Dear 1-on-1 Coaching:
My wife and I have very different ideas about parenting. While we try not to fight in front of the kids, it really causes a lot of battles between us. I think a lot of it comes from differences in our upbringing; she didn’t have to follow any rules when she was a kid. I want our children to understand that rules are important; I want them to understand accountability and integrity. I’m always talking to them about these issues — it seems like every day, one of them does something that brings it up. My wife, on the other hand, refuses to follow through with consequences, and she tells me to “lighten up” on the kids. As I said, we try not to argue in front of them, but it’s hard when I tell our kids to stop doing something, and right away, she tells them what they’re doing is no big deal. Is it any surprise who the kids listen to? How can I get my wife to understand that what I’m trying to teach the kids is important?
–Frustrated Dad in PA
Dear Frustrated Dad:
We hear from a lot of parents who have a different parenting style than their partner or their ex. In a way, it’s amazing that two people with very different backgrounds and perspectives can find any common ground at all! And when you are talking about parenting, emotions can certainly run very high. It can be difficult to get children to follow basic household rules when one parent gives a consequence and the other “undoes” it, or tells the kids that they don’t have to listen. It can make you feel like you’re fighting the battle from all sides. In a sense, both of you are right: kids need to be held accountable for their actions, and, focusing on every single behavior can be overwhelming, and can even backfire: kids will tune you right out! The good news is, you and your wife can find a way to work together, even if you have different ideas.
I appreciate that you try not to argue or discuss your parenting differences in front of the children. It is difficult to teach your child to follow one set of rules when he sees those rules up for debate within your own family. Some kids will also learn to play one parent against the other when they know the parents disagree. It’s important to present a united front to your children when it comes to basic household rules. If you find it difficult to remain calm in front of the kids, try to give yourself an “out”: if you disagree with something your partner is doing, you might say “I’d like to talk about this together before we give our daughter our decision.”
Once you are able to discuss the situation away from the kids, it’s tempting to get into an argument about why your way is better than your spouse’s way — that’s understandable, but unlikely to help solve the issue. I bet you and your partner have argued these points a million times, and so far, no one has “won.” Rather than argue about whose style is right and whose is wrong, you might see if you can find a place of agreement. You may be surprised to find that you do actually have places you agree! It may take awhile, but there is always a place of agreement, especially when you focus on specific behaviors rather than broad concepts. For example: while you might argue about whether sharing should be mandatory because it promotes goodwill toward others, both of you likely agree that the kids should not take or destroy other peoples’ things, and if they borrow an item, they need to return it in good shape. That means there would be a rule in your home that no one takes or destroys something that belongs to another, and if they break something, they are responsible for fixing or replacing it. Decide together what the consequences will be if the kids break those rules. If one of you feels you cannot follow through with the consequences, maybe you can agree to at least not “undo” the consequences the other parent enforces, and agree to not argue about your differences in front of the kids.
As far as feeling like you are constantly talking about broad issues like accountability and integrity, remember that kids’ brains function far more concretely than adult brains. So, while having family discussions about abstract terms like responsibility and integrity are important, those discussions rarely result in concrete changes in behavior — the kids may understand it while you’re talking, but fail to put the principles into action later! You are far more likely to see changes when you focus on a couple of behaviors at a time, working with your kids to solve their problems in more appropriate ways. I don’t mean to suggest that these discussions aren’t important — they are. Family discussions — especially when they involve respectful disagreement — help to develop beliefs about the world and how we care for ourselves and others. It is in these discussions that you and your partner can role model how to voice your opinion without cutting down or degrading an opposing opinion. Just remember that discussions like these, in and of themselves, do not tend to lead to changes in behavior. For that, you and your partner need to find that place of agreement, and follow through with what you’ve planned.
I want to clarify that the suggestions given above apply to simple differences in parenting. If you feel that your partner is abusive — verbally, physically, or emotionally to you or your children, please seek out professional resources and support in your local area. If you are trying to teach your children to act appropriately and respectfully, but your partner calls the children names or threatens violence, none of your rules and consequences are likely to be effective: kids watch what you do, not what you say. And remember, there is no excuse for abuse — from anyone in your family. Please contact your local community mental health center or parenting network for support. If you find yourself unable to control your own temper, you might also check out James’ article, Temper, Temper: Keeping Your Cool When Kids Push Your Buttons.
For more on parenting differences, you might check out: Differences in Parenting? How Your Child May Be Using it Against You, and James’ new program, Two Parents, One Plan.
Good luck, and please keep in touch and let us know how it goes!