It is not uncommon for parents to approach a problem with their children differently. You think they should be allowed to do something, but your partner thinks otherwise. You think your child should be disciplined in a certain way, and the other parent feels differently. The key to being successful parents is to respect such parenting differences and find ways to work through your differences, rather than cause confusion with your child. This can often lead to larger conflicts and more arguments; not only with your child, but between parents. The reality is that you and your spouse are different people with different cultural and family backgrounds. Rules growing up for one parent may have been entirely different for the other parent. So, learning how to respect and understand your differences, while finding an acceptable but consistent way to parent your child, will take work and understanding.
Remember that the most important relationship role model your child will have is the relationship between their parents. They learn behaviors and problem solving by watching their parents. Your job is to teach your child how to behave and problem solve, but if the parents’ fight becomes a fight about their differences rather than the child’s behavior, the child will never learn about limits and boundaries. What they will learn is how to divide and conquer their parents.
Parents can and often do have different beliefs and parenting approaches since they come from different family backgrounds with different biologies. Understanding your different family backgrounds and parenting approaches may be easier, but finding ways to agree on boundaries, setting limits, and how to discipline is often much more challenging.
Each parent can find their own way of communicating and relating with their child. One of you might be a talker and another may be quieter and relate to the child through activities or by other means. Both styles are okay. It’s the differences around parental decisions regarding a child that often causes conflicts between the parents. For example, let’s say you believe your child should be punished harshly for lying, while the other partner feels that lying isn’t a big deal. As a result, one partner will discipline the child for their lying, while another parent will let it go. When this happens, your child will pick up on those disagreements. For some children, they will align themselves with one parent over another or ignore the parent who is upset and only listen to the parent who is “less strict”. When this happens, a triangle gets created where the child joins forces with the parent who sides with them; this sets up an unfortunate alliance of the child and parent against the other parent.
The truth is, a child can sense when their parents aren’t in sync in their decisions around discipline. Once this happens and continues to happen, your child will learn that there is a lack of consistency from the parents in terms of rules which then creates an initial feeling that they have found how to get their way. In the long run however, getting around one parent will eventually lead to instability and uncertainty in the child’s feelings toward both parents.
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 do not do this, it will show your child that his parents are not a unified team and undermine the other’s authority. 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.
Find ways to get to the same place
Remember that fights are disturbing to your child. In fact, a child does not like to see their parents not getting along. These battles, in the long run, can have disturbing effects on the child’s cognitive development. When you fight, your child gets off the hook for their behavior. Rather than teaching your child how to behave and solve problems, the focus instead becomes parent against parent. Find ways to back each other 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 partner in order to keep presenting a unified front.
When there are differences in your approaches, you should step back and ask each other — Who feels the most strongly about the issue at hand?
Sometimes these differences make it difficult or impossible to get to the other side of the issue. When that happens, the parent who feels more passionately about it might make the call. Let’s say, for example, your 12-year-old wants to go to a friend’s house but has not done all their homework, which is the rule your home; one parent is okay with letting him go and the other partner is not. You might decide that you will give in to the child this time about the sleepover, but ask for support when you require the child to do their homework the following morning before school. If the child does complete the homework, there may be more room for the child to ask for permission again in the future; but if the child fails to complete their homework, then the next time their request will be denied. The key is to act together as parents and not go down the road of blaming one parent over the other. The “blame game” is not a good parenting strategy for the child or the parents.
Try not to talk about parenting decisions in the heat of a moment
Remember, there is no one way to approach or handle a situation. Your way or the highway does not work. When you can hear, understand, and validate the view of another person’s thoughts that are different than your own, you’ll have a chance of keeping the lines of communication open to the other person. Otherwise, your attitude will contribute to making walls go up, fights growing, and you will have less patience to hear and listen to the other parent.
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 they are understood and not so alone. Your child still must go along with the decision you’ve made with your mate. Later, one parent can discuss with the other parent their differing views and perhaps they can come to a different decision together on how to handle things the next time the situation comes up.
Most importantly, 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 their way of thinking. Maybe their biological reactions to change is very different than your own. I recommend that you get to know each other’s family history and how deeply your beliefs are rooted. These understandings will help you to see things more objectively and less personally, and you will then be able to respond with less judgement. 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 their 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.
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 you off their trail. Let’s say your partner is very strict with your son about schoolwork, but you feel that he’s putting too much pressure on your child. For example, when it’s time for your child to do their homework, your child might say “I stink at math” and complain that it is the teacher’s fault. Your partner yells at your child anyway and says that they need to bring up their math grade. Instead of answering, your child looks to you for help and understanding. As if on cue, you jump in and say, “Get off their back—they are doing the best that they can.” But your partner disagrees and feels that the child is just not trying hard enough. Now the fight starts to ramp up. At this point, no one is listening to the other. Each is more interested in winning the point then finding a way to work together and have their child work with them. 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 even more.
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.”
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, yearnings, traditions, and 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, or 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.
Getting professional help does not mean you failed as a parent but that you know it is time for both of you to learn new ways to parent your children
Having a third person who can help each parent feel that they are heard in the relationship can unblock and open new ways to talk with one another and help your child navigate through their developmental years.
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. But you need to be able to step back and hear what each other has to say. The bottom line is that we all have different ways of communicating and different belief systems. 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.
Patricia Mendell, LCSW