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The Importance of a United Front in Parenting — Especially When It Comes to Discipline

How important is it for parents to present a united front regarding discipline? The answer depends on your child’s age. Learn more from Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D., author of The Ten Basic Principles of Good Parenting.

One of the most frequent questions parents ask is whether it’s important for spouses to maintain a united front in matters of discipline.

The simplest answer is that it depends on your child’s age. The younger your child is, the more important it is for spouses to be consistent with each other. This is true regardless of whether you are married, separated, divorced, or remarried.

Young children (those six and younger) are easily confused when one parent has different rules from the other, or when one parent enforces rules and the other does not. At this age, children tend to see the world in absolute terms. Because they have a hard time resolving discrepancies between two opposing views, they can’t understand why Dad says one thing and Mom says something else. To them, there can be only one “right” way to do things. This is a problem when you and your spouse don’t present a united front, because you don’t want your child to see one of you as the right parent and the other as the wrong one. Over time, this will only undermine your child’s respect for the parent who is typically on the wrong side of things.

The need to see the world in such black-and-white terms gradually disappears between the ages of six and eleven. My advice is that if your child is not yet eleven or so, you and your spouse should do what you can to present a united front. It will make life a lot easier for your child if you work out your disagreements and keep them private.

A united front is certainly desirable when you have older children or teenagers, but it isn’t absolutely necessary. Once they have turned eleven or twelve, children understand that people can disagree about things without either of them being wrong. They will usually attribute differences in their parents’ behavior to differences in their personalities or values. Instead of seeing one parent as right and the other as wrong, for example, children at this age will come to view one parent as strict and the other as lenient. Of course, this can create a different set of problems; a clever child will soon learn to approach the lenient parent first when asking permission for something and to play one parent against the other. But, by and large, this is something you can handle if you follow the advice contained in this section.

If you and your spouse have differences of opinion over how to handle a particular disciplinary issue, the first step is to talk it through outside the earshot of your child. (This is a good idea regardless of your child’s age.)

If your disagreement surfaces in front of your child (for example, you and your spouse are watching television when your preadolescent enters the rooms, asks permission to have his ear pierced and you are shocked to hear your spouse say it’s okay), it’s fine to tell your child that you need to talk it over before making a final decision. This is less awkward when neither of you has actually voiced an opinion yet, but even if one or both of you have, there’s no harm in saying that the two of you disagree and need to discuss things. Whatever you do, though, don’t try to work out your difference of opinion while your child is standing there waiting. You have no idea whether the discussion will be short, simple, and calm, or long, complicated, and heated. It’s fine for your child to be exposed to the former, but you don’t want him to be exposed to the latter.

When you and your spouse finally have a chance to discuss the matter, try hard to find common ground and understand each other’s perspective on the issue. Step away from the specifics of the matter at hand and see whether one of you has taken a stance that is more consistent with the principles you’ve been trying to follow. This will help you see what the real issue is.

Sometimes, one of you is simply too close to the details of the issue to look at it objectively. If you can’t find a solution that is acceptable to both of you, and if the decision doesn’t have to be made immediately, set the matter aside and revisit it later or the following day. One of you may change your opinion.

There will invariably be issues on which the two of you simply cannot agree, even after a thorough discussion. In these cases, you are just going to have to “agree to disagree,” pick a solution, and go with it. Few decisions are cast in stone, and if you find you’ve made a mistake, you can always change your mind.

Agreeing to disagree is not a problem. It’s more important that you do the right thing than that you be consistent with each other just for the sake of agreement. Children fare better when at least one of their parents follows the principles of effective parenting than when their parents force themselves to agree with each other but happen to be wrong.

When you and your spouse are both technically correct, but still don’t agree, you can usually reconcile hard-to-resolve disagreements on one of several grounds:

  • Decide on the basis of which parent the issue is more important to. If you don’t care all that much, it makes no sense to stand on principle. There will be times when the situation is reversed, and you’ll appreciate being given extra consideration when you feel more strongly than your spouse does.
  • Err on the side of caution. It is a lot easier for a lenient parent to live with a cautious decision than vice versa. It is also usually the safer bet as far as your child is concerned. If you want to relax your child’s curfew but your spouse does not, you should probably follow your spouse’s instinct.
  • Decide on the basis of which one of you has more relevant expertise. If the issue concerns your child’s physical health, and one of you is a physician, that parent is probably in a better position to make a decision.
  • Decide on the basis of which parent is going to bear the brunt of the decision. If what you decide will affect your spouse’s daily routine but not yours (perhaps a decision will mean that your spouse is going to have to spend extra hours each week shuttling your child around), give your spouse more say.
  • When all else fails, decide on the basis of equity between the two of you. If virtually all of your recent decisions have favored one person’s view, it’s probably time to even things out a bit.

Once you have worked things out with your spouse, it’s important that you support each other, even if you disagree with the final decision.

Supporting each other is not the same as presenting a united front.

If your child is old enough to understand that two people can disagree and both be right, there’s no problem telling your child that the two of you disagree but have made a decision on some other basis (it is the safer option, it mattered much more to one parent than the other, it will make one parent’s life easier, and so on). This will teach your child important lessons about the need for compromise in healthy relationships. She will not learn this if you present a united front every time you disagree.

However, supporting each other means that even if you and your spouse don’t see eye to eye, you will not undermine either the decision or your spouse’s authority by helping your child work around the policy, by winking at your child when you know he’s violated it, by knowingly failing to enforce it when your spouse is not around, or by suggesting to your child, implicitly or explicitly, that you are on his side but your spouse is not.

This sort of sabotage happens frequently when separated or divorced parents are having trouble working out their differences amicably, but it happens in married households as well, usually when one parent is too insecure in the parenting role to bear making a child angry. These secret or unspoken alliances between a child and one parent are harmful, because they either undermine the authority of the other parent or make the child feel guilty for doing what he’s been explicitly told not to do. When they are younger, children may favor the “nice” parent in these situations, but in the long run, most children will grow up appreciating the parent who behaved responsibly and have less respect for the parent who behaved more like a child than an adult.

If your child is angry at you because the decision you came to didn’t turn out the way he had hoped, and you were the insistent parent, don’t worry about it. This is not a problem as long as one parent is not habitually forced into the role of the “bad guy,” and as long as your decision pleases your child every once in a while. If a child is always being told no and the blame is always placed on the same parent’s shoulders, he is bound to become resentful toward the parent.

When you and your spouse don’t agree, don’t get drawn into a power struggle over it. This is not a battle to see who’s the stronger, smarter, kinder, or better parent. The correct resolution to any disagreement you have with your spouse is the one that is best for your child, not the one that establishes one parent’s authority over the other’s. Parenting is not a competition.

Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D., is the Distinguished University Professor and Laura H. Carnell Professor of Psychology at Temple University. He is the author or coauthor of several books, including The Ten Basic Principles of Good Parenting (Copyright © 2004 by Laurence Steinberg), and his work has also appeared in many publications, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. He lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.




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