When Parents Disagree

At a workshop I was teaching on discipline the other night one man asked "So what happens if my wife thinks that our child should go to bed at 7:30 and I believe that children should go to bed whenever they get tired, even if that's at 10 or 11 at night?"

Disagreement between spouses is a natural part of child-rearing. In fact, given our different backgrounds, upbringing, personalities, it's hard to see why parents would ever agree! But the truth is that when spouses don't agree about disciplining or communicating with the children, and especially when they disagree in front of the children, it can become problematic to the point of actually contributing to the children's misbehavior.

Children exhibit various behaviors when they perceive that mom and dad don't know what they're doing, and aren't a "team." Most often, children in this situation feel unprotected and unsafe. They think "if mom and dad aren't in agreement, then who's in charge? How safe is it if no one is in charge?" Children whose parents argue a lot may be prone to sleep disturbances, separation difficulties and undue anxiety.

In addition, many times when children perceive that a gap exists in power, they will seek that power for themselves. Children don't hesitate to take advantage of the fighting and "fill the power gap." The irony is that even though they may feel more powerful, they don't actually feel comfortable having that power. They may, therefore, create conflict in hopes of getting mom or dad to take the power back. Children who are trying to "fill the power gap" may be more prone to tantrums, physical aggression, "rudeness" and explosive outbursts.

Another problem is that children whose parents disagree sometimes learn to play one parent off the other to get what they want. They know what each parent's "policies" are, and use that information to their advantage. Children who play their parents off one another may whine, plead excessively or use tears to get what they want.

Children live in a challenging, many times chaotic world. From birth, their brains are busy trying to organize the information they are receiving and make sense of it. For this to happen successfully, it helps if they are first presented with a somewhat calm, organized world at home. As parents, it's our job to refrain from contributing to the chaos with undue fighting. That's not to say that children should never see mom and dad fight. In order for children to learn how to resolve conflicts, they must be exposed to conflict resolution. Likewise, for children to learn how healthy families and relationships work, they must be exposed to parents who communicate respectfully, who place primary importance on the spousal bond, and who refrain from undermining each other's authority. Mom and dad must communicate the message to the children that they are in charge and they feel comfortable being in charge.

In order to more fully understand and ultimately resolve your parenting conflicts with your spouse, it might be helpful to discuss what your beliefs are, and what "style" of parenting you'd like to have in your family.

Prior to having children, I'm willing to bet you never sat down with each other and discussed how you were parented, or what you considered your "parenting style" to be. In all likelihood, you were caught up in the romance of the relationship and figured that agreement on how to raise your children would come naturally. If you're like most parents, however, what you soon discover after the kids arrive is that many times your ideas about what to do in a particular situation are strikingly different than those of your spouse. But even if you've never discussed it before, a discussion about how you parent can never take place too late. Try sitting down with your spouse, considering the following information, and answering the questions which follow:

Parenting Styles

An autocratic style of parenting is piloted by the belief that "because you live under my roof, you have to do what I say. The rules are non-negotiable, I make them up, and that's that. When you're eighteen, you can do what you want, but I'm the King (Queen) of this castle and you must obey me." Autocratic parents often believe that their primary responsibility is to protect their children.

At the heart of a permissive style of parenting is the belief that you don't need to set limits or have rules for your children. Permissive parents believe that "if I give my children enough rope, they'll hang themselves. Society will provide the limits my children need. I don't need to be involved, I can be their friend." Permissive parents often believe that their primary responsibility is to allow their children to experience life on their own.

An authoritative, democratic or cooperative style of parenting takes into account the ideas of individual family members, and recognizes and respects the individual members' temperament and developmental level. Parents who subscribe to these parenting styles believe their job in the family is to not only protect their children, but to prepare them to be independent, ethical adults someday. The parent holds the belief that "I am in charge, and I feel comfortable being in charge. I can allow my children to voice their opinion about my rules because I am comfortable with my role as leader in the family. When my child has a good suggestion for changing our limits, I can compromise without feeling my authority is being undermined. I am also willing to stand firm in the face of tears, threats, anger and hysteria if I believe that a rule is non-negotiable." These parents often believe that fostering cooperation and open communication are keys to a healthy family.

In your conversation with your spouse, answer these questions:

How were you parented? What style did your father subscribe to? How about your mother? When you were a child, how did you feel about the way you were parented? Did it make you want to cooperate? Rebel? Give up? Ignore your parents? Leave home?

How do you think the way you were parented influences the way you parent now?

Are there aspects of your parents' style(s) that you dislike seeing in yourself?

Are there ways in which you were parented that you'd like to emulate?

Are there similarities between your answers and those of your spouse? Where do you differ?

Keeping in mind the way each of you were parented, and how you felt about your parent's style(s) both as a child and now as an adult, think about what goals you'd like to create together in developing a philosophy for raising your children. What traits or qualities would you like your children to have as adults? How do you see your role in the family? What responsibilities do you think parents have in raising their children?

This kind of in-depth questioning often brings parents closer together in their child-rearing philosophies. While it doesn't always bring agreement on every issue, this discussion often helps parents recognize why their spouse might have strong feelings about certain rules or limits. For example, it might help the spouse who didn't care about bedtime at the beginning of this article honor and respect his spouse's perspective. Having an understanding of bedtime's importance to her may allow him to back her up in front of the children without feeling threatened himself.

Ultimately, when parents back each other up in front of the children, refrain from undermining each other, and act respectfully, children feel more secure in their environment. When children feel safe, they are less likely to misbehave, test the limits and act out.