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When Parents Disagree on Discipline
Do parents ever completely agree on how to discipline their children? Probably not, as we all grow up with a patchwork quilt of ideas about how to raise them. Some of the scraps come from how we were raised; some come from our knowledge of research findings and our fondness for or skepticism of recommendations made by professionals. Dad might have grown up with a grandmother who fervently believed that children should be given a good thrashing every now and then, even if they hadn’t done anything wrong, just to “keep them on their toes.” Mom might have grown up in a family that considered a light spanking to be the equivalent of public flogging. One parent might think that “children should be seen and not heard,” while the other thinks that every sentence uttered by the child is so important that any adults who might be talking at the moment should yield the floor immediately.

Usually such differences in points of view are mild. When this is the case, parents usually arrive at a compromise and agree to put on a common face when dealing with the children. In such instances, disagreements on discipline probably have very little impact on the child. Not infrequently, however, the differences represent deeply-held values on which neither parent is willing to compromise. And sometimes, apparent differences in disciplinary practices translate into conflict over “who is boss.” After all, the person who has the last say about what to do with and for the kids has a lot of power. Right? When this is the case, there is sure to be trouble both for the marriage and for the children.

Early Exploration

Probably not many of us explore this topic during our courtships. Of course, apparent differences are probably not going to influence the outcome of one’s choice in a partner. However, if differences are too drastic, the not-yet-committed couple might want to give the relationship further thought. Although we might not want to admit it, children provide the glue that holds many marriages together. Disagreements about and unhappiness with the children also play a major role in marital breakups. Therefore, it can never be too early in a relationship to explore one another’s ideas and feelings on the subject.

The only child-related topic I can remember talking about during my engagement was how many children each of us wanted. I opted for five, my husband-to-be for two. (Guess how many we had!) I went into parenthood fresh from graduate study in child development. The importance of helping babies develop a secure attachment to both parents, especially the mother, and the importance of prompt gratification of their needs as a way of achieving this was stressed by all my professors and the research I was studying. This input firmly impressed itself into my mothering repertoire. . On the other hand, my husband had what amounted to a fetish about the harmful consequences of spoiling children and thought that my rushing to every cry or sign of discomfort was heading in that direction. We also disagreed on how much freedom our children should be allowed. He had grown up in a small town where no one locked the doors and where he was allowed to run free pretty much all day, every day. I, in contrast, was a “hoverer” and wanted my children within eye range all the time. So, we certainly had our problems on this score.

The Role of Grandparents

Grandparents get written into the scenario very early, for they often have strong ideas about how their grandchildren should be raised and express those ideas freely. These ideas are often different from those of the children’s parents and get communicated as unwelcome and unwarranted criticism. I frequently get questions from young mothers about how to handle the situation when a grandmother, who is helping provide childcare, refuses to accept the mother’s philosophy of discipline. These questions are not easy to answer.

Working Toward Compromise

There is probably no parenting problem that can’t be ameliorated, if not eliminated, if the parents will sit down and rationally discuss the situation. But I’m not naïve; I know how difficult it is to achieve that in most situations. Most typically it is the father who refuses to talk about the problem and consider any approach other than his own, but not all mothers are completely innocent on that score either.

I have a humble little recommendation I often make, and many parents have told me it helped them. Go out to dinner, just the two of you, and discuss it. It’s not just the good food and wine that will help. It’s mainly that, in such a setting, you won’t start shouting at one another and say things you’ll be sorry for later. Most of us are more civil in the midst of other people than if alone with other family members in the privacy of our homes. In your evening out together, try to work up a plan for how you will handle your disagreement (using mom’s or dad’s approach or some combination of the two) for at least one week. Then agree to reevaluate the situation and determine whether what you did was helpful or whether you need to try something else.

The Answer Is in the Child’s Behavior

Try to remember that this is not a contest of wills or an attempt to prove one of you right and the other wrong. The aim is to find a procedure that achieves a desirable pattern of development in your child. If, after your agreed-upon trial period, the behavior you argued about how to handle is worse, you need to try something different. If it is better, you may have found what you were looking for and will want to make it part of your regular routine. Just keep in mind that our children are very clever at picking up on cues that their parents don’t agree on what to do with or about them. They will try to work one of you against the other—for their gain, of course.

Don’t hesitate to get an outside opinion from others who care about you and your child—grandparents, neighbors, your pediatrician or family physician, your child’s teacher, your minister—and take that opinion into consideration. There’s always the possibility that neither of you is on the right track, and discussing the situation with a concerned outsider can often be very helpful.

Finally I have to conclude this discussion of disagreements on discipline with a reminder that the word “discipline” comes from the word “disciple.” What we are doing when we discipline our children is, quite literally, trying to make disciples of them. Who and what we are may be more important in the process than what we do.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education