When Parents Disagree

by Suzanne Koup-Larsen

When you and your spouse come to an impasse on an important parenting issue, what do you do? Your kids’ behavioral well-being and your relationship can be at stake.

“Discipline can be the straw that breaks the marital camel’s back,” says Thomas Phelan, PhD, author of the 1-2-3 Magic book series on discipline.
Dr. Phelan says child-rearing disagreements are among the top ten reasons for divorce. But don’t panic. “Disagreement is inevitable and is not a sign of a weak marriage or poor parenting,” says Jennifer Shroff Pendley PhD, a pediatric psychologist at Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, DE. The same rules apply to parenting conflicts as with other relationship disagreements, says Cherry Hill, NJ psychologist Joellyn Ross, PhD.
To resolve them, you both need to understand the values and feelings behind your partner’s position.

Young Children:
Establishing the Action Plan

The problem: Last summer, Chryledine Wilson’s son Gregory, 4, threw a toy car at a friend who was visiting on a play date. When his father saw this, he gave Gregory a ten-minute time out for throwing his toy, a no-no at their house. Chryledine disagreed with the severity of the punishment, because what her husband hadn’t seen was that the friend had just finished pelting Gregory with toys.

Expert advice: Dr. Phelan cites the example of an 8pm bedtime. When the hour arrives, there’s no need to explain or argue. “Because that’s the rule,” he suggests saying, rather than “because I said so.” Separate your ego from the rule to sidestep will struggles.

The lesson: The first step in discipline is to create rules and consequences. Then, when incidents occur, execute your plan with as little emotion and discussion as possible.

The resolution: The Warminster, PA couple discussed the incident privately later on and agreed that moving forward, the first parent on the scene would handle discipline issues and the other parent would agree to abide by it. In having this discussion, the Wilsons established a plan for action so they would know what to do in similar situations.

The Middle Years:
Closing the Loopholes

The problem: Terry Ruppert’s son James, age 8, had his privileges taken away as punishment for bad-mouthing. His mother decided to relent, despite objections from her husband, and allow him to attend a church function because he had made a commitment to attend. Spotting his chance to gain from the conflict, James supported his mother’s bid to relax his punishment.

Expert advice: Children may try to take control of the situation because they feel their parents are not in control.
“Developmentally it is typical for children to push limits and boundaries, and when these boundaries are unclear, children may become anxious or may act out,” says Dr. Pendley.

The lesson: It is important to get on the same page with your spouse and then present a united front to the children so there are no mixed signals. When parents disagree regularly, kids as young as age 2 or 3 learn to manipulate situations and quickly figure out how to run through the loopholes they create.

The resolution: Eventually, both parents agreed that James should keep the church commitment, but strictly forewarned him that next time, he might not be so lucky.

Older Children:
Considering their Input

The problem: Suzanne Anderson of Philadelphia agreed to her son’s request to try public high school after eight years of Catholic schooling. It wasn’t long before the boy decided he had made a mistake and desperately wanted to return to Catholic school. Anderson felt he should stick it out for at least a year. Her husband disagreed and believed they should return their son to Catholic school as soon as possible.

Expert advice: According to Dr. Phelan, kids usually need to be age 7 or 8 to provide meaningful input. Obviously, toddlers should not be allowed to set their own bedtime, but teenagers should be involved in discussions concerning their lives.

The lesson: The older the child, the more important is his input on issues that concern him.

The resolution: The Andersons sat down for a family discussion. With input from their teenage son, they decided to allow him to return to Catholic school. “If he was that unhappy he wasn’t going to do well in school,” Suzanne recalls. Now as a 25-year-old, Suzanne’s son says his years at Catholic high school were some of the best of his life.

When You Disagree

It’s okay to disagree in front of your children — up to a point. “If parents resolve disagreements appropriately, then children can learn valuable skills in negotiating conflict,” says Dr. Pendley.

Do: When you realize you’re in disagreement, take a time out, talk privately and come to an agreement. “We need a consult,” Dr. Phelan suggests saying. Most importantly, agree on what rules are negotiable and what aren’t.

Don’t: It is never appropriate to criticize your spouse when discussing an issue in front of children, because disrespect gives your child permission to act out. It’s critical that parents come to an agreement during their time out, or at least agree to disagree on the resolution. This means completely respecting the ruling that’s been made, with no eye rolling or sarcastic remarks.

Resolving the tough ones:
If you need help coming to an agreement, Dr. Phelan suggests three options. If one doesn’t work, go on to the next.

• Get out of the house. Get a babysitter, if necessary, to discuss the issue without distractions. During this talk, it is important that both parents present their views while their partner listens without interruption.

• Consult. Whether it’s from other parents, a parenting book or a respected outsider, seek out and agree to try someone’s parenting method.

• Find a counselor. A counselor or mental health professional will help find an appropriate parenting method and coach you on how to implement it.

Suzanne Koup-Larsen is a local freelance writer.