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Disagreeing on Discipline: How Parents Can Resolve Conflict and Present a Unified Front

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Once upon a time, were you one of those couples who agreed on everything? You know the ones — the pair everyone was jealous of, because you seemed so perfectly matched?

Chances are, once you had kids, you had a rude awakening.

Couples who once were like-minded in every way — same taste in music, same style, same favorite films — often discover that parenting brings out previously nonexistent conflict between them. The good news is that this is perfectly normal. “Most parents come to parenting with a partner who is very different than they are. Sometimes you don’t discover that until you become parents together,” says Janis Keyser, a Kids in the House expert and early childhood education specialist. “The question arises: How can we do this together when we have such different ideas about how it should be done?”

All of our experts agree on one thing: disagreements about discipline or rules should always be hashed out in private, so you can present a unified front to your kids. But aside from that, there are some ways to make common parenting conflicts easier on you as a couple.

React with respect

Keyser says that parents don’t need to agree, but they do need the following:

a strong, mutual respect for each other’s way of parenting... I think the most important thing is for parents to be in dialogue with each other. When there is a conflict, it feels like it needs to be resolved because it feels like such a different way of being with children. It’s important for parents to go back to: What is it you want to teach your child in this situation? What are your goals? Sometimes parents find that they have very similar goals, but different ways of implementing it. They may be able to bring their implementation more in line if they have an agreement on their basic goals about what they are trying to do.

For example, she says that she and her husband have markedly different opinions on appropriate screen time:

When he was home with the kids, the television was on and they watched a lot of different things. When I came home, the TV went off. We stopped watching TV. I didn’t come home and say, ‘Your dad’s a jerk. He doesn’t care what you watch on TV.’ I just said, ‘Now I’m home, we’re going to have the TV off.’ The children didn’t have to have that push and pull about mommy and daddy being in conflict about this. It’s just that we do it differently when mommy’s here. We do it differently when daddy’s here. Children learn what to expect with each of those parents.

Both the bad cop and the good cop are useful

It can be hard when you feel like your partner gets to be the good guy and you’re the one with all the rules. After all, no one likes being the bad guy (unless you’re 5 and playing cops and robbers). “I love my husband very, very much, but I can’t stand the way he co-parents. It took me a long time to admit it. I’m always the strict one, and he’s always the nice, good guy one. He comes home and he plays, and I’m always the mean one. It took me a long time to get over it,” admits relationship expert and author Rabbi Sherre Hirsch.

Here’s what actually got me over it: One day, I was watching him playing with our children jumping on the bed, seething with anger because it was five minutes before bedtime and he was riling them up. I thought for a second, they need me, they need the discipline, but they need the fun too, and together we’re better parents to them. He’s a great parent to my children, just a different parent than me.

Author Michael Gurian adds that while parents may worry about sending conflicting messages to the kids, “Research shows that allowing the parents to parent differently is great for the kid. The kid gets two different ways of being. Usually, the two different ways of being focus on two different sets of assets.” This still means that you should present a unified front, but simply in the sense that you don’t undermine each other’s decisions. Instead, decide where you will give each other a little leeway, and where you need to make unilateral decisions.

Start with a blank page

“The best way to get on the same page with your partner when there is a parenting difference, is to start with a blank page,” explains Julia Kantor, MFT, a therapist practicing in Beverly Hills, CA.

Start the conversation with a curious interest in each other’s position. Decide that you are going to put aside the problem solving and the decision for a different day. Focus this first conversation on just genuinely being curious about where each other is coming from. Ask open-ended questions, like, ‘I really want to understand more about why you feel so strongly about this. Tell me more.’ Just listen. Don’t try to interrupt or convince your partner, just be curious about them. Then switch places and have your partner do the same for you. Once you’ve both felt understood and heard, you’ll be in a much better position to make a collaborative decision and problem solve the next day.

Don’t let your kids take advantage of your conflict

The main reason for the “unified front” rule is to save you both from your smart children, who will quickly figure out how to play you against each other. “One of the problems I often see — and I warn parents about this — is discussing your differences about discipline in front of your children. Children are just wonderful in picking up these differences and using them. They’ll say, this parent says I can do it and you say I can’t. (So they) go to the other parent who allows them to do it,” warns Robert Brooks, PhD, a therapist and author.

Chris Rice, a father of two, agrees on the importance of parents presenting a united front to children.

Kids are really smart. They find a way to manipulate you. It’s best to find a course of action to proceed. Discuss what happened, how you would do things in the future and how going forward on a particular topic, you would agree. Teaching a child from a very young age that there is dissent in the house about how they are being parented is the ax of death.

Even if you’ve made this mistake, it’s easily fixable by changing your tactic. Roberts tells the story of one couple that did this, much to the chagrin of their child. The parent told the child that they’d have to discuss the child’s request in front of the other parent.

The kid actually said, ‘You can’t think for yourself?’ The parent said, ‘These things are so important, that we want to make sure that we all agree on it.’ Although the child was upset at first, because that child used to play one parent off of the other, eventually that child settled down. It’s much better for the parents to be working together so there is greater harmony in the house.

For more tips on solving parenting disagreements, enjoy these videos on Kids in the House.

Different parenting styles - Janis Keyser, MA

Working with your partner effectively - Rabbi Sherre Hirsch

When partners have different parenting styles - Julia Kantor, MFT

When parents disagree about discipline tactics - Robert Brooks, PhD

Nice mom vs strict dad - Michael Gurian, MFA, CMHC

When parents disagree about discipline - Chris Rice