When I was in trouble, my mother would order me to my room. And there I would lie, sobbing on my canopy bed, until I’d hear my hero’s soft knock.
“Can I get you a banana?” Dad would whisper. “Don’t tell Mom.”
Our household is not much different. My kids know that if Daddy says no, I’m their best bet, and vice versa. And even though my husband and I claim to support each other, I have to admit that we both secretly like that hero role. A lot. So if our daughter can convince me that Daddy shouldn’t have sent her to her room, shut off the TV or banned the iPod, she is hoping I will go to him and plead her case.
“We all like the feeling of being loved most by our kids,” says Vancouver family counsellor Kelly Nault, author of When You’re About to Go off the Deep End, Don’t Take Your Kids with You. While playing good cop/bad cop may seem innocent enough, it’s not. When we don’t stick together as one parenting unit, child-rearing experts say, we are actually undermining our own discipline strategies. So read on for key partnership pointers that will keep you and your spouse on the same discipline track.
The heavy and the marshmallow
In every marriage, spouses have different discipline styles, and that’s normal and healthy, says Sarah Chana Radcliffe, a Toronto therapist and author of Raise Your Kids Without Raising Your Voice. The big mistake is when one takes charge of all the discipline — let’s call him the heavy — and the other, the marshmallow, keeps giving in. Here’s how it works: As soon as your daughter steps out of line, you warn her with: “Wait till your father gets home!” And when he does send her to bed early, you’re in there two minutes later nodding sympathetically while she cries about how mean Daddy is.
By taking the opposite approach to your spouse, you may feel you are balancing the dynamic and making life easier for your kids. But you’re not, Nault says. All you’re doing is confusing them about where the boundaries are and giving them a means to defy you.
And defy you they will, she says. It’s no surprise that kids learn pretty fast to hide from the heavy and squash the marshmallow. They also learn to create triangles — pulling the marshmallow to their side, while the heavy then turns his anger on his spouse.
For many parents, these discipline roles are not so clear, Nault says. In fact, most of us constantly swing back and forth between disciplinarian and pushover, depending on the issue. Maybe Dad is hard when it comes to bedtime and soft on treats before supper, while Mom is the exact opposite. And you can bet your kids know who’s more likely to give them what they want.
If kids can get you on their side, they will, Nault says. They quickly figure out which parent to ask first, and which one to complain to. And they are expert at figuring out which rules they can bend by getting your support. “In your children’s minds, discipline can become a giant chess board. They move, the parent moves, and soon there’s a huge drama, with the parents fighting, and teams that constantly change players,” she says.
Vive la différence
To guard against falling into the “teams trap,” you have to remember that just because you and your spouse may disagree about whether little Dylan needs a time out, this is not a war, and there are no sides, Nault says. Because the bottom line is you both want what’s best for the kids.
And what is best for them is not a matter of time outs, but whether you and your spouse trust and respect each other when it comes to making discipline decisions, Radcliffe says.
While you have likely set basic values in your home, such as respect for family members (no hitting, no name-calling, say), you and your spouse will inevitably find yourselves divided as specific discipline issues arise. OK, so your son failed to call to tell you he would be late. Should he be grounded or not? And if so, for how long?
If you have a chance to discuss the issue with your spouse, you’ll likely come to a decision you can both live with. But the fact is not all discipline decisions can or should be made by both of you together, Radcliffe says. Rather, you have to learn to trust yourself and your spouse to each set boundaries for the kids when the other is not around.
“You will each be called upon to make decisions in the moment and, in your spouse’s opinion, they will not always be right,” Radcliffe says. Still, she says, it’s perfectly OK that Mom set curfew at 10 p.m., whereas Dad might have said 11. Or that Dad said no to the cookie when Mom would have handed it over.
The problem arises when, after your spouse makes a discipline decision, you feel compelled to second-guess the situation by agreeing with your child that it wasn’t fair. “You may disagree with the penalty to ban comic books for a day, but now that the decision is made, your job — at least in front of your child — is to support it,” Radcliffe says. Otherwise, you not only undermine your spouse’s authority, but you also teach your child that the boundaries in your house are negotiable, which actually makes her feel less safe than she would if the two of you stuck together.
The only appropriate time to intervene in your spouse’s discipline decision is if you feel it is actually abusive, Radcliffe says. And if you do have real concerns about your spouse’s methods, she suggests you discuss the issue out of your child’s earshot.
In most cases, though, it’s just plain old ego driving our need to “discipline our way,” Nault says. But how do you resist leaping to your child’s rescue when she’s sobbing that Daddy docked the computer for three days when all she did was not turn it off the second he asked? To stay onside with your spouse, you have to make conscious decisions about how to react, the experts say.
Start by realizing that you can support your child’s feelings without agreeing with her. “If she’s sad, respond with: ‘I understand this is upsetting to you,’” Radcliffe says. After all, it’s not her feelings that you object to; it’s the fact that she’s blaming your spouse for them.
Next, show your child that your spouse has your support and respect. If she bad-mouths her father by calling him a big meanie, tell her we don’t name-call.
You can also use this opportunity to direct the responsibility for her sadness where it belongs: with herself. “If she says she’s angry at Dad because she can’t use the computer, tell her that maybe next time, she should turn it off when she is asked,” Radcliffe says.
Finally, to avoid creating the dreaded triangle, encourage your child to discuss the matter with Dad himself, since it really isn’t your business — or raise the issue at the next family meeting, so he can respond. As Nault says, “The point is to show your child that you’re all on one big team.”
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