When Parents Disagree About Parenting Decisions

It is common for parents to disagree on how to discipline their children, at least in some areas. Sometimes parents’ styles don’t differ greatly and they’re able to work out the minor differences. It’s actually healthy for children to see different styles in their parents, as long as the parents remain partners in the hard work of raising their children in a loving home. But when parents disagree strongly, problems can arise, both for the children and for the parents’ marriage. 

Big differences in parenting style

Parenting differences are often driven by upbringing and personality type. If you’re an easygoing person or a person who wants to avoid conflict, you may be a more permissive parent. Permissive parents tend to use reminding, repeating, or giving in, which can devolve into nagging, begging, arguing with the child, using guilt, or ignoring bad behavior in the hope it will go away. 

If you tend to have a strong personality or a temper, you may be a more authoritative parent. This may include having unbending rules and using negative reinforcement as the primary form of discipline, with little room for discussion with the child. This can devolve into yelling, harsh punishment, shaming, and being feared by your child. 

Sometimes our parenting styles are affected by our own upbringing. For instance, if your parents had an authoritative style, you might mimic that style. However, if you feel scarred by that form of parenting, you may swing too far in the other direction and become too permissive, which comes with its own negative baggage.

Neither of these extremes is healthy. If you or your spouse have fallen into any of these ruts, it’s important to sit down together to work them out. You may need a neutral party, such as a counselor trained in helping parents and couples, to work through your differences in order to find a healthy balance, for both your children and yourselves. 

What not to do when you disagree

It’s very important that you don’t disagree in front of the children. Children can usually pick up on unspoken signals, and you may not be able to prevent that. Don’t argue in front of them or undermine your spouse’s authority in the children’s eyes by contradicting him or her in front of them. Find a chance to talk together. If the cause is urgent, you may want to say, “Honey, can we talk about this first?” and step into another room and quietly discuss. You can then come back together and suggest a revised discipline decision, with both of you standing behind it. 

If you can’t find common ground on a particular issue, do not play your child against your spouse. Never make it an “us versus Dad” or “us versus Mom” atmosphere! This is so unhealthy for the child. Your children need to love and respect both of you. There is almost always a positive way to discuss your spouse’s decision with your child. 

For instance, if your child is crying to you because Daddy grounded him for a week, even if you thought that was too big a punishment, it’s best to offer sympathy while also supporting your husband – something along the lines of, “I know that seems like a long time but Daddy loves you, and the rules were clear. It’s important to us that you understand what you did.” You may be able to suggest to your husband that he talk to your child halfway through that week, see if your child has learned his lesson, and possibly “commute” his sentence. This can actually work very well to help the child see Dad’s love and mercy in cutting the punishment short. 

Keeping your marriage strong

Remember, through all of this, that the best thing you can do for your children is to have a healthy, loving marriage. They need to see you two as a team, working together, loving each other, and loving them. You should talk together about how to handle disagreements. For instance, you won’t likely be able to ask your spouse to step into another room to discuss disciplining unless you have already agreed on parameters. Such a move should be used very minimally and only when a major situation is taking place. Most discipline decisions can wait until later to be discussed.

When you begin to discuss, try first to discover why you each have those parenting styles and what buttons the kids are pushing that might cause some of your decisions. Discovering these points can also strengthen your marriage, as you begin to understand each other better and maybe understand how you two might be accidentally pushing each other’s buttons, as well. 

Next, look at the big picture: What qualities do you want your children to have when they grow up? What matters are most important to you? Religion, family, work ethic, kindness?

With these parameters in mind, decide some non-negotiables you can agree on: what time the teenagers have to be home on weeknights and weekends; showing respect to parents and others; safety matters such as going near the road or playing near the pond unsupervised. These are important issues that should be firmly established, maybe even written down where the children can see them. 

Others may be firm but can adjust under circumstances, such as always having homework done by a certain time. Things may come up that require flexibility, but you can have a general rule.

Then discuss the hot topics that you disagree on the most. For instance, you both agree that you want your child to learn responsibility, but you have different ideas about how. One thinks a child should learn the hard way: when he forgets to do his chores, he loses privileges. The other wants to remind him, so he has time to learn. This is where negotiation and cooperation need to come into play in your parenting.

Talking through discipline differences will not only help you improve your parenting, it should improve your marriage, as well. If you find you need help with this, find an experienced parenting or couples counselor to guide you through this important step. If you live in the NYC area, feel free to reach out to me.

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