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When Parents Disagree on Discipline

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Children can sense when their parents aren’t in sync when it comes to decisions around discipline. When parents are at different ends of the discipline spectrum the lack of unity creates a sense of family instability and leaves children feeling insecure. Alternatively, when children sense areas of disagreement in parenting they may play one parent against the other and use this division to get around the rules. Either way, when parents disagree on discipline it has an impact on the children.

At some point in every relationship couples will naturally approach parenting differently and disagreement is to be expected. As Dr. John Gottman explains, this is because “every marriage is a cross-cultural experience” where each partner comes from their unique family system. The way you were raised in your family of origin has a profound influence on your opinions and how you parent your child. Couples may talk about their different upbringings before having children but rarely do they realize the impact their different upbringings will have on parenting and family values until they are in the throes of parenting, and their parenting styles begin to clash.

Parenting on the same page helps build a strong, connected family and certainly makes the job of parenting less frustrating and more rewarding. Becoming a parenting team, where partners support each other, requires reconciling differences in parenting and family values and needs a mutual commitment from both parents. Here are five strategies to help become a more united team:

1. Talk about your parenting agenda and parenting goals. Each partner has a parenting agenda. Your agenda is your parenting paradigm based on a set of worries, goals, expectations, and dreams you have for your child. As parents, it is important to set aside time for regular discussions about the expectations you have for your child and any concerns you may have - is your child too bossy, too forgetful, too impulsive, always angry etc. It is also important to discuss the values and life skills you want your child to learn - to be capable, responsible, respectful, connected to family and community, and independent etc. When you have a shared agenda, with clearly communicated goals, you are more likely to come together in your parenting and work collaboratively.

2. Set your sights on compromise. Team parenting is not about right or wrong and it is not about winning or making your partner see things your way. There is no one absolute parenting truth. There are always many ways to think about things. When your partner’s perspective on parenting is different from your own it can be difficult to understand and hard for you to hear your partner’s side of the issue. Get to know your spouse’s family history and how deeply their beliefs are rooted. These differences in how you were raised are often the underlying reasons why you disagree on parenting and discipline issues. Discuss each of your core needs, where you are absolutely not willing to compromise, and talk about areas of parenting where you are more flexible and able to bend. For compromise to work it is important to be curious and open to other perspectives. Gottman states, “Compromise never feels perfect. Everyone gains something and everyone loses something. The important thing is feeling understood, respected, and honored in your dreams.” Curiosity and openness allow you to settle on parenting practices that feel comfortable to both parties.

3. Provide back-up. If one parent is disciplining the kids the other parent must back them up in the moment, even if they do not agree. Doing this will show your child you are a united team and they cannot get around the parenting decisions you make. Later, you can come together to talk about how a situation was handled and decide together if it could be handled differently in the future. This does not apply in cases of neglect or abuse. If you feel your partner’s parenting is physically or emotionally harmful to your child it is necessary for you to take immediate steps to ensure the safety of your child.

4. Communicate positively and listen effectively. To reach a compromise both partners need to feel safe in the communication. Conversations need to be open and honest and each parent needs to remain respectful of the other during the conversation. Use positive communication skills and avoid sarcasm, criticism, defensiveness, and blame. Keep the focus of your conversation on your child and how you want them to behave or what you would like them to learn from this experience or discipline opportunity. When you argue about parenting it is very easy for the focus to shift away from your child and the focus instead becomes parent against parent - when parents fight, kids are off the hook. Spend a few minutes just hearing what your partner has to say. Try not to get stirred up and instead listen from a place of curiosity and try to understand your partner’s perspective. It is important both of you leave the conversation feeling that you have been heard.

5. Take time-out. Compromise cannot be reached in the heat of the moment so make sure to have your parenting conversations when both parties are calm. Take a time-out if you need one. Respect your partner’s need to take a time-out if necessary. Do something you enjoy or that is calming to you – take a walk, read a book, or listen to music. Do not call a friend to share your side of the story and gather support for your argument. When you come back together later focus on understanding and working on a plan for moving forward.

There are no shortages of things to disagree on throughout your child’s life. Children don’t like to see their parents not getting along. Keep in mind you are a team, fighting on the same side. Choose your battles carefully. Your parenting counts!

Heart of Connecting

My work is dedicated to supporting parents and early childhood educators in understanding and reducing challenging behavior in young children at home and in the preschool classroom.

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