Disagree Over Discipline?
What to do when parenting styles clash
We all come to parenthood with a certain set of expectations and assumptions about raising kids. Often, we assume our partner will share our personal outlook. That is, until we find ourselves butting heads in the midst of a heated child-rearing dilemma. Those conflicts are often magnified by the holidays when children and parents are stressed by extra activities, upended schedules and family togetherness.
How do we navigate a parenting style conflict without confusing our kids and harming our relationship with our partner?
Discuss your upbringing with your partner.
“In a perfect world, we would have these conversations when we are dating,” says adolescent and family therapist Melissa Perry, LPC.
How we raise our kids is often dictated by how our parents raised us — or how we wish we’d been raised. As a couple, discuss each other’s childhoods. For example, what was your parents’ disciplinary style? How did they interact with you?
Listen to understand and empathize with each other’s experiences.
“Most people know that it doesn’t feel good to scream at their kids. Most people know it doesn’t feel good to hit them, but they do it because they say ‘I turned out okay,’” says Cati Winkel, a wellness coach, who works with individuals and families.
“Once we start figuring out what that’s created in their lives, how they interact and how they have relationships with people, they start to recognize ‘Oh, maybe things could have been a little bit different,’” Winkel says.
Parent as a team.
Even if you are divorced or separated, focus on presenting a united front when it comes to parenting.
“It’s fine for parents to each have their own way of interacting with their children. As a matter of fact, it’s healthy because it teaches children to be more flexible and to adapt better in different environments,” says Colleen Huff, a certified parent educator.
However, come to an agreement on important issues such as discipline and family rules.
Discuss the ideal home environment you want to create, the types of family rules that are important to each of you, and zero in on common goals.
Come up with a plan.
Agree on age-appropriate rules and consequences in your home. For a toddler or preschooler, you might have two or three rules such as no hitting or no throwing toys, while a 5-year-old might have up to five rules.
“If kids know the expected behavior, then they’re free to do something else, which is going to be exploring and learning, playing and engaging and feeling self-confident versus feeling timid, inward and insecure,” Huff says.
Establish reasonable consequences for unacceptable behavior, but be flexible. For example, you might use a chair for a timeout for your child to calm down, while your partner may prefer that your child go to his or her bedroom.
By agreeing on a plan of action for common scenarios and remaining consistent with consequences, you can avoid reactive parenting.
According to The Center for Parenting Education website, centerforparentingeducation.org, “using consequences helps you to impose discipline in a way that teaches your children responsibility and accountability and encourages them to look inward to learn how they can do things differently in the future.”
Appropriate consequences build self-esteem and character while providing learning opportunities.
Vastly different approaches to parenting can send mixed messages to your child.
“Your child might start to identify one parent as the parent to avoid and the other parent as the parent to get what they want to out of them — or use parents against each other,” Perry says. “If your goal is to both love your child and both parent them, then you can probably come to some sort of compromise.”
Suppose you want your child to do homework right away after school to free up the evening for other interests. Then, your partner comes home, dismisses this rule and lets your child play before homework.
A good way to address the situation might be for you to say:
“I’ve noticed that Johnny struggles to complete his homework if he puts it off until later in the day. This structure in our afternoons seems to help. I could really use your support on this.”
Then, give your partner an opportunity to respond. Listen carefully to the response without interrupting.
“Focus on the problem, not the person and focus on the actual issue at hand in the moment, not what the parent or child did or didn’t do in the last week or week before,“ Perry advises.
Also, use reflective listening to validate what your partner says, which shows that you care about his or her perception or opinion. In reflective listening, you restate in a non-condescending way what you think you heard: “I think I’m hearing you say______. Is this what you mean?”
“Oftentimes we misunderstand, and we base our next answer on an assumption of understanding,” Perry says.
Is it okay to fight in front of your child?
If you can remain calm, it’s healthy for kids to see their parents work out a conflict and come to a resolution.
“If we teach children from a young age how to properly deal with conflict, that’s only going to set them up for success,” Winkel says.
But, if you are too angry to discuss the situation immediately, give yourselves permission to cool off before working through the issue.
“Agree to walk away, but have a set, specific time that you are going to come back and talk about it again,” Perry says. “A lot of times people fight, then they cool down, but they don’t ever come back and resolve what was said in the heat of the moment.”
Without coming to resolutions for problems that come up in our relationships, resentment and disengagement from each other can set in, potentially harming your partnership.
Need help strengthening your communication skills with your partner or ex to resolve parenting differences? Consult with a licensed family therapist for helpful support and strategies.
Christa Melnyk Hines is a nationally published freelance writer. Her latest book is Happy, Healthy & Hyperconnected: Raise a Thoughtful Communicator in a Digital World.
Types of Parenting Styles
- Provides structure to a child’s daily routine, including regular bedtime
- Establishes clear household rules and reasonable consequences
- Healthy, open line of communication between parent and child
- Considered most effective and beneficial parenting style for the average child.
- Doesn’t support child’s emotional and/or physical needs
- Unaware of what is happening in child’s life
- Leaves child alone for long periods of time
- Uninvolved with child’s life outside of home
- One of the most harmful parenting styles. Kids have trouble forming relationships with others.
- Loving and nurturing, but not demanding
- Lenient to avoid confrontation with child
- Lacks structure, unclear rules, consequences
- May bribe kids to do things with large rewards
- Kids more likely to exhibit insecurity, poor social skills, self-centeredness, lack of motivation and disregard for authority.
- Demanding, strict and inflexible
- Lack of healthy dialogue between parent and child
- Limits child’s ability to make decisions or choices
- Uses punishment instead of positive reinforcement
- Kids may exhibit low self-esteem, associate obedience with love, struggle in social situations, and may rebel when outside of parental control.
Source: Developmental Psychology, Vanderbilt University
Local Resources for Classes and Related Information
Parents as Teachers®: The Parent Child Center of Tulsa. Serves pregnant women and families with children up to age 5. For more information, visit parentchildcenter.org or call 918.599.7999.
Child Guidance: Tulsa Health Department. Provides specialized assistance to families that include young children with challenging behaviors. Also provides developmental, behavioral health, hearing and speech & language screenings. Fill out a form online or call 918.594.4720. The THD also has Children First for first-time moms and their families; 918.779.6949; tulsa-health.org
Note: Oklahoma law requires that divorcing parents attend an Oklahoma Court Approved Class for Divorcing Parents.