Prenting on the Same Page

By: Dr. Randy Cale

Children can suffer when Mom and Dad are at odds in their parenting styles.

Mom says the kids have to be in bed by 8:00 p.m., but when she works the late shift, Dad lets them stay up till 9:00. He says, "Don't tell your mother." Dad says, “You wanted to play the piano, so I bought you a piano." He insists that the child practice every day. When he’s not home, Mom says it’s okay to skip the piano. Mom says," You have to do your homework before you can go outside." Dad says, "You need some fresh air. You can do your homework after dinner."

Mom and Dad are divorced. Dad doesn't want the kids to grow up on X-Box and Gameboy. Mom buys them a Gameboy and an X-Box for Christmas. They love Mom. Mom and Dad are divorced. Mom doesn’t buy sweets, soda, or potato chips. Dad says, "It's okay to eat junk once in awhile." He buys all the junk food the kids can eat. They love Dad.

You get the picture.

Parents often disagree about how to raise their children. Many parents talk out these differences and reach a common ground. When they do not find common ground, the differences cause problems. Parents begin to ignore each other’s desires and act as if there were only one parent. The minor differences that occur in almost every home are not damaging; however, differences become destructive when parents make conflicting decisions. It’s as if the child is exposed to two entirely different home environments.

How do families end up like this? One parent is at odds with the decisions of the other and chooses to do things differently. The other parent responds by making independent choices. Over time, each parent reacts more strongly to the other parent's decisions. It becomes more important to enforce “my values" than to resolve differences. There’s a lot of underlying animosity in this situation. When the differences are discussed, it’s often in angry exchanges that make the parenting gap seem even wider. This family dynamic is unhealthy for kids.

Parents should offer children a world that includes routines, limits, and exposure to experiences that promote healthy behaviors and healthy choices. For children to learn from their two most important teachers—Mom and Dad—they must see their parents as competent, capable, and reliable. They must know that when you say something, you mean it, and when you set a limit, that’s the limit.

Children learn through consistently bumping into the limits you establish for them. If the limits change from day to day or from parent to parent, it’s very difficult for kids to learn where they really are. In fact, it’s almost impossible for important messages to get through. If one parent says bedtime is 8:00 p.m. and the other says it’s not, the parents’ credibility is undermined in ways that filter into every area of the child's life. It becomes apparent to the children that Mom and Dad don't have it together, and it’s easy to leverage one against the other.

Many couples who engage in this behavior wouldn’t dream of saying bluntly, "Oh, you don't have to listen to your dad (mom)." They would rightly view this as harmful. But the same parents are willing to subtly undermine each other’s credibility by setting different limits. This is damaging to kids and to a marriage. And yet...Mom and Dad are bound to have differences.

Parental Differences

When we make choices that concern our kids, we have an underlying desire for the children to have certain experiences. One parent may seek structure while another seeks flexibility. One parent may cherish freedom and autonomy while the other thrives on consistency and predictability. One may value routine while the other values spontaneity.

One may be drawn to adventure and risk taking while the other seeks safety and comfort. One may enjoy resisting conventional thought while the other embraces tradition. One is liberal, one is conservative. One likes activity, the other wants quiet family time at home.

Differences exist, and each position has a certain value. When we seek out a particular experience for our children, we have the underlying intention of fulfilling some value.

Some values may seem more "worthy" than others, but too much of any good thing can be a problem. Too much structure leads to rigidity and overcontrol, but too much flexibility leads to lack of discipline and direction. The goal is for parents to balance opposing values.

It’s important to be honest about what’s really going on. Are you reacting out of anger? Are you more concerned with getting your point across than with what the kids need? Have you let your resentment about not being "heard" by your spouse blind you to the effect of your judgments?

Transform Your Differences

It’s possible to allow your children to experience the values that both parents support and cherish, even when they’re different. The following three-step model will help you along this path.

1. Commit to getting on the same page.

Accept the fact that children thrive on a consistent message. Resolve to work on your differences and find ways to resolve them.

2. Determine what’s really important to you.

Make a list of your preferences for raising the children. If one of you wants an early bedtime and the other wants a later bedtime, make a note of that. If one of you wants more down time to hang out as a family and the other wants more activity, note that.

List all your differences. Review the list. Don’t react defensively to differences. Instead, calmly ask each other, "What is really important about ___________?"

For example,
"What's really important about having the kids stay up to watch a movie with you?

What's really important about spending all day Sunday at their grandparents’ house?

"What's really important about having the kids play soccer instead of football?"

What's really important about having them get their homework done before dinner?"

Take careful notes. What is important to the other parent? Take turns exploring the basis for your preferences, whether it’s bedtime, PG movies, or playing football. Take the time to explore and understand each other’s values and what you want your children to experience through those choices. Search for the broad, underlying motivation behind the experiences you seek for them.

Be honest about what each of you is really saying in your preferences. You’ll find that certain experiences you’re seeking for your children reflect solid values while others reflect values that are questionable. Some of your values may promote healthy behavior and choices while others may simply reflect your desire not to be controlled or your need to defend the way you were brought up.

Ask, "How will that serve our children?" This is not an aggressive question; it's an effort to mutually explore and understand. Remain open and interested. Keep exploring until you have a good sense of the underlying values behind the experiences both of you are seeking for your children.

3. Transform values into specific experiences.
Armed with a list of broad values that you agree on, ask yourselves, "What specific experiences will fulfill those values?" In other words, start with the values and ask yourselves how you can make certain your children experience them.

For example, if I want the kids to have an 8:00 p.m. bedtime because I value consistency and you allow them to go to bed at 9:30 because you value maintaining harmony, we can resolve this problem by developing a plan that gets the kids to bed at 8:00 without a fight.

Maybe I think a PG movie is okay for our 10-year-old because I don’t want to see another Disney movie. You value exposure to age-appropriate language for our daughter. We can agree to go to more adult movies by ourselves and take turns taking her to Disney movies.

I value down time and giving them a chance just to be kids; you want them to get their homework done first, because you value education. Perhaps I can take more responsibility for creating down time with the kids after the homework is done. In this way, they get the message that homework is important.

This Is Work!

Resolving these differences is hard work, and parents tell themselves two big lies to escape the work that’s required to get on the same page.

Lie #1. Consistency doesn't matter.

We convince ourselves that consistency isn't important. We laugh about how we’ve told our kids that they can't watch R-rated movies but they keep renting them at the video store. We tell a child she can't have dessert if she doesn’t eat the healthy food on her plate. Two hours later, we go out for ice cream.

Consistency matters. It is essential to accept this fundamental principle.

Lie #2. Unhealthy behavior can produce healthy children.

Many parents do not address this fundamental error in their thinking. Their eight-year-old is 40 pounds overweight, but they continue to buy potato chips and ice cream. Somehow they think this doesn't matter.

A parent comes to me out of concern for his aggressive, mouthy 11-year-old son. Yet he chuckles about how he probably "goofed" by taking his son to see “Eight Mile," a movie filled with violence and profanity. Kids listen to music that denigrates women and ethnic groups and shows no respect for authority, and some parents think this doesn't affect their behavior.

Imagine that you had some poison in your kitchen cabinet that you knew would damage your children. It wouldn't kill them; it would just take away their energy, limit their activities, and diminish the quality of their lives. Would you feed them this poison? Yet parents allow their children to consume foods that deprive them of energy. They feed their kids foods that make them fat or fill their lunchboxes with nonnutritious sweets. Parents allow children to listen to music that undermines education, cooperation, and responsibility. They allow exposure to violence while insisting that they don't want their children to be violent.

In the quest to get on the same page, it’s important to raise these difficult issues. At times, the underlying values parents are fighting for are unhealthy. You can’t expose your children to toxins—unhealthy foods, unhealthy music, violent videos—and think that it won’t make a difference. It does make a difference.

Structure is good for children. Within the structure, it’s healthy for them to experience freedom, autonomy, and the opportunity to make choices. These are healthy values, and committed parents, regardless of their differences, can find a way to ensure that their children are exposed to experiences that promote these values. Certain choices—such as promoting exposure to unhealthy activities in the name of freedom—cannot be defended.

I encourage parents to thoroughly explore the values they’re fighting for and make sure that they’re worthy. If they are, you can then turn your attention to how you can offer experiences to your children that promote these values. In this way, healthy differences can be resolved and bad values can be weeded out and left behind.


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