How important do you think it is for parents to present a united front to their children? How much of a problem is it when they don’t? We have three children who are seven, 10 and 14, and my husband and I are always arguing about how best to manage them.
My husband is much more permissive than I am and gives them loads of freedom: I am always portrayed as the killjoy, or “bad cop”, which is not fair. This is especially the case with our 14-year-old son. I am always the one saying no to him going out, or insisting he studies, and my husband often undermines me by letting him off a rule I set.
This invariably leads to an argument between us and I feel our son is pitting one parent against the other. I’m the one who has a negative relationship with him as a result, and that’s not fair either. Who do you think is right, and what should we do about it?
Once children arrive, one of the most common things couples fight about is their different approaches to parenting. Invariably, each partner will have different ideas about what is important in family life and each is likely to bring different hopes and expectations about how to parent (often strongly influenced by how they were brought up themselves and what gender roles they witnessed in their own families).
A big challenge for two new parents is learning how to work together as coparents. I think this challenge can be even harder nowadays when gender roles are much more fluid and there are less rigid expectations about what roles fathers and mothers should have: this means that everything is to play for and can lead to a lot of conflict.
Learning to support each other
While a lot of the conflict between couples is about who is right, and who has the right ideas about parenting, the truth is that there are many different ways to parent that will be good enough for your children.
In addition, while there might need to be some agreement about the basics, children can tolerate different parenting styles from their parents. Mum and Dad can each parent a little bit differently, and that is fine; and in fact brings great richness to family life.
What matters more than always agreeing about everything is that the parents demonstrate support to each other, especially in front of the children.
In concrete terms, this means that even if you don’t agree with your partner’s parenting decisions, you demonstrate respect and support for them.
For example, if your son approached his father to contest a rule you had imposed, rather than reversing it (and thus undermining you), his father could say something like, “Your mother must have a very good reason for making that decision. Let’s see how you can keep to what she has asked.”
In addition, both of you should always insist on the children being respectful to the other parent, saying, for example: “I know you are upset about the rule, but you must talk respectfully about your mother/ father.”
By expressing this support and respect to the children, you help them feel secure in the family, which is the direct opposite of the insecurity they feel when they start conflict between you.
Sharing the good cop/bad cop roles
It is not nice for you to be stuck in the bad cop role with your son (while your husband retains the good cop role); it can undermine your relationship with your son and make the discipline ineffective.
The ideal is that both you and your husband share the good and bad cop roles equally. It is important that both of you take responsibility for rule-making and discipline, and both of you work hard to reach out and to listen to your children.
The best result for your son would be that he has positive, albeit different, relationships with both of you as his parents. If you feel your own relationship has been compromised by too big a focus on rules, try to address this by spending more positive time with him.
Look for opportunities to talk to him about positive things in his life and to spend one-to-one enjoyable time with him.
Try to avoid negative ways of dealing with conflict such as resorting to giving out to him or criticising him excessively. Instead, try to find more positive ways of discipline that focus on helping him realise his own choices (see my book Parenting Teenagers for specific positive discipline ideas).
Reaching agreement with your husband
Take time to talk to your husband so you can reach a mutual understanding about your different approaches to parenting. It can help if you set some time aside, away from the kids, to talk this through.
Perhaps you could arrange a babysitter and take some time out or else you could have this chat when they are in bed. (You may wish to share this article with your husband as a means of setting the context for this conversation.)
Rather than trying to be right, take time to understand where your husband is coming from and what he believes is the best way to handle your son before you share your own thoughts and views.
Rather than criticising, state your need to be supported in setting rules with your son and your need for him to help you with this. The goal is to try to find a win-win agreement between the two of you about what core rules you need to enforce and how you can support each other.
Agreeing positive preventative strategies can be particularly helpful. For example, your husband might agree to mind the younger children so you can take your son on a trip or go to an activity, giving you a chance to be good cop and to build your relationship with him.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, December 2014. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.
For information on John’s upcoming courses for parents click here.