Child-rearing is often a sensitive and complicated issue for couples, and many argue about just how to properly raise their young. But for children, major parental disagreement is a source of mixed messages and confusion that may undermine the attitudes, values and behaviors parents hope to teach. Stacy DeBroff, president of the popular parenting website Momcentral.com, offers smart solutions on how to keep chaos at bay.
Parenting disagreements? Threatening the well being of our marriages and our kids? Yep, welcome to the brave new world of today's parenting: with shifting social roles for Mom and Dad, pressure to raise fabulous kids while supposedly being their best friends, and strong parenting preferences by both Mom and Dad.
When most of us were growing up, Mom and Dad held more traditional roles, with Mom typically a housewife and Dad the breadwinner and stern disciplinarian. "Just wait until your Father gets home!" my brother and I got warned on a daily basis. Not so today, as Moms announce in the kitchen, "I do not care what your Dad said! There is no macaroni and cheese for breakfast in this house or TV after dinner. Period." For men and women alike with children, parenting has emerged as a primary focus. And along with the laser-like focus on children has emerged a virtual cauldron of boiling and brewing parental disagreements.
Trend spotting helps here to see the shifting in parenting styles. Long gone are those June Cleaver days when women considered themselves first and foremost as "housewives." Moms are focusing on being "stay-at-home Moms," we have entered the workplace in record numbers, and Dads have become the most involved parents in history. Plus, ask most Moms and Dad and they will announce how they want to be "best friends" with their children. So much for children being seen and not heard!
When Mom and Dad disagree over even minor parenting issues: the repercussions echo throughout the whole next day and the whole family. For instance if Dad lets the kids stay up way past bedtime, you have Mom at home with an entire day of dealing with a grumpy, tired, unhappy kid or one who resents your more stringent rules. Or it's the working Moms who get reports from a babysitter, the preschool, the teachers, and the after-school about a tired child who is acting out. As parents, Moms rely on having a united front.
Yet what happens amidst this child-focused lifestyle where both parents feel highly vested in their children's success is often a clash about parenting this precious commodity. With both Mom and Dad holding strong opinions about discipline, nutrition and diet, and safety (the most common areas of conflict), parental disagreements abound: contributing dramatically to our country's nearly 50% divorce rate.
Like my husband and myself, kids take center stage in our lives. We devote our lives to pick-up duties and weekend afternoons on the sidelines. Imagine the suburban mom in the minivan or SUV, coffee in the cup holder, dashing a daughter to gymnastics, a son to T-ball, stopping by the store to replace a lost mouth guard, and taking a spare moment to flip through brochures for summer camp. A huge parental fear lurking in the background is that if we don't push, but instead just relax and let our children follow their own inclinations, they will fail somehow, and we will be at fault. In our more anxious moments, we worry about our children's untapped and stunted potential, limited educational choices, and meager job opportunities. So who can throw strict limits into the mix?
Plus, who wants to discipline, admonish or oppress their self-proclaimed "best friend" and center of our universe? And thus, parenting disagreements of how to handle everything from bad behavior to bad grades emerges. Not to mention both parents ducking from being the perceived "bad guy."
Of note, in one recent compelling study 90% of couples reported more arguments after having a baby.
And while all parents disagree over parenting issues, if parenting styles continually clash or fall into extreme conflicts, marriages along with children's healthy development fall by the wayside.
And thus even highly compatible couples can find themselves at a crossroads when it comes to parenting beliefs, styles, or techniques in direct conflict with each other.
Why Not "Agree to Disagree"?
Kids Become Professional Negotiators
Starting at age 3, kids get incredibly smart about playing one parent off another. Why not create a parental clash of wills to get what you want, or go to the more permissive parent on a particular issue?
Kids Emerge Disrespectful
Left unchecked kids end up being manipulative and disrespectful outside the house with teachers, adults and even employers. The sense of manipulating adults to get what you want starts to pervade children's attitudes toward other adult relationships.
One Parent Throws In The Towel
One thing that can happen is that out of frustration, one parent eventually gives up, and refuses to get involved, even in the case of really bad behavior or child safety being at risk.
If you cannot get past these parenting differences, couples often end up split up. It creates deep marital tension if one parent always ends up being the bad guy.
12 Tips Keep Arguments from "Snow-balling":
Don't Play Good Cop - Bad Cop
Kids need to know that both parents mean business. Both you and your spouse should be willing to discipline, and consistent with each other when you do. Consistency is the root of good discipline. This is even more important in the case of divorce—clear ground rules should be set and followed no matter whom your child is with.
Fight the Battles That Matter to You the Most
Sometimes one parent is better at dealing with certain situations or prescribing certain punishments. If this is the case, feel free to split up the workload. Pick a few non-negotiable points: Each parent gets a list of 5 non-negotiable points that you agree to respect for each other: whether no cartoons before school, milk instead of juice, or no driving with friends at night or after parties.
Know That Parenting Style Disagreements Bound To Happen
Disagreeing about discipline—or any of the other parenting issues that inevitably come up on a daily basis—is something we all experience along the way, no matter how much we see eye-to-eye on most things.
Recognize How Parental Fighting Affects Children
When faced with an unexpected situation, don't argue with your spouse about what to do in front of your child. This brings the focus away from your child's misbehavior and discipline to the fight you and your spouse are having. If you see an argument with each other brewing, have your child sit in their room and wait for you to come talk to them about the situation, or let them know that a mutually agreed upon punishment will be handed out at a later time.
Be Respectful of Your Partner's Views
You may think your partner's suggestion is ridiculous, but he or she probably has a good reason to back it up. Be respectful and listen rather than getting angry and immediately assuming that you're right. Discuss options you both can buy into before making a decision.
Hold Your Tongue
If your five-year old son kicks his sister and your husband loses his temper and sends him crying to his room, it's probably not a good idea to follow after your son and let him free, since you think time-outs won't work with him. Let the punishment stand instead of sending a mixed signal, but have a talk with your spouse later and let him know when you want to make a decision together.
Call a Family MeetingWhen your child is older, family meetings can be held to deal with issues that arise. Involving your child in a conversation is a good way for them to learn to discuss matters maturely, and everyone will understand how everyone else feels about the situation. Obviously, you'll make the final decision, but it might be useful for your teenager to tell you what punishment she thinks she deserves for going out when you told her she couldn't and why, and for you to explain to her how concerned you were.
Keep the Focus on Your ChildSometimes the type of punishment that one parent favors simply won't work for your child—they may be too young to understand or stay in a time-out, or perhaps sending them to their room does no good, as they keep all of their favorite toys there. When disagreeing about discipline, make sure you're first and foremost considering what will work best for your child.
CompromiseIf you can't agree on standard rule for everything, be willing to compromise once in awhile. Take your husband's suggestion on an issue you don't feel as strongly about in return for him taking your suggestion next time. Just like everything else in a marriage, talking and compromising is key.
Form a United Front
Even when it took you and your spouse two hours to agree on a strategy, don't let your child know. If they see that you are both on the same page, they won't try to play you off each other, as children often do with parents.
Plan AheadJust like you stocked up on diapers and outfits before your child was born, discipline is something you can prepare for. Obviously you can't anticipate every situation, but you can sit down with your spouse and agree on some of the more basic or important disciplinary issues. As your children get older, make sure the rules are made clear to them as well—before they break them. Discuss with your partner about how you both respond to your child's meltdowns or misbehavior, and make sure you both ho your child to similar rules and uses complementary styles of discipline.
Look at Discipline as a ProcessFamilies learn and grow as they go. If you find something doesn't work for you, change it next time. Don't be afraid to reevaluate your approaches.
Eventually with enough sidebar discussions, dinners out together to talk things over, and some parental humor thrown into the mix, you will find a system that works for you!
Best-selling author Stacy DeBroff is the founder and President of Mom Central, Inc. Visit for more tips and articles on parenting.