaining the level of performance that you expect. An example might be how they should treat their siblings. You tell them what the rules are: no hitting, for instance. You make sure they understand how they are supposed to behave, and what happens if they don’t—what the consequence will be. And then you hold them accountable and follow through. You have them make amends if necessary.

What about when parents disagree about how to give a consequence or discipline their child?

JL: If you and your spouse disagree over how to handle your child’s behavior, it should never be discussed in front of your child—period. Realize that when one parent undermines the other parent in this way, it hurts both parents. That’s because your child is going to question both of you. Sometimes, kids feel like they have to choose sides. And not only that, they’re going to feel insecure that the two of you don't seem to know what to do—because after all, if you knew what to do, you'd be agreeing. So these things have to be handled privately.

It’s the same way that you can't disrespect the teacher's authority without undermining your own later on. The attitude that, “Well, my teacher is stupid and I don't have to listen to him,” quickly becomes, when your child gets to adolescence, “My parents are stupid and I don't have to listen to them.” And so the more you disrespect other legitimate authority figures, the more you're undermining your own authority.

James, let’s say you haven’t been on the same page with your spouse as much as you’d like up until now, but you want to start working together more. What’s the first step?

JL: I think the key is to start by finding one thing you can both agree on and go from there. When I worked with parents in my office, I’d say, “Get together as a couple and work at one item at a time. Let's just deal with one thing: bed time, for instance, or how your child has been breaking things when he’s angry.”

So take one thing that you can agree on and then start making limits on that—and being supportive of each other. I think that if you can agree on one thing, it's easier to move on to another. Once one thing is working, you can build some momentum and form the basis of an agreement on parenting your child.

Realize that a compromise has to be made when your spouse says, for example, “I don't think we should have a bed time,” and you say, “Our son should go to bed at eight o'clock.” You have to be open to your spouse’s statement. Here’s another example: you'll often have two parents disagreeing over sibling fighting. One parent will say, “Nathan is picking on his younger sister. He’s being hurtful and needs to be given consequences.” And the other parent is responding with, “Yeah, but Emily teases him a lot. She brings it on herself.” These two parents have to sit down and figure out what they're going to do about the situation together—and out of earshot of the child. And both parents have to be open to the other person's ideas and perceptions. The parent who's trying to give consequences to the older child has to be able to be heard by the parent who thinks the younger child is setting the situation up purposefully. Compromise in this situation would have to do with holding both kids responsible so that there's a consequence for antagonizing, just like there's a consequence for hurtful behavior.

What would you say to parents who write in and say, “I hate being the bad guy! My spouse makes me do all the dirty work.”

JL: When one parent is stuck in the role of disciplinarian and the other is the nice guy, we call that “good cop/bad cop parenting”. If you're tired of playing the role of the “bad cop,” you need to talk to your spouse. Ask them to pick one thing that they'll take the lead on—maybe it’s doing homework or bedtime. After they’ve taken that duty on for awhile, you can sit down again and talk about some other areas of limit-setting they could take the lead on.

Also, remember that it’s not unusual for one person to be a stronger limit-setter than the other, because everyone’s personality is different. It's common for one of the adults in the marriage to be a stronger in that regard than the other. As long as both adults agree and are supportive of one another, there shouldn't be a problem. I go back to the idea that my son didn't need two of me—he needed one of me and one of my wife. We worked together to agree on everything and we both articulated our position when dealing with our son and his behavior.

What about parents who are working on getting on the same page, but then find they are gradually slipping back into those same old roles?

JL: Parents need to consciously work at making an effort to stay on the same page with their kids. It doesn’t come naturally. If one day you're in agreement and then you start to feel that changing and slipping away, you and your spouse need to talk about it immediately. And by the way, disagreements you have over other things in your marriage will also affect the way you parent together. I’ll give you an example: let’s say there’s a disagreement about who’s doing more than their fair share of housework. You’re annoyed because you start to feel like you’re doing everything around the house. That often unconsciously affects how you're both dealing with the page of your marriage entitled, “How we manage our children.”

If you feel like things have been slipping, you can start the conversation by saying, “Look, I feel like we’re out of sync lately. Let's get back to being on the same page with Tommy.” If you’re not able to do that, then unfortunately you decrease the likelihood of your joint parenting being effective. Never forget, we're talking about effective versus ineffective parenting, not good versus bad parenting. The bottom line is that if you're not on the same page, you’re not going to be as effective.

James, in your new program, Two Parents, One Plan you mention that kids sometimes use our lack of agreement to manipulate and take advantage. What do you mean by that?

JL: Kids are natural manipulators, just like puppies are—it’s a survival skill. The higher your cognitive abilities, the more natural it is to try to manipulate your environment. That's why chimpanzees bang nuts with a stone until they open but cows don't. It’s the same with children, who will naturally try everything they can to manipulate their environment—and that includes manipulating their parents. Adults do the same thing—have you ever tried to manipulate your boss when you wanted something? And do you remember trying to manipulate your own parents when you were a teenager?

But here’s where it breaks down in a family: if you disrespect your spouse in front of your kids or talk about them behind their back, you're setting up a very serious situation. Make no mistake, eventually your kids are going to feel like they don't have to respond to your spouse. They manipulate that by saying, “Mommy doesn't make me do it that way,” or “Daddy said I could.” You'll hear kids say that all the time; it’s an attempt to manipulate and divide the two of you. I think when you show kids that you're in opposition to your spouse’s approach—when you show that you feel it’s stupid or irrelevant or impractical—what you're doing is inviting your child to be disrespectful to your spouse. He will use that information to split the two of you and manipulate you against the other. And if you don't get on the same page, that's going to create real problems in your family.

What happens when you get entrenched in opposing roles as parents?

JL: To go back to our original analogy, when one parent is entrenched in opposition to the other parent on any one page of the marriage, it affects all the pages in the book. So if one parent doesn't think the other parent is trying hard enough to take on more duties around the house, it affects the family globally. I’ve found that most parents aren’t able to simply be frustrated with their partner in one area and remain on common ground in other areas unless they consciously work on it. In the same way, once you start working on things together—once you choose that “one thing” that you will start doing the same way—it brings you together as a couple, and presents a united front to your children.

Let’s face it, compromising and coming together aren’t always easy; in fact, it’s very hard to do. If it wasn’t hard, I wouldn’t have had a career helping parents for the last 30 years. And why is compromising so difficult? It’s difficult because emotions and belief systems get involved. Personally, I think it’s of utmost importance to get together and make a commitment to working your parenting rules out for your children—no matter what else is going on in your marriage.



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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."


Very good article, but please talk about logical and natural consequences that would work with kids who have been allowed to walk all over a parent for years. My spouse is finally ready to make changes but has NO idea how to develop sensible and effective consequences for frequent and repeated unacceptable behaviors

Comment By : Joan A.

great article. i passed it on to my friend who is having problems coordinating discipline with her husband.

Comment By : kim kowsky

Thanks James. Your articles have been just the pep talks needed between rounds! I'd like to see a follow-up article discussing roles as a step parent. When we married two years ago, I brought one child with me and my husband had full custody of three -- His Son: currently age 15, His Daughter: 13, My Daughter: 10 & His Daughter: 9. I'm the bad-cop, the reminder, the enforcer; aka Helga (to my husband) and Smother (so named by my step son). We do fairly well at sorting out our differences privately and backing each other up, but even a simple "let's discuss this later" alerts our kids to exploitable possibilities. I don't have too much trouble maintaining authority with my daughter, but she sometimes feels I ask more of her than her siblings and resents it. Evan two years in, I'm less clear on what my role should be as a step mom. Some days I feel I'm overstepping my authority with my step kids if I take any disciplinary actions. Other times I feel I'm derelict (or Helga is accused of negligence) if I refer them to their father. It can be awfully confusing! Also, I remember well how "kids will be kids" and always try to find the most advantageous posture to assume, but I think one of the things I've picked up from you has been to calmly call them on it when they're being manipulative and walk away without belaboring the point; that puts a stop to a lot of pointless drama!

Comment By : Smother

* Dear Joan A: I really like your question because it gives an opportunity to talk about why it’s necessary to have a complete program to make changes in your home. Yes, consequences are a tool of that process, but before you begin using consequences, James Lehman will show you in the Total Transformation Program how to change the family’s interactions. It’s important to know how to assume control in your home--how to be confident without being hostile. James will teach you how to give simple directions that give an air that you’re in control, instead of sounding like you’re making requests of your child. Such as this effective phrase: “Where are you supposed to be?” “Go there.” Instead of asking, “Why aren’t you there already?” He says that it’s important not to justify or explain yourself when disciplining or setting limits. Some parents try to convince the child by over-explaining limits so that the kids are happy with the rules, but kids don’t like limits and we have to find a way to deal with the discomfort of our kids being unhappy about them. James will give more techniques for assuming control in your home such as, ‘Don’t ask your child for an explanation for their poor behavior, because that’s asking for an excuse’. Instead you will teach your child to problem solve. You’ll use a consequence for the judgment that led to the poor behavior choice and construct that consequence so that your child learns what to do differently. The problem solving lesson learned during a consequence is important. Consequences without a learning component cannot do the job of teaching and training your child how to solve their problems in acceptable ways instead of acting out. If you already own the Total Transformation Program, remember you can call the trained specialists on the Support Line for program techniques that will help you in your specific situation. Keep in touch. We’re here to help.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

Great article and I understand how these parents feel when it comes to being the Bad Guy. My wife doesn't intervene until she gets fed up with the boys which are my step boys. We are working on the total transformaiton but I'm having a hard time getting her to put in the effort to complete the "parental" training. I am doing most of the house work, working a 10 hr. a day job and then coming home and having to be the bad guy to get the boys to accomplish their responsibilites. They have a daily chore list that only takes about 20 minutes per day to maintain and help our family keep our household running. We work as a team except that mom wants to stay on the computer on face book and then when we disturb her or try and vacuum, she gets angry and the boys see this. Sometimes I feel like i'm fighting a loosing battle. The she will pick up the slack and help for a while. I never belittle her or get angry with her, however I am guilty of being short tempered with the boys. I am working on this situation. I keep referring to our family as a team and working together on things as a team so no one person feels like the family slave. That's sometimes how I feel. Any advice.

Comment By : jwadeleo

Parents will have differnt opinions on certain subjects. We need to find a compromise that will satisfy the beliefs and traditions of both parents. Be sure to discuss these compromises in private. Children will go to the parent who offers the most support to what thay want. Children want the disputes to force the conflicting parent in their direction.

Comment By : mistichance

i can not handle my stepson sleeping at the house with girlfriend til 3 am leaving pizaa garbage on floor and never leaving at curfew time which was 12 am he is 19. i feel disrespected as a parent like i am being walked all over.

Comment By : cara

* Dear 'cara': I agree with you that it is very reasonable to ask him to stop these behaviors. What I’m wondering is where his father stands on this as a house rule? It’s not uncommon for parents to see things differently. It’s really important for parents to work together and support each other, especially when the kids are teens. Kids can choose to listen to whichever parent gives them the answer they like. Both parents have authority. In step-families, unless the parents are on the same page and back each other up, kids seem to especially ignore a step-parent who has stricter rules then the parent. I’d attack this issue by discussing it with your husband and then discussing what you two have agreed on as house rules with the kids. It’s important to proceed as James Lehman recommends in this article. Begin working together as parents by finding something you agree on. He says, “I think that if you can agree on one thing, it's easier to move on to another. Once one thing is working, you can build some momentum and form the basis of an agreement on parenting your child.” Thanks for your question. Many parents call the support line with these issues. For more clarification on your specific question, consider giving these trained specialists a call.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

I am the father of a girl 15, boy 14, girl 9, and boy 3. The two teenagers get very 'mouthy' to my wife and I, particularly the 14 yr. old boy. It typically happens in an argument between he and my wife where consequences for a prior transgression are being discussed. My tendancy is not to butt in on these arguments when I am present, unless my son really goes over the top. My wife gets angry with me for not stepping in and backing her up. My rationale is that any 'stepping in' actually undercuts her authority, plus I do not like her to step in when I'm in a similar situation. I have listened to the TT DVDs more than once but haven't gotten a clear read on how to handle these cases.

Comment By : JBravo686

* Dear JBravo686: There are a few things to consider in these cases. You’re correct that as a parent, you want to assume control and convey authority. It’s also very important as parents to support each other and work together as a team. What you want to keep in mind is if the "prior transgression" was an incident between your wife and your son, it is best that she handle it directly with him. For example, if she asked him to do something and he called her names, she should discuss this directly with him. However, if the "prior transgression" is a house rule that was broken, it’s better to work as a team and have a problem-solving discussion with him together. It’s always futile to get into an argument with your kids in these situations, so you might coach your son to calm himself down if he starts getting upset. Be very careful to remain calm yourself and not engage in an argument over the consequences that he is facing. Despite your best efforts to remain calm, if things do escalate between his mother and him in your presence, it may be helpful for you to say, “Hey, you know the house rule and how to earn back your privileges. Find a way to calm yourself down.” Sometimes kids read silence from a parent as acceptance, and you don’t want to covey that message—-that you’re not having a problem with his behavior—-and that just his mother is. However, stopping an argument in its tracks will probably solve the dilemma you’re describing. As long as the parent stays in emotional control, does not get pulled into an argument, but instead sets limits on the discussion by only coaching the child to calm himself down, it probably won’t be necessary for either of you to jump in and defend the other. Remember, you can always call the trained specialists on the Support Line for more ideas on how to apply the techniques from the Total Transformation in your home. Keep in touch. We’re here to help.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

What if I think my spouse is a terrible parent? Very critical and harsh... Isn't very demonstrative... I have tried to work with him to be better parents, but he just keeps doing things his way. It's hurting our child and our marriage. What can I do?

Comment By : Hopeless

* Dear ‘Hopeless’: It seems like you have been able to identify one of the important changes that needs to take place--that is for you and your husband to work together as a parenting team. You two need each others’ support and the kids need to know what is expected of them. Consider ordering the US Factor program. The author of the program, Dr. Joseph Melnick, says “Falling in love is wonderful. But staying in love takes skill.” As a husband for 40 years and a highly respected couples therapist for 25, Dr. Joseph Melnick understands how hard it can be to keep love fresh and alive in long-term relationships--especially when you’re raising children, managing careers and struggling with life’s toughest challenges. To help couples achieve change, Dr. Melnick focuses on what they do right, not what they do wrong. Rather than dredging up the pain of past arguments, he shows couples a new way to talk to one another that can help them address difficult subjects without blame, shame and defensiveness. The program was created to help couples understand how their differences can actually bring them closer. For more information on this program, visit this web site: http://www.theusfactor.com/. We wish your family the best.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

My wife doesn't agree, listen, or think that I am right on anything and everything. I've basically stopped talking because I end up talking to myself. As a matter of fact, mid-sentence she will do something else or start talking to the kids as if I wasn't even speaking. It feels like i'm a ghost really. So, as far as our 4 year old who just started school this year, is now having problems listening to the teacher and I have tried to step in and show there are consequences to not following directions, but my wife swoops in and trumps my authority. Our marriage has problems and now our kid and probably soon our 2 year old. But what can a ghost do in this situation?

Comment By : Jeremy

* To “Jeremy”: Thank you for writing in to Empowering Parents. It can be difficult to feel as if your thoughts and opinions don’t matter, especially in your own family. It sounds like you are trying to hold your son accountable for the choices he is making but you and your wife disagree on how to address his behavior. It’s not unusual for parents to disagree about parenting issues. You are two different people with two different perspectives and aren’t going to agree in every situation. Our first suggestion to parents in this type of situation would be to sit down and talk about these issues when the children aren’t present. From what you have written, it doesn’t sound as if you think this would be possible. It may be helpful to talk with a marriage or family counselor about what is going on. He or she would be able to help you and your wife work on ways to improve communication. If your wife is reluctant to go, a marriage or family counselor could still help you learn ways to address these concerns with your wife effectively. The 211 National Helpline can refer you to marriage/family counselors in your area. You can reach the Helpline by calling 1-800-273-6222 or by logging onto 211.org. Here's another article you may also find helpful: Good Cop/Bad Cop Parenting. We wish you and your family luck as you continue to work through this challenge. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

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