Parents are not always going to agree on the right way to discipline, hence the old-age technique of arguing "But mom said!" or "But Dad lets me!" It's important to your family, however, to try and be consistent with your parenting.
DEAR MR. DAD:
My wife and I discipline our children in very different ways. Oftentimes it leads to us arguing in front of them. What can we do to prevent this?
When parents have different disciplining styles, there’s bound to be dissention and arguing. Tension’s a given anytime two or more people work on the same project but each take a different approach.
Co-parenting is similar to any other partnership. Each person brings to the table what’s been learned along the way. As parents, we’re influenced by the disciplinary approaches we experienced growing up, and we tend to apply them to our children often without first talking them through with our partner.
Imagine a baseball team eager to win a game, but guided by two coaches who follow different rules and dish out contradictory information. Imagine the tension and the reactions of the players as they witness the coaches quarreling. When you and your wife fight in front of the children, you may not be aware of the ways in which they are affected. Some children may learn “that must be the way people resolve conflicts.” Others may learn how to play one parent against the other, which causes even more confusion and distress in the family.
Never Let Your Child See You Argue About Discipline
The important thing is to never contradict your spouse in front of your child. This is confusing for the child, and will never work. He will not take your punishment seriously if he thinks for one moment that he can change your or your spouse's mind when he has one of you alone.
A great idea is to sit down before the child gets in trouble and think of punishments that the two of you can agree on. There is nothing wrong with telling your child that a punishment is pending, instead of delivering it right away. Just be sure it is actually delivered.You could also have punishments, based on severity of the misbehavior, on hand and ready to go in case you ever need them. Everyone is on board with disciplines when they know what to expect. This is the same type of thing that schools do with children. They know they will miss recess or stay after for detention before they ever misbehave.
Probably not many of us explore this topic during our courtships. Of course, apparent differences are probably not going to influence the outcome of one’s choice in a partner.
However, if differences are too drastic, the not-yet-committed couple might want to give the relationship further thought. Although we might not want to admit it, children provide the glue that holds many marriages together. Disagreements about and unhappiness with the children also play a major role in marital breakups. Therefore, it can never be too early in a relationship to explore one another’s ideas and feelings on the subject.
The only child-related topic I can remember talking about during my engagement was how many children each of us wanted. I opted for five, my husband-to-be for two. (Guess how many we had!) I went into parenthood fresh from graduate study in child development. The importance of helping babies develop a secure attachment to both parents, especially the mother, and the importance of prompt gratification of their needs as a way of achieving this was stressed by all my professors and the research I was studying. This input firmly impressed itself into my mothering repertoire. . On the other hand, my husband had what amounted to a fetish about the harmful consequences of spoiling children and thought that my rushing to every cry or sign of discomfort was heading in that direction. We also disagreed on how much freedom our children should be allowed. He had grown up in a small town where no one locked the doors and where he was allowed to run free pretty much all day, every day. I, in contrast, was a “hoverer” and wanted my children within eye range all the time. So, we certainly had our problems on this score.
The Role of Grandparents
Grandparents get written into the scenario very early, for they often have strong ideas about how their grandchildren should be raised and express those ideas freely. These ideas are often different from those of the children’s parents and get communicated as unwelcome and unwarranted criticism. I frequently get questions from young mothers about how to handle the situation when a grandmother, who is helping provide childcare, refuses to accept the mother’s philosophy of discipline. These questions are not easy to answer.
Working Toward Compromise
There is probably no parenting problem that can’t be ameliorated, if not eliminated, if the parents will sit down and rationally discuss the situation. But I’m not naïve; I know how difficult it is to achieve that in most situations. Most typically it is the father who refuses to talk about the problem and consider any approach other than his own, but not all mothers are completely innocent on that score either.
I have a humble little recommendation I often make, and many parents have told me it helped them. Go out to dinner, just the two of you, and discuss it. It’s not just the good food and wine that will help. It’s mainly that, in such a setting, you won’t start shouting at one another and say things you’ll be sorry for later. Most of us are more civil in the midst of other people than if alone with other family members in the privacy of our homes. In your evening out together, try to work up a plan for how you will handle your disagreement (using mom’s or dad’s approach or some combination of the two) for at least one week. Then agree to reevaluate the situation and determine whether what you did was helpful or whether you need to try something else.
The Answer Is in the Child’s Behavior
Try to remember that this is not a contest of wills or an attempt to prove one of you right and the other wrong. The aim is to find a procedure that achieves a desirable pattern of development in your child. If, after your agreed-upon trial period, the behavior you argued about how to handle is worse, you need to try something different. If it is better, you may have found what you were looking for and will want to make it part of your regular routine. Just keep in mind that our children are very clever at picking up on cues that their parents don’t agree on what to do with or about them. They will try to work one of you against the other—for their gain, of course.
Don’t hesitate to get an outside opinion from others who care about you and your child—grandparents, neighbors, your pediatrician or family physician, your child’s teacher, your minister—and take that opinion into consideration. There’s always the possibility that neither of you is on the right track, and discussing the situation with a concerned outsider can often be very helpful.
The Spanking Issue
Another sore spot for many parents when it comes to discipline is corporal punishment, or spankings. Many parents will agree that this is not the way to discipline a child. However, what if your spouse disagrees with you? This is also something you need to be in agreement on before you are put in an awkward situation.
If you feel very strongly against this type of punishment, but your spouse feels otherwise, you need to work it out for the sake of your child. You don't want your child winding up hating the one parent who spanks, and giving excessive affection to the non-spanking
parent out of spite. It's okay if one parent is in charge of delivering the spankings, but the child has to know that you both agree on when it is necessary, if at all.
Disciplining children is a tough thing for parents no matter what. Wouldn't it be great if every child just obeyed the first time? Well, that is not too likely to happen, so the next best thing is to be united as a couple when it comes to discipline issues and enforcing them consistently.
The bottom line? You and your wife should try to get on the same page. That’s the best way to stop arguing with your kids as witnesses.
HERE ARE SOME STRATEGIES THAT CAN BE HELPFUL:
- Agree on a signal to alert both of you that the conversation is – or is about to get — too heated and needs to be halted.
- Make a commitment both to honor and act on the signal. You might walk away and have an agreed-upon cooling off period. Or set a time to revisit your differences in opinion. Or write down what you’re feeling and later share it with your partner, who might better understand where you’re coming from.
- Create your own family “rulebook.” Write clear, reasonable, attainable rules (for both parents and kids) about what behavior is acceptable and what isn’t. Your family, like a baseball team, will be more successful when you have clear guidelines.
- Consider taking a few parenting classes together. That way you’ll have a common parenting experience to draw on. Hearing how other people parent (and why) can give a fresh perspective on what you want for your own family. Even though we may have learned how to parent from our parents, as adults we benefit from learn new skills.
- Seek a professional third party if you can’t find ways to work together in the areas you want to improve. Sometimes an outside perspective helps us understand the underlying reasons for disagreements.
- Remember your successes. During your marriage, you and your wife have undoubtedly successfully negotiated many situations – with each of you both giving and taking a little until you reached some middle ground. You also be successful at ending arguments in front of the children if you really want to. It won’t be easy, but it will be rewarding. And your children will be the ultimate winners.
Having said all that, it’s important not to go overboard in trying to avoid arguments. Having small squabbles in front of the kids – and then resolving them peacefully – can actually be good for them; it shows that it’s possible to disagree with someone you love, and that relationships don’t end just because people are quarreling with each other
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