Most couples have experienced this situation at one time or another—you think you should discipline your child a certain way, and your spouse wants to handle it differently. You each become entrenched in your position, and that’s when the fighting starts.
At some point, most couples will argue over how to discipline their children. After all, you and your spouse are different people who will naturally approach parenting differently at times—or maybe more often than you’d like. Understand that some disagreement is to be expected. Marriages, after all, are unions between people from different family backgrounds and beliefs, which can easily lead to parental tensions.
Rather than teaching your child how to behave and problem solve, the focus instead becomes parent against parent.
Let’s stop here for a minute and make an important distinction between having different beliefs and communication styles versus not being able to agree on what decisions to make regarding your children. Since we are not the same people, we will each have our own style of relating to our kids. You might be very talkative and like to chat while your spouse might be quieter and more reserved around your child. Both styles are okay. It’s the differences around parental decisions regarding a child that can be problematic. For example, let’s say you believe your child should be punished harshly for lying while your spouse feels that lying isn’t a big deal. As a result, you react differently and aren’t on the same page when it comes to consequences. Here’s the truth: Children can sense when their parents aren’t in sync in their decisions around discipline. Your child will feel the lack of unity between you, which can create a feeling of instability for him. This will also give kids an opening; they will sometimes use it to provoke a fight. This gets your child off the hook and turns parent against parent. (More on this later.)
Disagreements between parents can cause minor flare-ups or a serious all-out war in your household. Following these 10 simple guidelines can help you to avoid battles when it comes to raising your children.
1. Provide back-up. Make it a rule that if one parent disciplines the kids, the other parent must back them up, even if they do not agree. If you don’t do this, it will show your child that his parents are not a unified team and undermine your authority. Your child will see that he can get around any parenting decision you make. (Note: this does not apply to parents who neglect or abuse their children. If you feel that something your spouse is doing is detrimental to your children in some physical or emotional way, then you need to put your foot down and say, “I can’t go along with this.” Then take the necessary steps to make sure your child is safe.)
2. Arrive in the same place. Find a way to arrive in the same place on how to proceed with your child. Be aware that your fights over how to raise your children are disturbing to your kids. Children don’t like to see their parents not getting along, and these battles can have long-term effects. Understand also that every time you argue with your mate over parenting, the focus shifts away from your child. Rather than teaching your child how to behave and problem solve, the focus instead becomes parent against parent. Back one another up in the moment, even if you don’t fully agree. Later, when things are calm, (and you’re out of earshot of your child), you can discuss better ways of handling the situation with your spouse, and then present a unified front.
3. Who feels most strongly about the issue at hand? If you and your spouse really are on different pages on something and neither person can get to the other side of the issue, then the parent who feels more passionately about it might make the call. Let’s say, for example, that you’re okay with your 12-year-old going to a sleep over at a good friend’s house, but your spouse is still fearful of allowing your child to have that kind of independence. You might say, “I feel so strongly about this. I’d really like you to support me on this, even if you don’t see it the same way.” Or, “Can I ask you to go along with me on this one, even if you don’t agree?” Or, “I can’t say for certain that this is the best decision, but my gut is telling me to give it a try. Can you support me on this?”
4. Talk about parenting decisions when you are calm. When calmly listening to one another’s perspective without being critical, you’ll have a better shot at influencing your spouse’s decision. Remember, there is no such thing as “One Truth” thinking. There are many ways to think about things, not just your way. When you can be respectful of that truth and make room for another person’s thoughts that are different than your own, you’ll have a chance of keeping your mate open to your ways of thinking, too. Otherwise, your attitude will contribute to making their wall go up. The two of you then become polarized over the issue when that’s not always what the fight is really about.
5. Empathize with your child, but don’t throw your spouse under the bus. If your spouse feels more strongly about something and you’ve decided to go along with their decision, you can say to your child, “I know it’s hard for you when Mom won’t let you go on a sleepover. I see it bothers you because you feel you are ready for this independence.” You’re empathizing with your child’s feelings, but not breaking the unified stance. When you show empathy, your child also feels he’s understood and not so alone. Your child still must go along with the decision you’ve made with your mate. Again, later, Dad can discuss with Mom his differing views and perhaps they can come to a different decision together on how to handle things the next time the situation comes up.
6. Get to know your spouse’s family history. Perhaps it’s difficult for you to understand your mate’s perspective on child rearing because it’s so different from your own, so you end up feeling critical of his way of thinking. I recommend that you get to know his family history and how deeply those beliefs are rooted. It may help you to see things more objectively and less personally, and you will then be able to respond with less judgment. Try to help each other see that safety issues, environmental concerns, and cultural norms change over time. What might have worked back when your spouse was a kid might not make sense now. Or what worked in his family back then might be different than what will work in your family right now. Anxiety about change and differences can often cause parents with the best of intentions to stick to what’s familiar and comfortable, rather than think of what’s best for the present situation.
7. When parents fight, kids are off the hook. Sometimes kids will use the fact that you’re not on the same page to manipulate you. They might even set you up to fight with each other to get off the hook. Let’s say your husband is very strict with your son about schoolwork, but you feel that he’s putting too much pressure on your child.
Here’s a scenario:
When it’s time to do his homework, your son says he “stinks at math” and complains about his teacher. Your husband yells at him and says that he needs to bring up his math grade. Instead of answering, your child looks at you for help. As if on cue, you jump in and say, “Get off his back—he’s doing fine.” Your husband replies, “If he was doing fine he would have gotten a better score.” Now the fight is ramping up. You respond with, “You’re too strict–that’s why he’s like this, because you’re too hard on him.” Meanwhile, your child keeps watching TV and doesn’t do the homework he was supposed to do. In this situation, the focus goes to the wrong place. When kids provoke these arguments, they’re not getting the discipline they need and they’re not being held accountable. In addition, the tension caused by the fighting is going to increase the tension in your house, which often causes your child to act out (or “act in”) more. Their behavior won’t change if you’re more focused on fighting each other than holding your kids accountable for their behavior.
8. Take a time-out. Rather than getting into a battle of who’s right and who’s wrong, focus on working on a plan. Take a time-out if you need one. Try taking a walk, go do something else, or take a drive. When you come back later, set up a time to talk. You can say, “Let’s each spend a few minutes talking about this. I’m just going to listen to you and I’m not going to say a word. I’m not going to interrupt you. Just let me hear why this one is so important to you because you don’t usually hold onto things so strongly.”
9. How to listen. It helps couples to give each other a few minutes and just talk about why a certain issue is important. Everyone has their own wishes, their own yearnings, their own traditions, their own visions of the future. If we can spend a few minutes just hearing the other person without our anxiety getting stirred up—and without trying to talk our mate into our way of doing things, defending or blaming—and instead hear where they’re coming from, a lot of times you’ll be able to find common ground. You can say, “What can we do to negotiate on this?” Or, “I hear you. Now I understand why this is so important to you. I don’t feel as strongly, but I’ll support your decision.” Most importantly, you will both know you’ve been heard.
10. Is it time for professional help? If you feel like you’ve tried everything and you’re still not able to get on the same page with your mate, you may need some personal help in the form of a therapist. A good therapist will help you find ways to talk with each other rather than fight about every parenting issue that comes up and find out if there are other things getting you “stuck.”
Believe it or not, natural differences between spouses can be treated as strengths, not as causes for arguments. Differences can help us expand our own perspective and understand one another better. The bottom line is that we all have different ways of communicating and different belief systems—and that’s fine. No two people are going to come together with the exact same opinions and values 100 percent of the time. The important thing is to find a way to come together so your kid is not pulled into the middle of your differences.
About Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC
For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM™ program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.