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Parents Who Disagree on Discipline

Mom uses time-outs when the kids’ behaviors aren’t appropriate.  Dad is amused by his kids’ antics and wants to “let kids be kids”.  How do these parents compromise?  How does it affect their kids if they don’t?

Inconsistent parenting is a challenge in most families.  One parent is stricter; one parent is more lenient.  Initially, kids can find this confusing:  they will try to push the envelope with both parents, and they will react with surprise and bewilderment (and sometimes anger) when they experience redirection (only when in the presence of the stricter parent).  However, kids learn quickly.  It isn’t long before kids know to tow the line when in line of sight of the strict parent and push the envelope when in earshot of the lenient parent.  Lenient parents will then observe that the kids behave differently around the stricter parent.  When the envelope gets pushed too far, you will hear, “Just wait ’til your mom (or dad) gets home!” from the lenient parent, who has by now established that the strict parent is the one who handles the bulk of the discipline.  On the flip side, the strict parent may come to observe that the kids behave in a more happy-go-lucky way around the more lenient parent.  This can cause the strict parent to feel like the less favored parent . . . or, more difficult still, it may cause the strict parent to feel like the only parent.  This can cause conflict between the parents.

Compromise is the ideal resolution to this issue.  In a calm, non-judgmental way, parents should discuss discipline in a quiet moment when the kids are not around (i.e., after bedtime).  The discussion should include why each spouse advocates the discipline style s/he uses (which likely springs from his/her own childhood), the advantages and disadvantages in each style, and how the parents can capture the advantages of each style while minimizing the disadvantages.  Ideally, parents can find a mid-ground that is acceptable to both partners.  For example, the stricter parent may agree to accept somewhat messy rooms and slightly goofy clothing (and other smaller imperfections) without redirecting the kids, whereas the more lenient parent may agree to redirect the kids when the failure to redirect could reasonably be interpreted by the kids as encouraging socially unacceptable behaviors. 

Alternately, perhaps one parent will agree to capitulate to the will of the other parent and to reinforce the other parent’s positions in the presence of the kids. 

If neither compromise nor capitulation is reached, the parents will continue to disagree on discipline.  How the kids will ultimately handle the mixed signals that they receive from their parents will depend in large part on the personalities of the kids.  Some kids will find comfort in knowing the rules and playing within them.  Some kids will seek the entertainment of pushing the envelope.  While kids in any parenting circumstance can gravitate to either of these preferences, mixed message parenting can exacerbate the kids’ preferences.  Consistent, wise parenting is the key to keeping the parents (and the kids) from behavioral extremes.

*This article is written with the assumption that the parents do not openly argue about discipline in front of the kids.

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