While it’s important for parents to maintain a united front when disciplining their children, it can also be beneficial for kids to know that differences of opinion will occur.
It’s a classic case. You send your daughter to her room after she backtalks you. You fill your husband in so he can carry out the punishment while you run to the store. When you return home, you find the two of them hanging out watching television. When this happens, it’s anyone’s guess how the parental showdown will play out.
We’ve often heard the phrase, “presenting a united front” when referring to disciplining children, but is it really necessary for parents to agree all the time? Can a mom and dad with two completely different parenting styles come together with regard to discipline? And how important is presenting a united front for kids?
Difference of Opinion
Experts agree that although it would be ideal, being united on every discipline issue is nearly impossible. Ray Levy, Ph.D., author of Try and Make Me! (Rodale Press), says, “Sometimes you’ll find parents who are pretty close, and that’s nice, but it’s really rare.” However, he adds, there usually isn’t a tremendous disparity. “One parent might want the kids in bed by eight, while the other might prolong the bedtime routine so they don’t get to bed until 8:30.” He says this type of difference is common and nothing to worry about.
“When there are wide discrepancies, that’s usually a sign of another problem,” Levy says. For example, if one parent says it’s time for bed, and the other parent ignores it and starts an activity with the child, there may be something more going on. In these cases, Levy suggests getting the help of a third party, such as a trusted family member, close friend or professional counselor. “With any kind of huge disparity you need to get help,” he says.
Levy states that for most kids, presenting a united front isn’t as important as we may think it is. “It depends on the temperament of the child,” he says. “My wife and I have an even- tempered child. We don’t always agree on discipline, and that’s OK because our daughter knows how to negotiate and she’s fine with it.”
However, some children – especially those with difficult temperaments – need the consistency that comes from parents with similar styles. In this case, Levy encourages parents to come together to tackle one issue at a time. “Pick one battle [to fight as a team] and win it,” he says, “then move on to the next.” Success reinforces the unified front and will help you move on to bigger battles.
Because parents grow up in different environments, they often have different ways of thinking about discipline and dealing with discipline issues. For example, one spouse may have been raised in a family of yellers, while the other was raised in a family that discussed misbehaviors and enforced logical consequences. Naturally, these parents are likely to have different discipline styles.
Susan Fletcher, a licensed psychologist and relationship expert, believes that seeing different parenting styles is good for children. “It benefits kids if parents have different styles, because if you think about it, they’re going to have different personalities from teachers, peers and bosses, and they need to learn to adapt to different styles.” However, she adds, you should still have some sort of a plan. “You have to agree on the basic routines, but you don’t always have to agree on the way you implement them,” she says.
Other experts disagree. Bill Corbett, director of Redirecting Children’s Behavior of Nashville and certified parenting educator says that it’s not beneficial to kids when parents’ parenting styles differ. “The healthiest environment conducive to raising cooperative and drug-free children is one in which the parents agree on one style of parenting,” he says. “The sooner parents agree on one style of parenting and on boundaries, the sooner their children will understand clear boundaries and limits.”
Not in Front of the Kids
Many parents believe it’s best to be unified in front of the children and discuss differences privately. Corbett agrees. “Some conflict or disagreement demonstrated in front of the kids is OK,” he says, “but not regarding discipline. If children detect that there is some division or a ‘crack’ in the foundation, they may take advantage of this division to manipulate parents.”
Courtney D. Knowles, a spokesperson for the Institute for Equity in Marriage, agrees with this philosophy. “If you and your spouse are having a problem with an in-law, you wouldn’t choose to talk about the problem and how you’re going to solve it in front of that person,” he says. The same is true with your children. He suggests, “Make a private space to discuss the situation so you are on the same page, and you’re presenting a unified front instead of an argument.”
On the other hand, Fletcher believes that some conflict in front of your children is good. “When we don’t have a united front, it’s an opportunity to teach our kids negotiation skills and respect for each other,” she says, both of which are important life skills. These skills are not taught by arguing and trying to win your partner over to your side, though.
When you present your spouse with “Let me tell you why I think it’s OK,” you’re trying to defend yourself, and you’re focusing on the issue, not the relationship. “When you do that,” Fletcher says, “you’re teaching your children to argue with you.” Instead, she says, parents should work out a compromise.
Suppose, for example, that a father wants to color with his child, but it’s bedtime. An unproductive argument might play like this: “This is not a good time for coloring. It’s bedtime and she needs her sleep. You can color with her tomorrow.” A better way of handling the situation, which teaches negotiation and respect, might go something like this: “Let’s get into pajamas and brush teeth now, and then you can color with Daddy in your room for a little while.” This alternative meets the needs of both parents. “In business we always find a way to negotiate. We should work for that in our families, too,” Fletcher says.
The Last Word
While it is a good idea to continue working toward a unified front, it is important to acknowledge that being completely in sync all the time is little more than a dream for most of us. Levy suggests that parents evaluate their kids: “If they’re doing all right at home, at school and with their peers, then OK – if parents don’t always agree, I wouldn’t make a big deal of it.”
Lisamarie Sanders is a freelance writer.
“The sooner parents agree on one style of parenting and on boundaries, the sooner their children will understand clear boundaries and limits.”
– Bill Corbett, director of Redirecting Children’s Behavior of Nashville
What’s Your Style?
It’s a given that every parent is different. According to Diana Baumrind, parenting research expert, there are three different parenting styles:
Permissive parenting is characterized by behaving in an acceptant and affirmative manner towards a child’s impulses, desires and actions.
Authoritarian parenting is characterized by the desire to shape, control and evaluate the behavior and attitudes of the child in accordance with a set of standards of conduct (usually an absolute standard), theologically motivated and formulated by a higher authority.
Authoritative parenting is characterized by directing the child’s activities but in a rational issue-oriented way. The parent encourages verbal give-and-take, and shares with the child the reasoning behind the policy.
Find out what your style is at http://childrentoday.com/resources/articles/parent.htm.
Source: Diana Baumrind’s Theory of Parenting Styles: Original Descriptions of the Styles (1967)